The National Hockey League season is a long one. (Well, at least it is under normal circumstances.) Games come and games go, giving the fall/winter/spring a sense of rhythm and flow. The Columbus Blue Jackets have a home stand…they go on the road…they come back home. Occasionally, teams with marquee stars come to town and prompt attendees to stretch their necks to see if That Guy decides to put on a show for the fans.
Largely, however, the NHL season to this Columbus Blue Jackets fan is about growth and development. It’s about watching young players grow up to play like men. It’s about watching good players become great. It’s about watching some players hold onto their playing careers for dear life. It’s about the momentum of a growing winning streak…and perhaps also the frustrating momentum of trying to stop a losing streak…and the incredible inertia in each.
Except for nights like tonight. Tonight is a totally different animal.
Tonight, the Central Division rival St. Louis Blues come to town.
While the National Hockey League has spent a dozen years trying to manufacture a rivalry between the Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings, my money for perhaps the most visceral rivalry right now is the Blues.
Think about it:
- The Blues’ head coach is Ken Hitchcock, the man who piloted the CBJ to their only playoff appearance. In less than a season in St. Louis, he took the Blues deep into the playoffs and won the Jack Adams Award for NHL coach of the year. Is this just another game for Hitch?
- Hitch was hired in St. Louis by now-CBJ president of hockey operations John Davidson, who faces his old team for the first time tonight. Is this just another game for Davidson?
- The Blues have carried themselves with an outsized sense of self and, if I may, disrespect for the Blue Jackets, best illustrated by the pre-game dust-up between R.J. Umberger and the Blues over where the Blues should be allowed to horse around while waiting for the puck to drop. Small thing to you and me, big thing to the players. Oh yeah, and Umberger will be on the ice…and is yet to score a goal this season. Will tonight be the night?
- Over the years, T.J. Oshie has made a point of taking cracks at former Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash. Such behavior has pretty well determined that Oshie will never be recipient of the key to the city here in Columbus. The fans will be out for the improving young Oshie…will the players shut him down?
- St. Louis is one tough team, sitting on a 5-1-0 record and keeping pace with the historically streaking, unbeaten Chicago Blackhawks. The Blue Jackets are in 13th in the Western Conference, trying to stay in striking distance of a playoff spot and opening a six game home stand where standings points will be critical if they are to make a move. Who wants this game more?
- Then there are the kids. With a couple critical injuries, the team has been forced to call up (and, I understand, play) defenseman Tim Erixson and forward Jody Audy-Marchessault. Erixson is the heralded blue line prospect from the the New York Rangers trade for Nash, and “JAM” is an American Hockey League All-Star and has been lighting the lamp with regularity in Springfield. Columbus fans have been clamoring to see both play in Nationwide Arena, and the curtain rises for both of them tonight. Will they rise to the occasion?
- And what of St. Louis’ kid? Put your Nail Yakupov off to the side, kiddos…Vladimir Tarasenko is the NHL’s top rookie right now. The young Russian has four goals and eight points in six games…big boy numbers by any standard. And he’ll be in the house tonight. Can the Blue Jackets stop him?
Yes, this is one of those games. The one that sticks out on the schedule calendar – the one you circle and say, “I have to be there” or “I’ve gotta catch it on TV.” There’s just too much happening, both on and off the ice, to miss a minute.
If you’re not headed down to the arena, make sure you catch the game tonight on FOX Sports Ohio. Jeff and Bill will have the call, and Natalie, Dave and Dan will provide all the wrap-around coverage that you need.
Enjoy the game, everyone!