The 2013-2014 season for the Columbus Blue Jackets is one that will not be soon forgotten by the faithful. The season started out slowly. Injuries to key guys such as Nathan Horton, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ryan Murray, among others, was not the start that the Blue Jackets were hoping for. Even in their absence, the Jackets found a way to stay competitive long enough before they really started to turn things around. Sergei Bobrovksy got hot at the right time, and helped Columbus make just their 2nd ever playoff appearance. Their 2nd appearance worked out much better than the first, even in defeat. The Blue Jackets fought the Penguins for 6 games, before bowing out. Even in the series loss, fans and players knew something special was being developed. They knew the Blue Jackets were becoming contenders.
Fast forward to now. The optimism that was started in last season’s playoffs has carried over all throughout the summer. Blue Jackets fans are very excited about what could happen this season. Many already have pegged the Blue Jackets to be serious Stanley Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference this season. Their off-season (sans Ryan Johansen) has certainly supported this thought of being a contender. However, if the Columbus Blue Jackets have any thought at all of becoming a major contender this season, there is one major thing that they must do. What must they do? There are a lot of things they need to do, but in my mind, they MUST be able to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Thorn In Their Sides
Thanks to the realignment that started at the beginning of last season, the Blue Jackets and Penguins became division rivals. This meant that the teams met 5 times in the regular season. It had the makings of becoming a very good rivalry. Add to that the fact that the teams met in the first round of the playoffs, and you now have an I-70 rivalry. The teams as a result got to see each other 11 times. What was the result? The Penguins won 9 of the 11 games, including all 5 in the regular season. To make matters worse for the Blue Jackets, the Penguins didn’t lose any of the 11 games in regulation. Both Columbus wins came in overtime of Games 2 and 4 of the playoff series.
Now we need to keep a couple of things in mind here. First, the Blue Jackets were not a full strength during the season, both regular season and playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky missed some time, while Nathan Horton missed most of the season, including the playoffs. Having Horton in the lineup would have surely helped. Second, it’s not like the Blue Jackets were badly outplayed, especially in the playoff series. Columbus had every opportunity to take the series. Brandon Dubinsky played the series of his life against Sidney Crosby. Jack Johnson played like a man possessed. Columbus played like a true contender, but the fact remains that the Blue Jackets lost that series in 6 games.
The Effect of the Playoff Format
Along with realignment, last season also saw the dawning of a new playoff format in the NHL. In it, the teams who finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in their divisions made the playoffs. The 2 teams with the highest remaining point total in conference also got in, but as wild cards. Why is this important? Because Pittsburgh and Columbus are in the same division, there is an above average chance that if both teams make the playoffs, they will play each other at some point. For instance, if they each finish 2nd and 3rd in the Metropolitan Division, they will play each other in Round 1 of the playoffs. Or just like last season, one team could win the division, and the other make it as a wild card, and they’ll play each other in Round 1. Each division has their own “playoffs”. The only way a team could play against the other division in Round 1 was if you finished as a wild card. And then it would depend of who wins each division, because the highest division winner plays the 2nd wild card, and the other division winner plays the first wild card. Because of this playoff format, and the divisional alignment, Columbus and Pittsburgh could meet pretty regularly early in the playoffs.
Is Columbus A Serious Contender
The Blue Jackets will be a different team coming into this new season. Nathan Horton is said to be having a healthy off-season. Scott Hartnell is now in Columbus, and pretty familiar with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ryan Johansen should be in the lineup by the time the regular season starts (assuming he gets his contract situation figured out.) The Blue Jackets are being recognized as an up and coming contender, but until they can beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s not quite time to dawn them as a serious contender. Not being able to win in regulation in 11 tries is telling, especially given how little of an impact Crosby had in the series. If this season is Columbus’ time, they must turn the tide against the Penguins, or else, it could be another early spring.