Instead, we're going to talk about something much more uplifting and hopeful. As you might be able to see on the right, I* went to a Blue Jackets game a couple years ago. Let's get the good out of the way first. Despite our car being broken into and having our iPods and GPS stolen, it was a wonderful trip. The arena was amazing, it was set into a nice little district, and it should be an amazing All Star host next year. I'm giving some good, hard thought about making the trip over to some of the festivities. The team, though, was just garbage, and it has continued to be a mess in Columbus until they were unceremoniously booted from the Western Conference. Most would have probably said that the West was getting the best of the Columbus-for-Winnipeg deal.
*Along with a whole host of other people.
But, here we are, just one season into the trade, and Columbus is not only in the playoffs, but giving the Penguins everything they can handle. As I've professed on this blog before, I don't watch very much Eastern Conference hockey and certainly don't follow it as closely as I probably should. Just as in years past, though, I know somebody who pays as much attention to the East as I do to the West. And he's a Penguin fan to boot, so he's gotten to see the rise of the Blue Jackets especially close. So, in nice list format, here are five reasons why Columbus should be awfully excited about their team, both this year and in the near future.
1. We are seeing a superstar in the making.
Twenty-one year-old Ryan Johansen has been emerging as a superstar this season for the Blue Jackets. He has carried the Blue Jackets offensively all season long, and he continues to produce in the postseason. Johansen scored a career high 33 goals this season, while also dishing out 30 assists (also a career high). This was the breakout season the Blue Jackets have been waiting for from their fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft. This is only Johansen’s third season in the NHL, and it looks like he may have a very bright future ahead of him. In order to make a serious run in the playoffs, you need your superstars to be superstars, and that is exactly what Johansen has been doing for Columbus. He has produced 6 points (2G-4A) in the first five games of the series.
2. Columbus’ relentless forecheck.
Columbus relies heavily on their forechecking to create plays. They like to get the puck in deep and play behind the net. So far this strategy has proven to be successful against the Penguins who are more of a skill team rather than a physical forechecking team. Not to mention that Marc-Andre Fleury has had his fair share of struggles handling the puck (which was prominently displayed in Game 4 in Columbus). The Blue Jackets forecheck has caused headaches for many teams, because their physical play wears down a defense. Oftentimes if the defense retrieves the puck, they are forced to make a play they may not be comfortable with and end up turning the puck over in their own zone. That has been the case against the Penguins. The Penguins defensemen have been relatively successful retrieving the puck from the Columbus dump-ins, but the Blue Jackets forechecking has caused quite a few turnovers that have led to easy tip-in goals. This is how a tough forward like Boone Jenner has been able to score goals in each of his last three games and have a 5-game point streak going. If they continue to play physical and force turnovers, the Blue Jackets may find themselves going deep into this Stanley Cup Playoffs.
3. Sergei Bobrovsky
Of course, a hot goaltender makes all the difference in the Stanly Cup Playoffs, and right now Sergei Bobrovsky is playing pretty well. Sure he lost his last game, but he saved 96% of the shots he faced. It is difficult to win a hockey game when you allow the opponents to rifle 51 shots at your goaltender. And sure Bobrovsky did not have a playoff win coming into the series against the Penguins, but he has experience. That is something that the Blue Jackets will find valuable moving forward, even beyond this season. It should not be overlooked that Blue Jackets have last year’s Vezina Trophy winner and Russian Olympian between the pipes. Bobrovsky has good pedigree and is able to keep Columbus in most games. Playing against Pittsburgh’s high-octane offense has not seemed to faze him much. He seems pretty composed handling the puck and has not given up many soft goals, something I’m sure a lot of Penguins fans would love to see from their goaltender.
4. Coaching familiarity.
A lot has been made of how well both coaches know each other. Scouting can be a big part of a series, and so far both Byalsma and Richards have done well playing the proverbial, “game within a game.” There is a long history between Penguins coach Dan Byalsma and the Blue Jackets’ Todd Richards. Both worked in the Penguins organization starting out, and it was Todd Richards that saw head coaching potential in Dan Byalsma. Richards was named the head coach of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Baby Penguins (the AHL affiliate of the Penguins) in the summer of 2006. His first task was to hire an assistant coach. That coach would be Dan Byalsma. Richards noted that the two meshed well since Byalsma was a defensive forward in his playing days and Richards was an offensive defenseman. They would eventually reach the Calder Cup finals in 2008 and compile a record of 98-49-13. And of course, Byalsma returned the favor this year by selecting Richards as an assistant to Team USA at the Sochi Olympics. Many believe that if Richards would have stayed one more year at SWB, he would be coaching the two-headed monster of Malkin and Crosby and have his name on the Stanley Cup instead of Byalsma, but that’s not the path that was meant to be. But the two still stay in touch, and their familiarity with one another has been on display as they play the match-up game. So far Richards has been able to keep Pittsburgh’s star players in check. Crosby and Malkin have not scored a goal in this series, and a lot of that is due to the match-ups that Richards has thrown out against Pittsburgh’s top line.
Did you hear the Columbus crowd during those home playoff games? You would have thought this was for the Stanley Cup rather than a first round match-up. Columbus’ fan base has been hungry for playoff hockey for a while, and the Fifth Line, as they are called, did not disappoint. As the announcers pointed out before the game, the fans created an intimidating atmosphere for the Penguins, and it showed early. The Blue Jackets scored two quick goals. If the fans can keep their energy level up and make the trip to Pittsburgh, they may be able to carry their team to the next round. This could also make for a great atmosphere for next year’s All Star game which will be held in Columbus.
No matter what the outcome, the Blue Jackets should be proud of where they are as a young franchise. They have some great young talent in Columbus and have built a loyal fan base that will rally around the team. You can’t ask for much more than that. I would expect Columbus to make this whole playoffs thing an annual event for the next few upcoming seasons. And if you don’t normally watch these guys play, you should at least tune in to hear the fans at Nationwide during the playoffs.