So it is with the 2017-2018 Columbus Blue Jackets, an emerging hockey club coming off its best season in the franchise’s 16-year history, but still with some remaining unfinished business against its own bullying older brother next door — or in this case in the same division.
“It’s no secret everyone is gunning for Pittsburgh,” veteran Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson told the Columbus Dispatch in September.
“I would hope everyone in the room feels we pose the biggest threat to them. You have to beat the defending champs to win the Stanley Cup. I’m sure we’ll have to face them at some point if we want to get to the finals,” Johnson continued. “The goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and at the end of the day, you’ve got to get by Pittsburgh to do it.”
The 2016-2017 campaign saw the Jackets set new high water marks in wins (50) and total points (108). Additionally, Columbus logged its best home-and-away splits in franchise history.
Coach John Tortorella was awarded the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky earned a second Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best netminder. Bobrovsky led the NHL in goals fewest against per game (2.06) and save percentage (.931), and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
The Jackets won 16 straight between late November and early January, and on two separate occasions set franchise records for most consecutive wins at home.
More, for just the second time in franchise history, Columbus saw five different scorers tally 50 points on the season — still more evidence of progress from a franchise that has traditionally struggled to consistently score the puck.
And despite all that team and individual success, losses in six of the team’s final seven games and a prompt five-game defeat in the first round of the playoffs left players and fans alike feeling unsatisfied.
After all, the Jackets posted the fourth-best record in all of professional hockey last year; but that finish was still only good enough for third-place in what is the toughest division in the NHL — the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference, which also includes traditional contenders such as the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
An effective blend of emerging youth, veteran leadership and one of the best goaltending tandems in the league in Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo have Jackets fans optimist the team can secure consecutive postseason births for the first time in franchise history.
It’s like Johnson said, though, getting to the playoffs isn’t good enough anymore. It’s time to win a postseason series, and everyone in that locker room seems focused and prepared to go through Pittsburgh to do it.