Twenty years ago this fall, the Columbus Blue Jackets took the ice for the first time. Throughout the rest of the year, The Cannon will commemorate the first two decades by profiling the most memorable teams, players, and games. Today we begin with one of those standout games.
As I mentioned on Monday, the lockout-shortened 2013 season marked a turning point in my Blue Jackets fandom. I had been a partial season ticket holder for the two previous seasons, but was rewarded with lackluster play on the ice and an apathetic (or nonexistent) fanbase in the stands. The low point was in the back half of the 2012 season, as they earned just 65 points and captain Rick Nash demanded a trade.
It was obvious that major changes were needed. Head coach Scott Arniel was fired midseason, and his interim replacement Todd Richards was enough of a steadying influence to retain the job full time. Defenseman Jack Johnson arrived in the Jeff Carter trade and immediately filled the leadership vacuum in the locker room. General Manager Scott Howson was busy in the summer further reshaping the roster. Trading Nash brought in centers Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. From their defensive depth they traded Marc Methot to Ottawa for power forward Nick Foligno. Most importantly: goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was acquired from Philadelphia to provide some internal competition for incumbent Steve Mason, who had struggled to match his rookie form.
As the season was delayed by labor strife, ownership brought in John Davidson from St. Louis to fill the newly created role of President of Hockey Operations. Davidson sought to build a contender “brick by brick” and fortunately Howson had brought in players like Dubinsky and Foligno that perfectly fit Davidson’s preferred style of hockey.
Once the season started, you could tell that something was different about the team. There was more fight every night, even if that didn’t translate to wins. They won just 5 of their first 21 games, and Howson was let go. Davidson brought in a former scouting director of his, Jarmo Kekalainen.
Then BOB took off.
After a 3-6-3 start, Bobrovsky’s play drastically improved, with an 18-5-3 record, .946 save percentage, and 1.60 goals against average in his final 26 games. Mason was traded at the deadline at the end of March, and Bobrovsky started the final 13 games of the season, a 10-3-0 stretch that put the Jackets in the thick of the playoff race. Kekalainen made the first of his blockbuster trades by acquiring star winger Marian Gaborik at the deadline.
Fast forward to April 27, 2013, the final day of the league season. The Jackets and Minnesota Wild were vying for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference (in Columbus’s final season there before moving to the East). The Jackets needed a win over the visiting Nashville Predators and a Minnesota loss to Colorado in order to make the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.
I knew this game was huge and I had to be a part of it. I convinced three friends to come with me and I managed to find tickets in the lower bowl behind the defend-twice goal. Nationwide Arena was packed and it felt like a playoff atmosphere. I missed out on the Detroit series in 2009, so this was the most energy I had felt in the crowd since...ever?
For the first two periods, the Jackets struggled to get much going. They were likely fighting fatigue; every team had to play 48 games in just 3.5 months, and the Jackets had returned from a six game road trip that covered three time zones in 12 days. Down 0-1, the Jackets came out on fire for the third. Al Pacino’s locker room speech from Any Given Sunday played on the video board to fire up the crowd.
Halfway through the third, the Jackets finally got one past Chris Mason, via a Brandon Dubinsky power play goal, assisted by Gaborik and Vinny Prospal. (Which is the bigger blast from the past: Prospal, Gaborik, Dubinsky, or the Jackets having a competent power play?) The game winner came five minutes later off the stick of Jack Johnson. Johnson was named first star of the game and addressed the crowd afterwards, to thank the fans for their support. The game was over but no one wanted to leave. Some stayed around and watched the end of the Minnesota game on the video board, to see the Wild and put an end to the Jackets’ miracle run.
The moment that stands out to me from that game is one that happened right in front of me. As Nashville scrambled to get back into it, Bob stood tall and at one point made a flurry of saves. I think the final tally stood at seven saves in ten seconds. I’m sure I held my breath for the entire sequence. It was plays like this down the stretch that earned Bob his first Vezina Trophy.
While writing this, I went back to the game recap and I think this passage from Jaymie Wagner was prescient:
Tonight feels like a sea change for this team. Even though they were undone by circumstances beyond their control, we saw something today. It feels like this team really has become something greater than the sum of their parts, and something truly special is coming together here.
Dan P. added this in the comments, which seems like it could have been written in March 2020:
I’m sad this morning.
I’m not sad that they won’t be in the playoffs. As weird as that sounds, it’s true. They did everything they could do with the schedule in front of them. I have no misgivings about them not being in the playoffs.
I’m sad, though, because we don’t get to see THIS team play anymore games. Yes, they’ll come back in the fall, largely the same roster and staff, but it won’t be THIS team. Everyone will be a year older, will have a new contract, etc.
THIS team was the stuff of legends, of destiny. THIS team had something special going for it. THIS team captured our hearts, and allowed us to ask “Why not?” about the playoffs. THIS team exemplified hard work, never giving in to the fight, and what it meant to be clutch.
THIS team is the team I wanted to see play as many more games as possible. And we won’t get to see THIS team ever again.
And that makes me sad.
Thank you so much, Jackets, for the ride. T’is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
A loss of a key player in the off-season? No expectations entering into the season? Somehow this team keeps finding a way to step up in those situations. I’ll keep showing up to cheer them on.
Were any of you at that game? If so, what do you remember about it?