Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) skates with the puck past Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (7) during the third period at Nationwide Arena. Pittsburgh won 5-3.
In 2009, Columbus made their first trip to the playoffs. They expended most of their energy to get to that point, clinching that spot with just a few days to go in the regular season. They were swept in four games by a good Detroit Red Wings team, and by an aggregate score of 18-7. The fans were given merely a hint of the power and excitement of playoff hockey. They wanted more, but would have to wait.
Five years later and Columbus has made it back to the NHL playoffs. Their opponent for the first round, coincidentally, is their closest rival and a short three-hour drive east on Interstate 70 to the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The difference this time around is that the culture has changed over the last two years in Columbus. There is vivacity to the Blue Jackets, heretofore untapped. They are young, with a quiet intensity off the ice and a hard-working identity while on it.
"We’re excited for the opportunity of playing in the playoffs," said Columbus head coach Todd Richards. "It’s something you have to earn. And, I thought our players went out and earned it this year. Now, we’ve got the opportunity to play one of the premier teams in the league. (They) are a team that has talented players, know how to win, they’re well coached…everything about their organization."
In their five-game season series, the Penguins came out on top with a perfect 5-0 record. With the exception of one game that the Blue Jackets lost 3-0, all of the other games were decided by 1 or 2 goals. As the season wore on, each time they faced off against one another became a more hard-fought affair.
Pittsburgh winger Beau Bennett said this of Columbus, "I don’t think we should think about that at all. I think we need to treat it as a new season series."
Todd Richards acknowledges just how close the majority of the games finished. "We’re 0-5 against them and I know that’s probably going to be discussed but, I thought four out of the five games were very good hockey games. With a play here or there, maybe we’re 2-3 or 1-4 for sure. So, I’m excited."
Both teams enter postseason play with some injuries. For Columbus, they will be without Nathan Horton (abdominal surgery, out six weeks), RJ Umberger (indefinite, upper-body) and Nick Foligno (knee injury) to start the first round playoff series. This equates to 86 games of playoff experience missing from the Blue Jackets lineup.
The Penguins injury list is a touch longer, with Chris Connor (foot), Pascal Dupuis (ACL), Marcel Goc (foot), Evgeni Malkin (foot) and Joe Vitale (mid-body) all out of the Pittsburgh lineup.
Columbus’ roster enters the postseason with just 251 combined games of playoff experience to the Penguins 1,154. Even with this disparity, the Blue Jackets hope to find a way of making it tough on Pittsburgh through playing their game, their way.
Emerging star Ryan Johansen has had a breakout year. He hasn’t reached his potential, but will he be able to turn it up even more when the puck drops on Wednesday for Game 1 against the Penguins?
"It’s a great opportunity for us," Johansen said. "To play against a great hockey [team] who’s had success before and won a Stanley Cup a few years back, it’s going to be a great learning experience for us. We’re really excited to get it started."
Overcoming adversity has been a hallmark of this club all season long. When injuries have sidelined players, others have taken their turn in the lineup and stepped up to meet the challenge. Columbus has depth at forward, making it easier to bring players up and slot them in. They have also forged an identity of being a hard-working, physical team to play against.
This series will also feature a goaltending battle, with last year’s Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes for Columbus and 2009 Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury in net for the Penguins.
Bobrovsky has stepped up over the last two years and proven that he’s one of the best in the NHL. He stood on his head last year on his way to winning the Vezina. This year, he has played solid and made timely saves as the players around him have stepped up their games to ease the pressure on him.
Fleury, on the opposite side, has had a less-than-stellar outing over the past two postseasons. Recently, he has let in some soft goals, which the Blue jackets can take advantage of beginning Wednesday.
The Penguins have only seen Bobrovsky in net once this season (Nov. 1), when he was pulled after just 23:01 after he allowed three goals. But, Bobrovsky owns a 5-2 all-time regular season record in Pittsburgh. Expect Bobrovsky to also turn it up a notch as the playoffs begin.
The outcome of this playoff series has yet to be determined, but might the Penguins fall victim to looking past Columbus to the second round? They were given a run by the upstart New York islanders last year, taking Pittsburgh to six games in the first round before ultimately bowing out.
Columbus has shown this year that they never believe that they are out of a game, even when chasing the score. They are learning to keep their foot on the pedal, and that is doubly important now. This time, they are not just happy to have made the playoffs.
With the culture shift away from the "country club" atmosphere and the emergence of Ryan Johansen, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray, to name a few, this is a team that might just surprise many. While the expectation outside of Columbus might be one of Pittsburgh rolling through the first round, the belief within the room is one of clarity and verve.
Both teams will be playing at a higher level come Wednesday, with Pittsburgh led by Sidney Crosby and Columbus led by a collective belief that anything is possible. Which team ultimately advances to the second round is far from a foregone conclusion. The Blue Jackets are looking to make some waves this time around.