The Columbus Blue Jackets continued their improbable post-All Star break run last night when they shut out their Central Division rivals, the Nashville Predators, 4-0 at Nationwide Arena.
So much to say about last night's game...this one's going to be all over the place. Bear with me.
First, I would like to offer all sorts of respect to our compadres on the other side of the online aisle, the Nashville Predators' blog and Twitter fan base. Unlike some fan bases (Hi there, St. Louis), I have found Preds fans to be willing to spar, jab and toss a haymaker...but not lose their sense of class in the process. Yesterday was a terrific example, a fun day of pregame hype-building where they shared their expectations of victory and we shared our "Deliverance" jokes. (And, yes, we caught Boomer jokes.) But it was all in fun, and many of them were classy enough to congratulate Columbus - and its fans - on the win while not overlooking the rematch on Sunday.
I've noted a deep-seated animosity among some CBJ fans toward everything that is Nashville. It is misplaced - perhaps out of envy at the Preds' relative success while spending less then our team does. Don't hate them because we haven't been able to beat them consistently. Instead, root for your team to win! This Columbus-Nashville rivalry, if it becomes truly competitive, could be one of the great "after-game beer" rivalries in professional sports - one where we give up our allegiances yet can remain friends. Yeah, I'm serious about this. Thus far, the Preds fans I've come across are that cool.
As for the game itself, I'll readily admit to having been scared. Nashville HAS had Columbus' number. The first two periods being scoreless didn't help one bit. Still, it seemed to me that the Blue Jackets carried the play for most of those 40 minutes. The only thing getting in their way was a somewhat stout defense and goalie Pekka Rinne, a guy who didn't get Steve Mason's accolades out of the gate but, on balance, may have had a better pro career thus far in my opinion.
But then this happened:
It's as if the Blue Jackets captain had enough of this silliness and decided to - once again - pick the CBJ up on his shoulders and go get a goal. (And note that Nashville's Franchise Player/Olympic Phenom/All-Star/All-World defenseman Shea Weber flailing out of position as Nash takes that shot. Go ahead and re-watch that if you want, it's OK.)
And he can do that. Because he's Rick Nash. And you're not.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz has said that Nash of late is playing as good as he's ever played. I agree 100%. The post-January 14 Nash is a bona fide superstar. He makes the entire team better by his presence yet still takes over games when he wants - just like that. I cannot overstate how impressed I've been with his recent play...and that's coming from a guy who's been lukewarm on the captain (relative to his salary cap hit) for most of his time in the Hitch/Noel/Arniel era.
After Nash opened the scoring, the Preds displayed a surprising fragility. Rinne decided to chase a puck behind a net for whatever reason, and Matt Calvert was there to help direct it into the back of same net. (Calvert is incredible. It's like he does not know how to do anything BUT put the puck on net. What a find!) Antoine Vermette cleaned up a rebounded Voracek shot for a goal. And then Nash added one more for good measure. And just like that, the Preds imploded like we've seen the CBJ do so many times in the past. And Carrie Underwood's husband be damned, the Preds just had no offensive spark to fight back.
All I could think to myself throughout the barrage was, "This isn't supposed to happen. Nashville has our number." But go figure, it did happen. And for at least one night, Columbus had Nashville's number...which felt really good.
Of course, Jordin Tootoo had to pick a fight with Jared Boll in the waning minutes of the game. The game was lost for the Preds and I'm figuring that Tootoo Got His Goon On in preparation for Sunday's game in Nashville. Thing is, Boll had a remarkable degree of control of the fight - in part due to his larger wingspan, but perhaps also because Tootoo was actually fighting a guy of similar stature/reputation as a fighter. It's easy to go after small fry, a tad tougher to take on other fighters. Perhaps he should have Just Said No.
Last night's game memorable in that I was actually present and brought a college/family friend who, I learned over the course of the game, played intermural lacrosse in college yet had never even been in Nationwide Arena despite being a lifelong resident of Central Ohio (with the exception of four years at Notre Dame). My friend had a blast - even despite the almost half-empty arena. He kept saying, "This is such a great game to see live!" (...waits for everyone to purge the Jeff Rimer "Gotta See It Live" ads from their systems...) I had a blast in that I shared a two-period nailbiter immediately followed by a third period hammer drop with a friend/CBJ newbie who needed no pointers on hockey rules!
Long story short, I believe that I now have a game-watching partner whenever I want...and a likely partner in a ticket package for next season. He was THAT impressed by the whole CBJ experience - the team, the arena, the game ops (yeah, even the game ops)...everything. Even came within a hair of buying a game-worn jersey on his first visit.
Not to put myself on a pedestal, but this was an eye-opener to me. I wonder how many other people in Central Ohio aren't CBJ fans because they've never seen a game live - even after 10 years? How much lost ticket revenue does that mean to the CBJ? How many lower viewing households does that mean to Fox Sports Ohio? How many missed "magic moment" experiences are we missing as fans? Let's all mull that one over and perhaps consider how we as fans can help build the CBJ fanbase at a grassroots level.
Lastly, here's proof that it was just One of Those Nights. I'm walking around Nationwide with my buddy in between periods, and the game gets started while we're still down on the lower concourse. We rush to the elevators to get to the upper deck, and who's on there but Derick Brassard and a couple other players in suits and splints. Brass is looking sharp in a grey suit and purple tie - not pimpalicous but rather young and trendy - but, dang, the amount of product in that boy's hair was epic. By my estimation, those other guys were Preds because they were asking questions of Brass that guests might ask of a host. We get off the elevator first, but not before I toss a well-meaning "Get better soon, Brass" at our injured center. He said, "Thanks, man." Guess we're BFF's or whatever now.
My friend and I depart the elevators, return to our seats, and the CBJ proceed to undress the Preds. Whatever was in the air last night - can we bottle it?