For Columbus, the wait is over
April 23, 2009 was a night that many fans will remember. Nationwide Arena was sold out. The atmosphere was electric and the fans received a taste of what the Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about. Columbus was defeated in a dogfight of a game by their old Central Division nemesis, the Detroit Red Wings, 6-5.
The hope was that they would replicate a trip to the postseason the following year. As we all know, this was not the case. They have had four head coaches (Ken Hitchcock, Claude Noel, Scott Arniel and Todd Richards) from that night, hoping to find the right "fit."
The roster has been turned over, with RJ Umberger, Jared Boll and Fedor Tyutin the only players on that last playoff team still with the Blue Jackets. The culture has been changed from what was once called a "country club atmosphere," into a blue-collar work force with a hard-work ethic and identity.
Tonight, after a wait of four years, eleven months and 24 days, the Blue Jackets have earned their return and punched their ticket to play in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With this change, a playoff team has emerged. Through a mix of drafting (8 players), trades (13), free agent signings (4) and a waiver pickup (1), there is a collective belief of "anything is possible" and an "us against the world" mentality.
They’ve played through adversity on the road to the playoffs, with players in and out of the lineup due to injuries. From the up and down rollercoaster ride that marked the early stages of their season, to an 8-game winning streak and finally to being the hunted, as other teams chased them for a spot in the playoffs, they have grown, matured and embraced their identity.
Tonight, they begin to build and add another brick upon which President of Hockey Operations has retooled this franchise. They may woefully lack in playoff experience compared to their opponent, but they make up for that with a "never give up" attitude. Gone are the days of "mailing it in" when they get behind. They’ve shown this year that they almost thrive on coming from behind.
Amazingly, to those outside of Ohio, the Blue Jackets have been getting some love from the media that doesn’t cover the team on a regular basis. Everything from a Penguins sweep to the series going to a decisive game seven has been bandied about. Although there are expectations on both sides, no one knows how this will play out.
From the unexpected, yet hoped-for, breakout season by Ryan Johansen, players stepping up and answering the call to the solid performance of Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes, enough time has passed to be able to say that Columbus has turned the corner.
Top line center Ryan Johansen finished the regular season with a club best 33-30-63, truly above what was expected of him. Of those 33 goals, he had 7 power-play goals and 5 game-winning goals. He led the team with 237 shots and 692 faceoffs won. He also became just the third player in Blue Jackets history to have a 30+ goal season (Rick Nash, Geoff Sanderson).
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky went 32-20-5, one year removed from winning the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the NHL. He recorded a 1.80 Goal Against Average and a .923 save percentage. Along the way, he had five shutouts. His wins and shutouts are both career highs for the Russian net-minder. Of the 57 games in which he was the starter, he allowed a paltry two goals or less in 31, including 11 of his last 16 games.
It has been a record-setting season for the club. They set franchise marks for wins (43), road wins (21), goals (226) and had a power play efficiency of 19.3 percent. They led the league in hits with 2,609, which can be attributed to the hard-working style of hockey that they play.
With many picking them to fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 1, the pressure is off. This makes them a dangerous team. The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs almost always has a stunning upset. Might this be the case when the final horn sounds between the Blue Jackets and the Penguins?
It has been 1,819 days since the Columbus Blue Jackets last played in the NHL postseason. The wait has, at times, seemed interminable to a playoff-starved fan base and club. Does this herald in the beginning of trips to the playoffs season after season? Only time will tell that story. But, in the here and now, and as it’s often flashed on the jumbotron, it’s time to make some noise.