Back in December, I wrote an piece about how the Columbus Blue Jackets were playing well and putting themselves in playoff position, but it wasn’t good enough for a restless fan base. After that post went up, the Jackets lost 13 of their next 20.
I’m an idiot.
Still! The team had banked enough points in an unusually down Metropolitan Division and were still in playoff contention until about last month or so. That’s when we all collectively looked at the standings, the schedule and the odds...and gulped. It was a slow erosion until, depending on whose model you preferred, Columbus’s chances dwindled to essentially a coin flip (Sports Club Stats had the Jackets’ odds at 40.6 percent five weeks ago).
A 4-2 loss to Anaheim on March 2 seemed to put the fear of a lost season in focus. We all know what happened since then: Ten straight wins to vault right back in the thick of the playoff race. Ain’t it great?
Last season, we were so gobsmacked by the 16-game win streak that the playoffs were a foregone conclusion. Columbus had already clinched by this time last season (and had for more than a week). In 2009, the Blue Jackets clinched a spot for the first time on the third-to-last game of the season on April 8. That was fun, but partly from the shiny novelty and naivete of it all. You never forget your first. In 2014, it took that weird sad makeup game against Dallas before it was certain the Jackets were in. The playoff race in the lockout year was also great fun, but a) it was the lockout year and b) the Minnesota Wild eventually bumped our favorite boys out of the postseason. I remember having friends over and taping the scenarios above the TV so everyone would know who to root for. I remember saying “They weren’t ready yet. Soon.”
The Jackets did everything they needed to do to guarantee a spot last year before stumbling into the playoffs. We saw the underlying numbers, we watched the games, and knew the first round had the potential to be less than fun. John Tortorella recently admitted taking his foot off the gas. This year, they put together 10 consecutive wins in March and it’s still not a sure thing. But this is what we wanted. We’re scoreboard watching, we’re crunching scenarios, we’re spending our mornings refreshing every odds website we can find. This is the thrill of being a fan. Sure, half the league makes it in. That also means that half the league doesn’t.
An 82-game NHL season can feel like a marathon (it’s been almost half a year since Opening Night) and the excitement now surrounding this franchise is the payoff for sitting through 2-1 stinkers against Carolina in mid-December. The Blue Jackets boast arguably the best goalie in the world, two of the best young defensemen and a premier offensive talent making highlight reel plays on the regular. GM Jarmo Kekalainen engineered some savvy moves at the trade deadline that have blossomed down the stretch (is Thomas Vanek the best rental in CBJ history? A discussion for another day, perhaps). Things are falling into place.
Yes, there are five games left. Yes, it could all come crashing down. Florida, New Jersey and Philadelphia are all playing this game of musical chairs with Columbus. We don’t watch sports for sure things, though. That’s what you do in video games. This up-and-down-and-then-way up regular season has a little more than a week left in it and this real, live March to the playoffs has been magical. These players together are finally, genuinely fun to watch.