Friday and Saturday could mark the genesis of a new Metropolitan Division rivalry. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins meet in a back-to-back home-and-home series Friday in Pennsylvania and Saturday in Ohio. Proximity alone should increase the friction, but Columbus fans and media seem likely to inflate the importance of the upcoming games. Yes, it’s a chance for the Jackets to face off against one of the top teams in the East, but the reactions to the weekend series may be disproportionate.
Consider: a sweep loss for the Jackets will probably be interpreted as a sign that Columbus is still at least a year away from being a serious playoff competitor. Best to start the rebuild, prepare for six more weeks of winter, dogs and cats living together, that type of thing. Of course, even a single win is likely to trigger the opposite hyperbole. Your favorite local columnists will breathlessly take to their keyboards as the game finishes. A sample copy in the Sunday paper might read, “They’ve beaten the giants, they’re finally on the cusp of greatness. Additional inaccurate statements about Sidney Crosby or Kris Letang during the game here.” It’ll be all over Twitter, you won’t miss it.
Guys, let’s be realists about the upcoming contests. These are hockey games being played, and as fans of the sport we should be excited. But it’s easy to let that enthusiasm push you into believing what isn’t there, viewing the results as more valuable than they are. Before the pucks drop, let’s preview some important details that will factor into this weekend’s action.
Two Games Mean Practically Nothing on a Team Level
The hissing noise you hear right now? That’s the sound of narratives deflating. Honestly, if you’re going to judge team success or failure on two games, go ahead and pick Pittsburgh’s games against Colorado and Toronto last Saturday. Claim they’re a terrible team for those low-scoring losses. If that conclusion seems nonsensical, that’s because it is. We need to apply logical self-control when reflecting on Friday and Saturday’s games.
One hot game for a goalie, or one back game for a backup in the back-to-back nights could remove all meaningful conclusions from either game for the entire squad. Pittsburgh is already acutely aware of this concept as J.S. Giguere was the only thing keeping Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from thrashing the Colorado Avalanche. The Jackets already know how this works in the positive thanks to the reigning Vezina winner in net.
Yes, Columbus fans, we know that four divisional points could be crucial at the end of the season. Make no mistake, there are important rewards to be had. But extrapolating from a win or loss without considering the sample size and the overall performance is, at best, unwise. Be happy to get victories, but don’t immediately view the standings as a part of a larger trend.
Two Games Mean Practically Nothing on a Player Level
More important facts to remember: If Sidney Crosby gets held off the scoreboard for one or both games, he’s still the best player in hockey. If Marc-Andre Fleury gets a shutout, he isn’t suddenly an elite goalie. If Sergei Bobrovsky gets lit up Friday, he’s still an above average goalie. If Jared Boll has a multi-point game, this doesn’t mean he’s on the verge of a breakout.
These things all seem very sensible now, but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. We all know that hockey is a game of ebbs and flows, lucky and unlucky bounces of the puck, hot and cold streaks for players and teams. It’s all very normal. In the microcosm of an “important game,” we can forget the bigger picture.
It would certainly be nice to see improvement or breakout performances (particularly for young members of the Blue Jackets), but we should temper our expectations after only two games.
The Victor Need Not Be the More Deserving Team
For the Columbus Blue Jackets, a shift to sustainable winning is nearly as important as actual victories. After more than a decade of general futility, there are encouraging signs that the team is moving in the right direction. Accordingly, if the Jackets finish the weekend with puck possession equal to or greater than that of the Penguins, it’ll be hard to call the outing a failure.
We’ve already seen it with harsh narrative judgement toward players, and the concept applies once more: franchise context matters immensely this weekend. We’re about to witness only two hockey games. For Columbus, a team on the rise, the franchise goal is to move past rebuild and move toward relevance. If the Jackets lose against Pittsburgh, it’ll be painful for fans of the Ohio team. But if losses come with good play against elite competition, two games will serve as a suggestion that the Blue Jackets are in a good place. The opposite also holds true (victory without solid performance is not an encouraging outcome).
Sustainable play is key to a second (and then third) playoff trip for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The final results of this weekend’s series may not reveal the kind of club that’s being built. Don’t get sucked into the “big game” narratives.