Friday night at Nationwide Arena put the spotlight on Hockey Fights Cancer, the NHL’s impressive and continuing effort to raise money and awareness in the battle against the dreaded disease. The building was awash in the color purple, the color that represents all cancers.
And there was a real sense of community and generosity in the air, as the Blue Jackets honored cancer survivors and encouraged fans to bid on players’ special warm-up jerseys and purchase Hockey Fights Cancer t-shirts and Hats for Heroes to help raise money for this eminently worthy cause. It resonated even more deeply here in Columbus because the Blue Jackets Foundation’s primary, year-round focus is to raise money in the battle against pediatric cancer.
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It was a special night for another reason, certainly less poignant, but significant nonetheless. The Toronto Maple Leafs were in town for a rare visit to Columbus. The vaunted Leafs, one of the most storied and iconic franchises in all of sports, rolled into Nationwide Friday morning with their usual vast entourage of media members.
There’s a palpable aura around the Leafs. Sure, they don’t have nearly the Stanley Cup resume of Canada’s other iconic franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, but it’s still different facing the Leafs. Whether the NHL players you poll grew up watching the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada or just know the franchise’s history, most will tell you there’s a different feel to games against Toronto.
So there was the backdrop: Special night, special opponent. Add to it the fact that the Maple Leafs came into town having won seven of their first 10 games, and the storyline was made even more compelling.
Then the puck dropped, and the excitement really began. From the first tick of the clock, the Blue Jackets came at the Maple Leafs in waves. Toronto is a big, fast team that likes to skate north and south and dictate a game’s tempo, but it was Columbus who set the pace early and had the Leafs chasing for much of the first period.
It was certainly a special night for young Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray, who opened the team’s scoring with a power play goal at 4:55 of the first. It was the first tally of 20-year-old rookie’s career. Very special.
Toronto pushed back in the second period, quickly. Phil Kessel tied it from in close just 40 seconds into the period, and the Leafs continued to pressure for a long stretch of the middle period, as the Blue Jackets had some issues managing the puck. But Sergei Bobrovsky was there to make sure the game stayed tied during Toronto’s push.
Then Marian Gaborik scored his third of the season off a relentless forechecking effort and beautiful feed from Nick Foligno at 3:12 of the third to make it 2-1. With the Blue Jackets up by that same score deep into the period, they went down a man when Fedor Tyutin went to the box for tripping. Keep in mind, Toronto had come into the game second in the NHL on the power play at 28.2%.
But instead of turning the tide in Toronto’s favor, the penalty set the stage for the prettiest goal of the game. Brandon Dubinsky gained possession of the puck deep in his own zone and rushed up ice on a two-on-one. As he busted down the right wing, Dubinsky wired a 45-footer past the glove hand of Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier for the Blue Jackets first shorthanded goal of the year and the eventual game-winner in the 5-2 victory.
Given the cause, the opponent, and arguably the team’s most complete effort of the season, it was an inspiring and entertaining night at Nationwide. It was very different. And very special.