COLUMBUS, Ohio — One should look beyond the franchise and personal records set this season, substantial as they are. And gaze beyond the civic pride for the hockey team that had arisen in the crucible of a hard-fought playoff series.
By the time the final horn sounded to end Game Six between the Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins, something not unexpected, but always hoped for, saw its genesis. The visceral want of a true rivalry, the likes of which Columbus has never really experienced, came into being.
Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson knows a thing or two about rivalries. Having worn the blue and maize for the University of Michigan, he experienced the heated collegiate rivalry with the Ohio State University. On Nov. 2, 2013, he addressed to potential for a budding rivalry between the Blue Jackets and the Penguins.
"I think that true rivalries are made in the playoffs," he said. "If it’s going to be a real rivalry, it’s going to be in the playoffs. It definitely has the potential of being something like that because we are so close. You can’t manufacture that during the regular season."
Pittsburgh was the established, skilled club that saw a trip to the postseason as an expected, yearly occurrence. Columbus was the new kid on the block, having moved to the Eastern Conference in the summer of 2013.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma also saw the potential for a rivalry to develop between the two teams when asked in November. "When you see Philadelphia, the Rangers or Washington on the schedule they’re known and there’s a rivalry there."
"Columbus doesn’t have that same type of presence on the schedule as those rivalry games do," he said. "I think very quickly for us, it could be that. It would definitely be great to call this one a rivalry."
Through six games in the first round of the 2014 NHL Playoffs, the teams traded victories almost as much as they traded laying hard hits on each other. It was a tale of the scrappy underdog doing battle with the playoff-tested veteran.
Not only were the teams playing a hard series, much was made of the fan reaction in their respective barns. Many of the Pittsburgh fans, from the start, were looking past Columbus to who the potential matchup would be in round two. They wrongly saw them as the "same old Blue Jackets." Many more pundits were looking at them the same way.
One hundred eighty-six miles away, the Arch City fans were cozily embracing a more meaningful trip to the playoffs. They had not drunk from this cup but once in their history. Their team was on the national stage, with the potential to make many sit up and take notice.
Their pride of the boys in union blue flourished as the series progressed. While there was real worry in Pittsburgh at how this would play out, Columbus relished this spotlight at a time of year in the NHL where anything is possible. Their fans had waited, some not so patiently, for a return trip to the playoffs.
"The fans have been waiting for a long time," said Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards, "for something to feel good about. There have been things, throughout the course of time here, that’s got them excited. But, I think that the way this team has played all season, once we got past our struggles, it didn’t surprise me (the fan support)."
This is, by far, not a full-blown rivalry, as that takes time to mature. But the genesis, the early trappings, of what could very well become something substantially heated between the clubs, took root over the last two weeks.
"Playoff hockey is extremely hard," Dan Bylsma said after Game Six. "You can look at matchups, one and eight (Columbus was the seventh seed), but all around the league, it’s hard to win playoff hockey. It’s a battle. And, this was every bit of that. There’s no question about it, they’re a tough opponent. It was tooth and nail. It was hard-fought. It’s hard right from the start."
As the Blue Jackets grow and mature, they hope to expand on playing every team with the same vigor they showed in the playoffs this year. But, looking ahead, they will hold the Penguins in a special place within their minds. And they will recall that it was Pittsburgh who eliminated them from the postseason. They will remember that they are not afraid of the league’s superstars, for they know that they can compete on this stage.