In the NHL‘s second season, the Montreal Canadiens are enjoying a nice, long rest after winning early entry into the second round by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the series between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins seems destined to go down to the wire. Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the Blue Jackets postseason potential.
BL: Aaron, the Blue Jackets notched their first ever home playoff win last Saturday. It only took 14 years. Is that a weight off the shoulders of everyone in Columbus?
AP: Yes, I think it’s even more than a weight off the shoulders. It’s a sense that — you know, Columbus has had major league sports in this city for more than a decade now, but I think there’s a sense among the fans that they’ve joined the big leagues now. They feel as though this team can compete on a league-wide scale. Just to make the playoffs — it’s only happened twice in 14 years — they were swept the first time. This franchise has gone through so many troubles. To be in this situation now and to be going back and forth with an elite team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, for many people here a magical scene to be sure in Nationwide Arena.
BL: Columbus can’t go to the Super Bowl or the World Series unlike Pittsburgh. They can’t go to the NBA Finals either. I don’t want to diminish the influence of The Ohio State, but do Columbus fans have more riding on the success of the Blue Jackets than Pittsburgh fans might have riding on the Penguins?
AP: You know that’s a tough question. I think that city perhaps is a little bit more jaded when it comes to its professional sports because of the success that they’ve had. You know it’s hard to sell first round playoff tickets in Pittsburgh, where in Columbus they line up at 5 a.m. for them. What’s so special here is that this is the first time a lot of these people have gone through it. It will never be like this again in Columbus. To go through it for the first time makes it special and you certainly get that vibe here that you’re not getting that in Pittsburgh where the expectations are so high.
BL: When you and I spoke last season, I asked you if that team would make the playoffs, and you said—I’m quoting now, “If I may be blunt, they’re just not good enough.” You were right, so what’s changed between last season and now?
AP: Well I think this team has grown up a lot and they are the youngest team in the league. And the next nine youngest teams did not make the playoffs. That’s how young this team is. So a lot of these players have really grown up along the way. Boone Jenner is a rookie and has been tremendous in this playoff series. Ryan Johansen has really emerged as an elite offensive player. Rookie defensemen Ryan Murray has been very good. This team still does not have a captain. It’s very rare in the NHL. That letter “C” on the breast of the sweater in the NHL is a big deal and they don’t have a captain here. So they’ve had a situation where leadership is by committee and there’s room for these players to grow into bigger roles.
BL: Now I mean no insult with this next question, but are the Blue Jackets playing especially well or are the Penguins playing especially poorly?
AP: Well I think at this level, the NHL, I don’t think you can get by, certainly in the playoffs, with not playing well. The Blue Jackets are not the skilled team in this series. The Pittsburgh Penguins have unbelievably skilled players. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, dominating offensives forces. The Blue Jackets deserve credit for shutting them down. They’ve made life very difficult on the Pittsburgh Penguins to get out and get rolling and find open ice.
BL: Do you like Columbus’s chance to get to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at this point?
AP: Are you going to hold my words against me next year if I do this?
BL: Absolutely not.
AP: Oh, you would never do that. You know what, I do. I think Columbus is starting to feel like they’ve got a fighter’s chance here. They’ve started to figure out what they can do to irritate the Pittsburgh Penguins. And I’ll go a step further, strange as this may sound: the Blue Jackets will play — if they get through, big if — will play the New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. I think they match up better against either of those two teams than the Pittsburgh Penguins, so this team could be still playing into May which I never thought I would see given some of the years that they’ve put together.