So, Columbus went out in the first round.
That probably doesn’t surprise anyone who watched even a little of Eastern Conference hockey this season; Columbus, despite putting up their best numbers in franchise history and showcasing a surprising new star in forward Ryan Johansen, had to battle hard to reach even the first round. Of course, the Metropolitan Division (and Eastern Conference as a whole) being what it is, that’s not saying as much as it may seem; every team that wasn’t the Bruins and the Penguins had to battle hard to reach the first round, because all season the standings were more up and down than the media’s opinion of Alexander Ovechkin’s plus/minus.
So simply saying that Pittsburgh took the series—and that this win didn’t raise any eyebrows—fails to capture exactly how good the matchup between Pittsburgh and Columbus actually turned out to be. Columbus failed to solve Pittsburgh in any of their regular season games, but managed to haul round 1 of the playoffs all the way to six games, complete with last breath tie-making goals and overtime half-miracles. Regardless of spectators’ feelings about either the Columbus or Pittsburgh franchises, this was a series that was, simply put, fun to watch.
It had everything: hat tricks, comebacks, flame-outs, goalie magic, and good, old-fashioned greasy goals.
Columbus approached the playoffs the way that they approached the regular season, which was to put their heads down and do whatever work needed to get done in order to win. They’re a self-described blue-collar team that doesn’t depend on big-name starpower; frankly, I think Johansen’s emergence took the Blue Jackets as much by surprise as it did everyone else. Last year, Johansen was a healthy scratch in the AHL playoffs; this year, he had 33 goals and 30 assists for 63 points in the regular season, and at least one point in every game except one in the playoffs.
This series had a lot of firsts, for the Blue Jackets. First playoff win, first playoff win at home, first time that Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs seemed close enough to touch. It takes 16 wins to get your name etched on the Stanley Cup, and the Blue Jackets managed two. That’s not enough, but it’s also not nothing. For a team who two seasons ago were essentially crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, that’s a big step forward.
It’s a big step forward, and it’s the first step forward. General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has been open about the fact that the Blue Jackets plan to extend the contracts of coach Todd Richards and his staff. Looking ahead, the strategy seems to be to build on this season’s success, not tear down and start over. Certainly making sure that big, young players like Johansen, Ryan Murray, and Boone Jenner stay with the franchise will be part of that strategy.
But the most exciting thing about Columbus moving forward isn’t its biggest goal scorers or its most consistent defensemen. It’s the change in culture, from its fanbase to its players. Last year, home games against the Penguins often drew more Pittsburgh fans than Columbus fans; this year, the “fifth line” delivered a minutes-long, arena-shaking standing ovation for their players in the final game of the series.
As for the players, according to NHL.com, Richards has stated, “the cultural change from being happy to qualify for the playoffs to being unhappy with anything less than 16 playoff wins began with the acquisition of [Jack] Johnson… Johnson was the first to stand up and declare that nothing mattered but winning the Stanley Cup.”
As anyone who has ever watched a single minute of hockey will tell you, attitude matters. Emotions matter. When it comes to the playoffs, the best team might not always win–the team who wants it most will.
Columbus got a taste of something great this season, and you can bet they’re going to come back hungry.