Nobody expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to make the playoffs. They were the biggest surprise of the 2016-17 NHL regular season. They over-achieved and finished with the third best record in the Eastern Conference.
But their reward was to face the team with the second best record, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, certainly the team to beat in the east, if not the favorite to win it all again for the second straight year. They were probably the worst team the Blue Jackets could have drawn in the first round of the playoffs. Even playing first-place choker, Washington would have been better.
Actually this should not be an issue at all. Indeed, this article should not have to be written. Everybody should be proud of the Blue Jackets, giving their fans the finest season in the franchise history which included a near-NHL record of 16 straight wins, making the playoffs, and then winning a game in the first round against the team that is probably the favorite to win this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. But it’s not enough.
The Blue Jackets play in probably the strangest area for NHL professional hockey in North America, Ohio-Indiana, close to the Canadian border where hockey should be a hotbed. Instead mysteriously, top level hockey is very unpopular in this region and nobody has ever been able to explain why. In my articles, I refer to the region as the “Death Valley” of top level professional hockey. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are failed NHL-WHA franchises. Not even Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier could save hockey in this region when they played for the various defunct teams. Columbus is simply the best and longest surviving NHL team.
So the pressure was on the Blue Jackets to win this playoff round, not because it was Pittsburgh, not because it meant progress for the team, but to convince the Ohio-Indiana sports fan to support the franchise. Ever since the founding of this team in 2000, it has been a precarious franchise. In many of its seasons, the team has lost money. Gimmicks and low ticket prices have been used to attract fans. During many of its seasons, there have been rumors of it being folded or moved to another city.
Its history is inglorious. The Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs three times in 17 years and have yet to win a playoff round. Their playoff record is now 3-12. That record is not going to pack them in. I don’t care if their opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, the likely Stanley Cup winner. Columbus HAD to win that series.
Sure the Blue Jackets had their best season ever and sure the Blue Jackets nearly broke the NHL record for consecutive wins. The Ohio-Indiana fan is going to smile and be proud, but they won’t be convinced and believe in this team unless they see progress in the playoffs where it really counts. A playoff victory over somebody is the symbol of that progress or lack of progress. Instead the Blue Jackets drew the worst opponent that they and the NHL could have wanted. For this year at least, the NHL has to rue the playoff format that they had set up. Calgary can be swept in four games by Anaheim but that’s okay. The fans are going to be pleased with the progress made and come back next year. Not so in Columbus.
In my prediction article, I wrote that Columbus would have been better off if Pittsburgh’s goaltender Matt Murray had been injured instead of defenseman Kris Letang, because Pittsburgh would have been forced to play the erratic Marc Andre Fleury. But Pittsburgh played without Letang AND Murray and still won easily. Columbus made Fleury look better than he really is. They are far from being a true contender. That is not going impress Ohio-Indiana fans.
Columbus is mostly a team of no-names who played good, dependable hockey this year. They have few star players to attract crowds. And next year, it is quite conceivable that they won’t make the playoffs again. Pittsburgh, Washington, New York Rangers and Montreal are still around. Toronto, Ottawa, and Boston all improved. It is quite conceivable that Philadelphia, New York Islanders, Florida, Carolina and possibly Buffalo will be good enough to make the playoffs next year if they draft and trade well in the off season. It will be very difficult for Columbus to replicate this year’s success.
By losing so ingloriously to Pittsburgh (even if they do win the Stanley Cup) in the first round of the playoffs, Columbus will probably lose most of the attendance gains they made this year. They needed to make believers out of people in a region where hockey is unpopular, but this playoff episode did more harm than good. The NHL has been praying for this franchise to turn around but they got the worst playoff pairing that was possible. The shadow of Quebec, Hamilton, Hartford or wherever still hangs over this franchise. A sad ending for a team that deserved better this season.