COLUMBUS, Ohio — A scant thirteen days ago, the Blue Jackets started postseason play for just the second time in their history. Matching up against the Pittsburgh Penguins and their stars were the lunch-pail guys dressed in union blue. Not much chance was given to them of beating Sidney Crosby’s team.
And yet, here they are. The "Interstate Series" has been full of hard-nosed hockey that sees a rivalry in its early stages of development. Back and forth it has gone, with no team able to string together consecutive wins.
Outside of Columbus, one has to wonder what’s gotten into these upstart Blue Jackets. Inside 270, there is civic pride in the team and a fan movement called "We Are The 5th Line" that has energized an often-discouraged fan base.
This is uncharted territory for many on the roster, having never been to the NHL playoffs before April 16 this year. They knew the intensity would be ramped up. What they are seeing as the series unfolds is that they have earned their seat at the table and deserve to be here.
"You have seen the fight back and the resiliency of both teams in all five games," said Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma. "The ebb and flow of this series has been emotional, the flux in the play (in that) we’ve each come back from 3-1 deficits to win hockey games."
This has been a series that proves that no lead, at any time, is a safe lead. Whether that’s one team asserting itself in the second half of a game or last second clutch goal scoring, the series has more twists and turns than a country road.
"We fully expect a huge response from (Columbus)," Bylsma said. "It’s an elimination game and they are going to respond. I think they are going to give us their best in Game Six in their building."
With their backs against the wall, you might think that this young Blue Jackets team might be a touch nervous. But the mood among the players is one of steely-eyed determination. They have a belief and have shown a resiliency that defies the pundits.
"(Game Six) is huge," said Columbus left wing Matt Calvert. "Obviously, it’s win or go home. We’re excited about the opportunity. It was 2-2 going into Pittsburgh (Game Five) and we knew we had an opportunity with the score 1-1 going into the third period. They got the goal and we felt that they battled a little bit harder than us.
"That happens. There’s momentum shifts in series. It’s time for us to take over the first period of this next game. It’s going to be a big night. We’re going to leave it all out there."
As the season wore on and the team matured, the rollercoaster ride became more of a series of gentle slopes rather than the peaks and chasms of November. Their play on the ice over the last three months began to prepare them for a series matchup with Pittsburgh. They have shown that they are not afraid of Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins.
"My first few years in the NHL, you think more about that," Calvert said. "You’re playing against Sidney Crosby or Pavel Datsyuk. When you get those matchups, you’re kind of ‘star struck.’ Now, it’s not like that at all.
"You know you can compete with these guys. It’s more worrying about your own team, your own line and your own play. It’s more of a challenge and I get more excited to play guys like that, to get a chance at shutting them down. That’s a big thing with our whole team."
These Blue Jackets are not the "same old Blue Jackets" of years past. They’ve turned the corner and are looking forward. They’ve been saying that the next game is the most important game for them. That has never been more realistic than going into Game Six tonight within their own barn.
"(Pittsburgh) is going to talk about being better and coming in here and ending the series," Columbus head coach Todd Richards said. "We’ve got to come in and be prepared to do the things that we need to do.
"Every athlete and every team, every opportunity you have to close something out, you want to close it out. You don’t want to prolong things. Series momentum can shift, it doesn’t matter if the series is 3-0 or 3-2. We need to come out right away, from the first puck drop, and try to establish our game. Get them retreating and playing in their own zone."
Monday night most assuredly is the most important game for the Blue Jackets. Playing their game by getting the puck deep, having an aggressive forecheck and playing smart, hard-nosed hockey is what to expect from these guys. They’ve shown they can bounce back all year.
Winning and forcing a Game Seven is first and foremost on their minds. Do they have the wherewithal to prove the pundits wrong once again?