Let me start by saying: I know. If your team didn’t make the cut, one does not simply walk into the playoffs and decide to root for a team. There are politics involved, old allegiances, unhealed wounds. You have to do what your heart tells you to do.
But hear me out. Speaking as someone who desperately loves the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was introduced to hockey through the Pittsburgh Penguins, and who would like almost nothing more than to see those crazy kids hoist another Cup, just hear me out for a second.
The Columbus Blue Jackets won its first playoff game in franchise history on Saturday, against a team that they absolutely could not solve during the regular season. It’s fitting that the game-winning goal was scored by Matt Calvert, who CBC Sports described as an “undersized pest.” First of all: rude; secondly, it’s pretty on point. Calvert has carved out a place for himself on the team as the feisty underdog, picking fights with guys twice his size and refusing to back down.
He’s like the human equivalent of the Blue Jackets themselves: scrappy, determined, and capable of taking everyone by surprise.
The Blue Jackets pride themselves on being a “blue-collar” team, a team which doesn’t depend on star power to pull out big wins (Ryan Johansen sometimes being Ryan Johansen excepted). They stick to their systems and play a decidedly team game, pieces in a machine that does its best not to require a Crosby or a Malkin. The Blue Jackets are tough, physical, and efficient, even if they aren’t fancy. There’s rarely any showboating in the Blue Jackets’ offense, and in its place is a kind of buckled-down determination to get a goal however they can get it. It’s not about the highlight reel; it’s about the points.
Are teams like the Penguins sometimes more fun to watch play? Absolutely. They have verve. They’re the kind of team that sports movies try to look like. They’re the sports car of hockey teams (probably, like, European? A stick shift? Convertible? I know nothing about cars). And there are a lot of reasons to want them to win.
For one thing, they’re a team undoubtedly worthy of it; they play in a messy division but they’ve been, overall, consistent. Their injuries this season would have shut another team down, and this one not only battled through the losses but did it all from the top of the standings. It would be cool if people like me would stop bringing up Marc-Andre Fleury And The Playoffs: A Novel Of Apparently No One Ever Being Over It, but since that seems unlikely to happen, another Cup win would be a great way to shut everyone up.
That being said, there’s also a lot to be said for a team like Columbus, whose motto for the season seems to have just been “put your head down and play.” Play when you’re one of three available defensemen. Play when your home arena is overrun with fans of the other team. Play down to the last second of double overtime. Play until you win.
It’s absolutely no secret that the Blue Jackets are the underdogs this round, that most Penguins fans came into the series ready with brooms. But Columbus didn’t claw their way to the playoffs to get swept, and they’ll leave everything out on the ice. Saturday was their first playoff victory, but nobody intends for it to be their last.
Tonight the playoffs come home to Columbus’ Nationwide Arena, where the Blue Jackets will battle to prove that one win wasn’t a fluke, that they’re capable of being a top-tier NHL team, and that Nick Foligno really does give the league’s best hugs.
If that’s not enough to tug your heartstrings, I don’t know what is.