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The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs were the first time I seriously followed a team in the NHL postseason. Every other time I’d been invested in the whole event, but never quite at this level. Over the course of five days and in two cities, I managed to see three games of the Blue Jackets’ first round series. I’ve collected some of my thoughts, and this will kick off some retrospective coverage of the Columbus season. Part 1 spans April 19 and 20.

Day 1: April 19

When they write textbook definitions of a “perfect day,” that ambiguous “they” have this one in mind. A long weekend washed by golden rays and the perfect roads ahead. I-70 (and I-470) are glorious with weather like this. The undulating hills, the fantastic curves around Wheeling, probably my favorite place to drive. We’re hurtling through the American countryside, observing the slight hint of green in the background as leaves begin to bud and pop. Any other day, this is the highlight. Today begins a journey through fandom and a bit of madness.

We left Columbus around noon and made good time. No stops, just straight through. 70 (and 470), up 79, onto 376, and into the city. Pittsburgh is a dramatic city, and its sudden appearance hasn’t grown old yet (although I’ve only been 4 times). You swoop down a hill, cut through a tunnel, and then wham. Bridges, stadiums, picturesque skyline. Hill, hill, hill, darkness, Major American City. HBO didn’t even have to try to make the entry magical. I love it, but today I’m not here to spread that admiration toward the local sports teams.

A few turns later and we’re at the hotel, the check-in process started. It’s already clear I’m not among friends with all the gold and black coating every person walking around. This is Pittsburgh, after all. I’m carrying my Jeff Carter jersey (I’ll wear it later) and wandering the lobby while Jason picks up room keys. And then, for a moment, there’s Fox Sports Ohio broadcaster Dave Maetzold walking through the first floor. He spots my jersey (and one of another Columbus supporter nearby), and leans toward the receptionist. “You take good care of those Blue Jackets fans,” he tells her. He smirks, and I give a thumbs up. I suppose this is a positive moment, right?

20140419_181809

Consol Energy Center, prior to Game 2

Check-in finished, cards claimed, and room occupied. It’s time for a brief walk across the road, to our real destination: Consol Energy Center. It’s a gorgeous new building on the outside, with appealing glass facades and cream-colored concrete. As we make our way across the road, we join the queue and slide into the arena. The interior is also welcoming. Wide concourses and broad windows around the edges give a very open feel. More black-and-gold in every direction, both on the attendees and the hockey decoration throughout the arena. It’s a gentle reminder of the reason why we’re here: it’s playoff time.

There’s a certain awkwardness involved in the arrival. Pittsburgh fans, adorned in their Penguin gear, have more than a few weird glances in my direction. Blue and red and white are out of place in this city, in this moment. The crowd is overwhelmingly in favor of their home team, and we float up the escalator with thousands of Penguin fans. As I take my free rally towel and game program (they’re mementos, not for my use), the greeting staff laughs and I can only offer a shrug and an ambiguous “thank you?”

A number of escalators later, we find and take our spots. It’s standing room, but everything is nicely sectioned. We get our own specified area, so we walk off for some food without fear of losing our view. The crowds is quite excited for their team, and deservedly so. Warmups are a noisy affair. A blend of rap and electronic music blares overhead, and delighted bursts of cheering pop up throughout the concourse and in the lower bowl. As the players exit, the final wait begins: we’re mere minutes from puck drop, maybe three periods away from a 2-0 series lead for the home squad.

Now the ushers have pulled the curtains, and the true pregame actions starts. The National Anthem leaves a bit to be desired (but I’m a bit biased), and… the puck has dropped! We’re underway! And… oh. Oh, jeeze, this is not a way for a Columbus fan to start. We’re not even five minutes in, and some no-name 4th liner has pushed the Penguins up by 1. Everything is a blur, the skaters are flying by below us. And… another one? Shorthanded?! Who the heck is Brian Gibbons?!? This is whoe the second ever Columbus playoff appearance will go down? A blown lead in Game 1, and a blowout at the hands of Brian Gibbons in Game 2?

The first is over, and I can’t help but think the Jackets came away lucky. Aside from a Johansen rocket, the game feels out of control, maybe inevitable, almost perfect for the Penguins to pull this off. The crowd is bubbling, Bobrovsky isn’t convincing. After 40 more minutes, we’ll surely end up seeing the 2-0 lead.

I’m not especially enthusiastic as the 2nd starts, and the parade of penalties is not helping my opinion. And here’s another one, another chance for the Pens to put this out of reach… but wait? What’s this? A 3-on-1 shorthanded?

MATT CALVERT! Maybe this isn’t over?

The second as whisked by, but felt more even, more manageable. After another breathless intermission, the third kicks off. Consol is no longer the roaring arena from an hour ago, but the pleasant cheering still bursts from time to time. But now it’s the Penguins living int he penalty box. I guess it’s now or never in this game?

And right on cue it’s… Jack Johnson? Jack Johnson, that most terrible of the CBJ d-men? Who cares now, it’s a tie game!

And time has run out, but there is no winner. The scoreboard has changed accordingly so I ask, half-joking, “What the hell is that ’4′ doing in the period count?” I’m in uncharted Blue Jacket territory. The crowd is hushed, the tone not exactly shocked but certainly not pleased. The CBJ fans that pass by in this extra intermission seem shocked by everything too.

So it begins anew, with sudden death on the line. Columbus is afforded an amazing chance almost immediately, and it’s off to the powerplay. And, alas, the wait continues. The Penguins kill the penalty. And as the game is wont to do, the tables turn so quickly: emotions swing the other way. Two straight penalties by the Jackets! All I can do is shift my weight from left to right, right to left. My eyes are fixed on the ice, I can’t look away even in these most desperate moments for the Jackets. Relief is the sound of a goalie stick hitting the ice, and it happens for both PKs.

Some how, somehow, I’m alive. Somehow, some way, the game isn’t over. We’ve watched 80 minutes of play, and it’s still not enough. I’m exhausted, I’m thirsty (thank goodness for still-open concessions), I’m nervous. I can’t imagine how the hell the players will manage another (up to) 20 minutes of this.

And…

IT’S OVER! THE BLUE JACKETS FINALLY HAVE A PLAYOFF WIN!

This exit is surreal. As everyone else started streaming out, I just stood and looked at it. The game was won, Penguins fans shook my hand as they passed my spot near the top of the section stairs.

Leaving meant wading through the quietest mass of humanity I can recall. We passed the Mario Lemieux statue and I couldn’t help but stop and admire the whole scene. The night was perfect in Pittsburgh, just not for the people who most loved the statue.

20140419_225727Day 2: April 20

Victory breakfast is a great way to open your Easter, so here we are with free food in the hotel (much thanks to the concierge who pulled this off!). And just like that, we’re on the road again, back to Columbus (and then Jason off further). Radio of the Rangers-Flyers match is our soundtrack as the hills play out in reverse and the flats of central Ohio approach. It’s an effortless ride made even easier for one of the car’s occupants.

We’ve returned, and I’ve gone to mass for the holiday. After a bit to eat, I’ve thrown myself on the couch. I’m exhausted (a round trip to Pittsburgh and 2 OTs catch up with you), but there’s a Sharks-Kings game to watch.

Thankfully it’s a blowout for the team I like. Time to get some rest. Game 3 is tomorrow.

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