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Blue Jackets’ playoff series win was decades in the making

April 17, 2019

Originally posted in The Columbus Dispatch By Bill Rabinowitz | April 16, 2019

One thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven games.

That’s how long it took the Columbus Blue Jackets to do what they finally did Tuesday night. For the first time since joining the NHL in 2000, the Blue Jackets won a playoff series.

In the most unexpected playoff sweep in NHL history, the Blue Jackets defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-3 in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 19,328 at Nationwide Arena.

Fans cheered wildly when the Blue Jackets took the ice before the game. They went crazy when the Jackets took a quick 2-0 lead. They worried when Tampa Bay tied the score at 3 in the second period but erupted when Oliver Bjorkstand tapped in the go-ahead goal soon after.

They held their breath when the Blue Jackets spent the third period fending off the Lightning until three empty-net goals sealed it.

The Blue Jackets will play the winner of the Boston-Toronto series in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Semifinals” has never before been a word needed in the Blue Jackets’ history.

After the customary handshakes between the teams, the Blue Jackets raised their sticks to the crowd, which again went wild as “CBJ!” chants echoed around the building.

“Electric,” Blue Jackets right wing Cam Atkinson said of the crowd. “Not that they didn’t bring it the first game. But man, you’re on the bench and they’re going and you get chills. I had chills the whole game. You almost want to cry, right, because you get so emotionally involved and they’re emotionally involved. It’s great. It’s great for the city.”

With their team holding a 3-0 series lead, fans entering Nationwide Arena on Tuesday were in a mood more of celebratory anticipation than apprehension.

Accompanied by his wife, Teresa, Chuck Krisak wore a David Vyborny jersey to the game. The Westerville resident got it in the Blue Jackets’ inaugural season in their jerseys-off-their-back giveaway and decided to wear it for what he hoped would be a monumental occasion.

The Krisaks have been season-ticket holders for the Jackets’ entire existence. That’s a lot of money and a lot of futility. Sometimes they wondered whether it was worth it.

“There have been times when I’ve kind of questioned it, but it got to the point like ‘We’ve invested so much, and why not keep going?’” Chuck said.

When the Blue Jackets eked into the playoffs in the next-to-last game of the regular season and were slotted against Tampa Bay, many Columbus fans feared the worst. The Lightning entered the playoffs as perhaps the most dominant regular-season team in a generation.

But the Jackets found an extra gear to take a 3-0 series lead.

“I think they’re going to do it,” Chuck said before Game 4. “If they come out and play like they did in Game 2 and Game 3, I think we can do it. Stay on top of them, don’t give them an inch.”

In section 224, Jason Chaffin had a distinctive look — a white bathrobe. That’s an homage to former Blue Jackets defenseman Mike Commodore, who wore that attire during a Stanley Cup run with the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I was a bundle of nerves the other night,” he said. “I don’t know why tonight is not as bad. It’ll probably hit me soon. I don’t think I’m going too far on a limb to say it’s the biggest game in franchise history, or at least biggest playoff game in franchise history.”

For 19 years, Blue Jackets fans have waited for this moment. Chaffin anticipated what it would feel like.

“They might have to replace the roof,” he said with a laugh. “Fire the cannon as many times as they’ve got shots left after the game.”

The Blue Jackets gave their fans a reason to celebrate. In fact, the players themselves got swept up in the moment, especially when Artemi Panarin scored the first of the empty-netters to assure the victory.

“I almost passed out on the bench,” Atkinson said. “Everyone was jumping into each other. Someone cut me on the chin. Everyone was screaming. I almost fainted. It was a huge relief.

“We’re going to enjoy this one tonight.“It’s been a long time in coming.”