Not so long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL.
Now they’re heading home for tonight’s Game 3 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins hoping to make even more history.
“For our fans, it’s been 14 years and they haven’t seen a playoff victory,” budding star Ryan Johansen said after Saturday night’s stunning 4-3 win in Pittsburgh in two overtimes. “To be able to go back to Columbus now tied 1-1 with the momentum we have, it’s a great feeling.”
The Blue Jackets, cellar dwellers for most of the franchise’s existence, got the first playoff victory in their 13 seasons when undersized pest Matt Calvert banged in a second-chance rebound 1:10 into the second overtime.
It led to a writhing, laughing pile of humanity on the ice at Consol Energy Center — and also set in motion a lot of doubts and criticism of the mighty Penguins.
Stocked with hockey celebrities such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens have come up short in the last four years since winning the Cup in 2009. Callers to sports-talk shows and those on social media are already questioning the club’s heart and commitment.
“Our failed attempts to get it behind their defense kept our players on the ice,” coach Dan Bylsma said after the loss. “They got into the offensive zone, put it in there, hemmed us in.”
Usually when the Penguins play in Columbus, their fans all but take over the place. When the teams met late in the regular season in Ohio’s capital city, as much as half of a sell-out crowd of 18,908-plus was rooting for the guys in gold and black.
But when the seventh-seeded Blue Jackets drew the Penguins in the first round, the club’s front office sold tickets to fans with Ohio addresses first.
That doesn’t mean that a large contingent of (owner and ex-Pen star) Mario Lemieux jerseys still won’t be seen. Just maybe not thousands of them.
After an injury-filled regular season, about the last thing the Penguins needed or expected was a major struggle early in the playoffs against a hard-working, physical team.
Yet this has become a worst-case scenario for Pittsburgh, a finesse team that relies on its star power instead of gritty play, checking and greasy goals — like the Blue Jackets.
Will the Penguins match the Blue Jackets’ effort?
“We have to be better,” Crosby said. “That’s really, I think, the bottom line.”
The Blue Jackets may get yet another blue-collar player back for Game 3. Nick Foligno, who scored 18 goals and had 21 assists in the regular season, has missed the last seven games (knee) but has been cleared to play.
Perhaps the team’s top defenseman, Fedor Tyutin, left after taking two big hits in the first period of Game 3. Coach Todd Richards would not discuss his availability.
The Penguins have gotten a huge lift from forward Brian Gibbons, a 5-foot-8 rookie who finds open spaces. Bylsma moved him to the top line in the series opener and he responded by scoring their first two goals.
But he was hurt on an awkward hit in Saturday night’s opening period and didn’t return. Lee Stempniak will replace him on the top line.
Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury have been excellent for the most part although each had shaky moments in Game 1 but recovered.
Neither can afford any more soft goals, that’s for certain, in what has turned out to be a tight series in which each team has scored seven goals.
“He’s the Bob when we need him to be the Bob,” Blue Jacket Artem Anisimov said of his Russian counterpart, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goalie.
Fleury made several sterling saves in Game 2 to keep the Penguins alive, at least for a while.
“There’s times where we get hemmed in our own end and he comes up huge and just gives us a chance to win,” Stempniak said.
The loudest cheers at most Blue Jackets home games go to the singer of the National Anthem and a fat guy who tears off his shirt and dances suggestively while pouring beer over himself.
Leo Welsh will again be greeted by thousands of fans screaming, “LEO!” when he’s introduced.
And Kevin Schroeder, a portly fellow with inspirational sayings scribbled all over his massive frame, will undoubtedly get the crowd roaring when he pretends he’s Magic Mike late in the game.