The old joke about the Blue Jackets goes something like this: The greatest game they ever played in Nationwide Arena, they lost.
Really, it is no joke.
The Jackets have once qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, in the 2008-09 season, when they were swept from the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. Game 4 will remain etched in the mind of anyone who was in Nationwide Arena that night. The Wings won 6-5, and it was glorious.
Is that funny?
Hardcore fans still shake their fists over the call on Fredrik Modin for too many men on the ice with 94 seconds remaining in regulation. By and large, though, what lingers is that first taste of the playoffs and the mind-warping intensity. Hockey is the best sport to watch in person, and its postseason reaches another realm altogether. That became clear to us on April 23, 2009.
Game 4 was intoxicating. The fans stood and roared for the entire third period, as if they were following William Wallace into a phalanx of English knights, and Nationwide shook beneath the feet. It was a revelation. It was what John H. McConnell envisaged when he delivered the franchise to Columbus, an indescribable experience that is shared between a team and a city. Thank you, sir. May we have another?
Four years and another lockout later, there is a chance.
The Jackets are still alive on this, the last day of the regular season. Tonight, Nationwide Arena will be packed for the biggest game in franchise history since Game 4. Central Ohio, and much of the NHL, will be watching.
For the Jackets to get into the playoffs, they must beat the Nashville Predators and get some help. The Red Wings control their own destiny — so does the Minnesota Wild, for that matter — and the Jackets do not.
Whatever happens, the Jackets have written one of the best stories of this truncated season. Their goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, is the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) and is integral to the script. Yet the cast is large and the tale seems pure fantasy.
Since Feb. 26, when they had the worst record in the NHL, the Jackets have lost fewer games (five) in regulation than any other team in the league. Over the same span, they have accrued more points (41) than any team save for Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago. It is crazy.
They are 18-5-5 in 28 games over the past 60 days. They went 5-1 in their final six road games after going 5-11-2 in their previous 18. They have won at Minnesota, Anaheim and San Jose. They have won without Artem Anisimov, one of their top centers; and Nikita Nikitin, who mans a point on their power play; and Matt Calvert, their bowling-ball winger.
On Thursday night, they won in Dallas when the alternative was elimination. Dare anyone doubt them?
They can win tonight and still not make it. That would be a downer, yes, but it would not be the end of the world, not given what happened in all those years before and after Game 4. The Jackets are the youngest team in the league, and they have assets, first-round draft picks and cap space, all under new management. Their recent run has captivated the city. It feels like the start, rather than the end, of something.
Through 13 years and 12 seasons and 953 games, there have been glimmers of what a competitive hockey team can do to this market. There have been scattered examples showing how Nationwide Arena, among the finest buildings of its kind, can be special. Think back to opening night in 2000, or to the wild slugfest against the New York Rangers in 2002 — back when every seat was sold out for an entire season — or the first time the Jackets beat Colorado. Think back to the two playoff games, Game 4 in particular.
There were supposed to be, and should have been, more of these games.
There is one tonight.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.