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This is Part 2 of my retrospective on the Blue Jackets’ 2014 playoff appearance. I managed to get to 3 games, and Part 1 covered the first two days of my attendance. Today, my view from game 3. It’s a return to Columbus, the first taste of postseason at Nationwide in years. It’s also my second ever Stanley Cup Playoff game.

Day 3: April 21

I can’t focus. I have emails and meetings and experiments to tend to, but I just can’t stay on track. I keep looking at this thing on my desk, a simple piece of paper that’s in my way physically and mentally. It’s a game 3 ticket, a standing room spot. As a rule, I don’t wear hockey jerseys during the day of a game. Today I’ve made an exception, and it’s a constant reminder even when I don’t see that Ticketmaster barcode.

20140421_174627With the day a blur and done, it’s time to escape. I can’t help but grin like a fool the whole bus ride down, and the exit is onto an amazing scene: the plaza is packed. The party atmosphere is infectious. Everyone here has the same ideas: celebrate and prepare for the best hockey of the year. This is the perfect way to build on the excitement from Saturday, to share in the jubilation, and I’m glad there are so many to share this with.

20140421_174640Nationwide itself looks great. The glorious glass of the main entrance now has playoff art adorning the center windows, welcoming all arrivals to the special event. As I slide indoors, the decoration is noteworthy here too. American flag buntings are covering all the rails in the lower bowl, offering more patriotism and thematic coloring to the already welcoming view. My first visit to Columbus three years ago was memorable but surrounded by Red Wings fans. Today, the color blue brings balance and (hopefully) a home-ice advantage.

I’ve reached my spot, and my nerves have kept up, although it’s a jubilant version today. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen has wandered near my location a number of times, an intense look of purpose across his face each time he passes. As I turn to look at the ice, I’m instantly amused by the terrible (or great?) pre-game jersey foul sighting ahead of me. “Bobzilla,” and it’s signed. I’m not sure if I should be more disappointed in the player or the person who bought this thing.

But it’s easy to move past this distraction with warmups finally underway. Usually this means nothing to me. Tonight, it’s a sign that it’s real, that this series is honestly happening at home. And as warmups fade into the wait for the intro video, something else takes my attention. Hushed drum tones and organ hums suddenly fill the speakers. “In the Air Tonight.” It’s a chilling song under normal circumstances, but the heightened atmosphere has only pushed it further. And then the purpose becomes clear. The Blue Jackets handed out thunder sticks upon entry. The crowd pounds their props along with glee as the proper drums kick in… and it all goes silent, the lights are cut, and the opening video begins.

In Pittsburgh, I was taken by the novelty of it all. Tonight, I’m mesmerized by being in friendly company. The arena is just as loud, but the noise is one that I share in tonight. Within moments of puck drop, I’m already swept up in the deafening “C-B-J” chants. The people are chanting at nothing, at everything, at anything. It’s pure energy in here and it’s fantastic.

And the crowd is rewarded almost right away! Boone Jenner! Less than two minutes and it’s a 1-0 lead!

And Jack Johnson again?! I don’t care! The crowd’s enthusiasm is just overflowing and that reserved semi-terror from Saturday is gone. It’s all bubbling elation. Was this single most meaningful period ever at Nationwide?

It’s time for a quick visit to the Cannon (an intermission tradition), and everything seems heightened. Extra-elated Twitter-folk, (including the illustrious DKM Hockey guys), a positive score, a (still) noisy building. I’m not completely comfortable, but the feeling is certainly a good one.

And now we’re off to the 2nd… and the shots are starting to mount for the Pens. As good as that two goal lead felt at the break, it’s now feeling hollow as Pittsburgh continues to press. These aren’t weak opportunities either; the best of the visitors are starting to show up and it’s concerning.

Almost there… and then the glass shatters. In the final minute, the Penguins have pushed through, and the score is now 2-1. I often hear the word “deflated” when describing a late-period goal, and I think the descriptor is apt here. It’s an uneasy quiet between periods. Again I’m left to shift from left foot to right foot, standing and waiting.

The final 20 minutes have started well (Cam Atkinson!). But as I try to find comfort in the new 2 goal lead, the onslaught continues. Shot after shot after shot, an immense push forward by the Penguins. And the opposition has been rewarded. A slight cheer rises from the visiting fans, it’s 3-2. And a minute later, they’ve scored again. And another a minute after that. And there is no time to think, there is no reaction, it’s a swift scoreboard assault. It’s this fourth goal that hurts the most, even the idea of OT seems absurd now, just a relentless attack, a 3-4 deficit and a stunned arena.

20140421_214323And somehow it’s over. I’m filing out into the night, a painful quiet gripping the exiting fanbase. The Nationwide Insurance building shines a beacon of unrequited hope over an Arena that still hasn’t seen a playoff win. Ever. I’m muttering curse words under my breath, asking how they let it all slip away. There is no thought, I just cross the street

Columbus is quiet tonight. The only positive remaining is the promise of another game on Wednesday. That and a quiet glimpse into the blushing lives of a young couple on the bus ride back.

As I drive home, I’m greeted by a defiant “Let’s Go Jackets” billboard on 315 north. It’s right near the hospital curve, inanimate. It has no idea what just happened.

Day 4: April 22

It’s back to lab today, the cloud of disappointment from last night still hanging nearby. I’m grading a stack of homework. It’s a dull, monotonous task and still better than considering what happened at Nationwide.

I can’t help it, of course. I’ve gone this far, so I keep looking at the game, the wretched second-half performance, the collapse.

Maybe tomorrow will bring a better day. Maybe then I’ll be done grading. Maybe then I’ll forget Monday.

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