Admit it, you can’t stop pinching yourself, and, seriously, who can blame you? It was March 1, and the only things your Columbus Blue Jackets could claim were excellent effort and playing really good teams really tough.
The problem then, though, was the Blue Jackets kept losing those tough, close games, to the tune of a record of 5-12-4 through the 4-3 overtime loss to the Blackhawks on that fateful Friday night at the Madhouse on Madison. I say fateful because some kind of switch flipped after that game in the Windy City.
Maybe your Blue Jackets were finally ready to jell after an all-too-brief training camp, especially for a team that featured a number of new faces, including a new goaltender. Maybe the team was just ready to find ways to win. Heck, maybe the moon was in the seventh house, Jupiter had aligned with Mars, peace was guiding the planets, and love was steering the stars. Maybe it was just time for the Dawning of the Age of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Whatever it was, it has evolved into one of the most incredible stories in the NHL, and not just this year’s NHL. Since that Friday night in Chicago, Columbus has gone a mind-blowing 17-5-3, the best record in the Western Conference. True, the ending to this run has not yet been written, but suffice to say rumors have the people from Ripley’s heading to Nationwide Arena for Saturday’s home showdown with Nashville. You know, just in case they have to add another entry under the category of “Hockey Team’s Turnaround You Simply Won’t Believe.”
While we don’t yet know how this ends, here’s what we do know: With the latest edition in their series of “I don’t believe what I just saw” moments (kudos, Jack Buck), the Columbus Blue Jackets won their fourth game in five tries on this final six-game road trip that ends with an indescribably-huge matchup with the Stars in Dallas Thursday. With a little over a minute and a half left in their game in San Jose Sunday and the score tied 3-3, R.J. Umberger stepped into Joe Pavelski’s space in the Columbus offensive zone and caused the Sharks forward to cough up the puck. Enter Ryan Johansen, who took control of that puck just inside the blue line, dashed to some open space in the slot, and ripped the game-winning wrister by San Jose goaltender Antti Niemi. Yes, that’s the same Ryan Johansen who earlier this season was demoted to the AHL for eight games because the coaches needed to see more. The guess here is they loved what they saw Sunday.
By completing the season-series sweep of the Sharks, Columbus gave itself a little breathing room and a little bit firmer hold of the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Now, along with every Blue Jackets fan that is, or ever was, it’s time for scoreboard watching. That exercise begins tonight, when the Red Wings host the Coyotes. Detroit trails Columbus by three points in the standings but has two games in hand. Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars also trail the Blue Jackets by three points, with one game in hand.
The Stars are back in action Tuesday, at San Jose. By the end of that game, Dallas will have played the same number of games as Columbus, 46. By the end of Wednesday’s action, which features the Red Wings at home against the Kings, all three teams – Detroit, Dallas, and Columbus – will have played the same number of games.
Meanwhile, there’s also the possibility of the Coyotes catching fire and propelling themselves into the mix, especially if they can beat Detroit tonight and the Sharks at home Wednesday. Maybe even more possible, the Blue Jackets could catch the Minnesota Wild for seventh place in the West. With the win in San Jose, Columbus moved into a points tie with the Wild, who have a game in hand on the Blue Jackets. Minnesota hosts L.A. Tuesday, Edmonton Friday, and then plays in Denver Saturday night to close out the regular season.
Got it? It’s not all that complicated. Just root for the Coyotes tonight, the Sharks and Kings Tuesday, and the Sharks and Kings again Wednesday. Thursday? You know where you’ll be. You’ll be at a viewing party, hoping the Blue Jackets can finish this most unlikely road trip in style, with a win in Dallas. To round out the week, you’ll want to cheer on the Oilers at Minnesota and the Avalanche in Phoenix Friday.
And that brings us to Saturday night. Yes, that’s when the Blue Jackets and their fans may have to wait beyond the Nashville game, for the completion of the Red Wings-Stars game in Dallas, to learn their playoff fate. But can you imagine what the atmosphere at Nationwide Arena will be if the Blue Jackets could control their own destiny with a win over the Predators? Or, even better, if Columbus has already clinched a spot in the Western Conference playoffs? That would be unbelievable. Wouldn’t it?
Apparently, it wouldn’t. Not to this special team. Not this year.