This past weekend the Columbus Blue Jackets schedule put them in their first home-and-home series since the NHL moved them into the Eastern Conference. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the hottest team in the Metropolitan Division and a back-to-back series against the Penguins was an early test for the Jackets.
I was lucky enough to be in attendance for both games. I already had a ticket to Saturday’s game in Columbus when one of my friends picked up two free tickets to Friday’s game in Pittsburgh and invited me to come along. I could not refuse.
The Jackets and Penguins are establishing a divisional rivalry, or at least that’s what everyone in Columbus wants to believe. When the Penguins play in Columbus the games usually sell-out as the black and gold faithful help fill Nationwide Arena to its capacity. Of course anytime a visiting team brings a noticeable amount of fans with them it’s expected that the home team’s crowd would expect the “rivalry” title to be applied to the matchup. However, the rivalry is in its infancy and it will take a playoff series before future matchups are scheduled to coincide with NBC’s Wednesday Night Rivalry and for Pittsburgh fans to take Columbus seriously.
Well, regardless of my personal feelings regarding this rivalry, the purpose of this post is to highlight the weekend.
Pittsburgh is closer to where I live than Columbus. The “Steel City” is only an hour’s drive across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The Blue Jackets are my favorite team but I switched allegiances, officially, over the past season. I guess I’m a “bandwagon fan”. Given that, I have been to Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center several times (and the Igloo before that). The “Consol” actually holds some sentimental value in my life. My girlfriend took me to a Penguins game on a date, and it was that date that made the relationship official. It’s also a treat to take several of my close family members out to a game once or twice a year.
Before the game I went to a local Best Buy and purchased a Nikon D3200 camera and an 18-200mm lens. It was my intention to keep a photographic diary of the entire weekend. However, just before I left with my friend to Pittsburgh I checked the Consol’s policy on cameras, they don’t allow cameras with detachable lenses so I was limited to a small Canon Powershot. (I implore the folks at Consol to review this policy.) The Powershot did the trick but I was unable to capture some of the experience that I was hoping to share.
The weather in Pittsburgh was quite pleasant which always makes any trip more enjoyable. Before we entered the stadium we stopped at Pizza Milano for a few pitchers of New Castle and a buffalo chicken pizza. Both were delicious and I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who has taste buds. It was a packed house (two floors packed full) an hour or so before the game but we were served quickly. My Blue Jackets jersey only caused a few boos heard sporadically throughout the restaurant but I did have a little bit of support from the few Jackets fans who made the trip to Pittsburgh.
Overall the presence of Blue Jackets fans in Pittsburgh wasn’t very strong, at least not anywhere near as strong as the presence of Penguins fans in Columbus the following night.
Consol Energy Center is a nice arena. I prefer Nationwide’s layout but Consol is the newest arena in the league and it’s built for hockey. There isn’t a bad seat to watch the game from but that could be said about both arenas. Our seats were at the bottom row of the upper level which actually gave us a great vantage point for the entire ice surface.
The Penguins proved to the Blue Jackets why they are the top team in the Metropolitan Division. They scored three goals on Sergei Bobrovsky who was pulled early in the second period. Curtis McElhinney came in and made 13 saves on 14 shots but Columbus was only able to score two goals. I’ve noticed this season that Columbus always plays hard, especially when they are down but Marc Andre Fleury saved the Penguins several times in this game, especially in the first period where Columbus had 16 shots on goal. NHL.com snubbed Fleury on the first star award (really, guys?) but he was given the honor inside Consol and deservedly so.
The crowd was great and the section of fans we sat with entertained my taunting even though my opportunities were few. There was one lady who must have had a single season ticket right beside us. She never missed an opportunity to remind us how our presence was ruining her experience but some people just suck and I’ll chalk it up to that.
The trip home involved Phish on the radio and talking about Phish. Hockey and Phish are great “male-bonding” mechanisms.
The following day the girlfriend and I packed the Jeep, left the dog with my mom and drove out to Columbus. It takes about three hours to get there but I’m a truck driver so it’s no problem for me. My girlfriend is also a great passenger to have on longer trips as long as we stop at a Starbucks somewhere along the way.
I can’t tell you enough how much I love the city of Columbus. I have visited so many cities and Columbus is easily in my top 3 favorite cities. The first thing you notice is that the layout of the city actually makes sense. It’s wide open and spread out unlike the cities in New England where their roads were designed with horses and buggies in mind. Traffic is hardly a problem. Columbus is also clean, I mean I suspect that they have those areas that you don’t want to find yourself lost in but I haven’t come across it yet.
As soon as we arrive and find parking, which is easily done and put us within a block of the arena, I realized I was seeing way too many Penguins jerseys. I was outnumbered in the streets about 50 to 1. Seriously, Columbus fans really disappointed me at this game. I made the 3 hour trip to “defend NWA” but the rest of the city was too apathetic to make the walk over to the arena. If I had told anyone that I made the long trip on Saturday I would have been embarrassed for me and the Blue Jackets organization.
It didn’t matter anyway, the Blue Jackets didn’t give a performance worth remembering. Three shots in the first period. Three damn shots. Any opportunity they had was squandered when they made too many cross-ice passes that were gobbled up by the Penguins defense. It was frustrating to watch outside of the goalie, Curtis McElhinney kept the team in it throughout the entire game.
I’ve been examining the performance of the team and trying to figure out what’s wrong with the Blue Jackets. Outside of some of the defensemen, namely Jack Johnson and Nikita Nikitin, I’m starting to get frustrated with the coach. It’s obvious that his zone strategies are failing to bring out the best in the players on the team and not utilizing the talents that individual players have. I believe Jarmo Kekalainen and John Davidson have a layout for the type of team they want to build but Todd Richards isn’t the coach to lead that team. I’ll try to go In-depth with this in the near future but for now it seems pretty clear that the coach has an expiration date.
The drunken yelling matches that took place in the smoking area during the second intermission between fans of both sides left some of us walking on eggshells for a few minutes but most of the fans in the arena were pleasant. A big exception goes out to the lady seated right in front of me who couldn’t seem to understand that there were people behind her that were more interested in the action on the ice than seeing her backside. However, she was excited to see a hockey game and we all know what that feels like.
Beyond the negatives, the people in Nationwide Arena were the first to find out that Columbus was going to be given the NHL All-Star game in 2015 and justifiably so since it was taken from them in the lockout. I’m excited about this because I always wanted to be in attendance for an All-Star weekend and this appears to be my chance, finally. Like I said earlier, Columbus is a great city and it’ll be a fantastic place to spend an elongated weekend around some of the league’s elite talent. The downside is that we have to wait 15 months for the event to take place.
The last part of the trip involved a trip to Columbus’ Hollywood Casino where we indulged in the depraved side of life with alcohol and gambling. Another night on the town that I thoroughly enjoyed and I can’t wait until I make my next trip. Maybe I’m falling in love with Columbus itself but the team has some major improvements to make before the city becomes the newest hockey hotbed, which it has the potential to become.