OK, I understand the Stanley Cup is the only true symbol of success for an NHL hockey team. But the way the Columbus Blue Jackets have trended in the past two seasons is exactly what a fan base hopes for from its franchise. When the fans hopes — and expectations — are generally met, some great things can happen.
This year, fans witnessed some of those great things. They saw a team that came so excruciatingly close to the postseason last year rebound from a sluggish first half this season to become one of the strongest teams in the league from January until that unforgettable third period of game six against Pittsburgh Monday night at Nationwide Arena.
Most fans want only a few basic things from the pro sports teams they follow: Stable ownership committed to winning, a management team capable of building a vibrant, successful product, and a team that plays with effort and passion. That’s why the bond between fans and this year’s edition of the Columbus Blue Jackets seemed to become stronger and stronger as the season unfolded.
This was a young team that pretty much left its collective heart on the ice every game. It was a team that captured not only the imagination of its fan base, but the hockey community in general. It was a team that blended a relentless style with an ever-improving skill level.
Moving forward, it is a team of emerging stars. Everyone in the league is talking about the breakthrough season of Ryan Johansen, who led the Blue Jackets in scoring with 33 goals and had a strong playoff series against Pittsburgh. But it doesn’t stop there.
Rookie forward Boone Jenner had a magnificent series against the Penguins, at one point scoring goals in three straight games and making life generally miserable for every Pittsburgh player unlucky enough to come in close contact with him. Young defenseman David Savard took yet another significant step forward in the postseason, playing monster minutes against the Penguins and opening even more eyes around the NHL.
Then there were the young veterans. Start with Jack Johnson, who seemingly elevated his game to a different stratosphere when the second season began. It was very telling that Johnson scored the Blue Jackets first goal in game one at Pittsburgh. It was a statement goal by Johnson, and he continued to speak eloquently throughout the six-game series via his incredibly productive two-way play in every game.
And who wanted to win that series more than Brandon Dubinsky? His ferocity and level of effort in all three zones were eye-popping. Largely responsible for shadowing Sidney Crosby, Dubinsky was remarkably effective. And he found time to chip in with six points in six games. Like Johnson, he was an absolute warrior.
It certainly doesn’t stop there. Matt Calvert played his usual relentlessly intense game the entire series and scored the OT winner in game two that secured the franchise’s first playoff win. And who can forget the OT goal by Nick Foligno in game four, another historic moment, as the Blue Jackets earned their first home postseason victory.
It goes on and on. There were significant contributions throughout the lineup in the scintillating series against the Penguins. As was its trademark from January on, this team just showed huge heart, night after night, and almost pulled off the comeback for the ages in game six Monday. And the fans responded.
A few weeks ago, when Columbus allowed a late goal against Phoenix to force overtime in the home regular-season finale, the fans in the building that night seemed to take their bond with the team to a new level. The chants of C-B-J, C-B-J resonated through the building that night, and the building erupted when Ryan Johansen scored the OT goal against the Coyotes.
That bond seemed to grow again in the playoff series with Pittsburgh. That the Columbus faithful were encouraging their team when it fell behind 3-0 in the first period of game three speaks volumes. To a man, the players in the Blue Jackets locker room believe it was the fans that allowed them to come back from that three-goal deficit to win game four.
And so it was in Monday’s game six. The fans didn’t quit, even with the team down 4-0, and neither did the guys on the ice. The Blue Jackets simply ran out of time, falling by the count of 4-3 after mounting the near-miraculous comeback. But they didn’t run out of support. The fans stayed; the fans encouraged. And, in the end, the fans rained down their admiration on this team. And the team responded with a touching salute to the 19,000-plus.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work. A franchise builds, and it evolves into a group of individuals that morph into a team eminently embraceable by its fans. And the fans show their love and support for that team. That’s where the Columbus Blue Jackets are at this moment.
This is a team that is the talk of the NHL for how it has emerged as a force and for how it plays the game. It is a team seemingly very much on the rise. The challenge now will be to maintain that upward arc.