COLUMBUS, Ohio — Not so long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were the worst team in the NHL.
Now they’re heading home for Monday night’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.
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.