Cannonball: The streak, my fandom and avoiding the jinx

On November 29th the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. It didn’t seem all that significant at the time. Tampa Bay was playing without their all-star captain Steven Stamkos and we had just beat them at their place before we lost in a shootout to Florida three days prior. No one could have known that a shootout loss potentially cost us setting an all-time win streak record just as the NHL prepares to celebrate 100 years. No one could have known that win against Tampa Bay would start a streak that would bring so much media attention that even the guys that sound like buffoons when they mention anything ice related (Mike and Mike) would be giving it that coveted ten seconds before they jump into a stamps.com advertisement.

The guys that write about hockey for a living (outside of our guys at the dispatch of course) wrote about how this fluke would end soon and the team would finally revert to the Blue Jackets they expected – taking their place in the middle of the metropolitan trending towards the bottom. Fans of original six teams cheekily commented how it was cute that the CBJ was finding ways to win games against back up goalies and half-assed competition. We got to 10 straight and the editorial sports writers wrote about how we were defying all logic and our power play couldn’t keep this blistering success rate.

Then, in game 11 we played Pittsburgh at home.

The puck dropped and scoring opened with Sidney Crosby doing his thing batting an airborne puck into our net with an obscene amount of hand eye coordination. After that, it was all Jackets – all the way to a 7-1 win. Just after Foligno hugged Bob that night, the perspective about our Columbus hockey club changed. We went from a plucky bunch of guys punching above their weight to a threat. Top of the NHL in points. Top performing power play. A goalie, coach and rookie being mentioned as candidates for some of the most prestigious hardware the NHL has to give outside of the Cup itself. Hometown fans began scrambling to find out how the expansion draft would affect what is sure to be a dynasty. I became positive that I may never have to write on my blog ever gain.

Every year I pick a small self improvement project to stick with for one calendar year. Many of these endeavors have failed: going vegetarian (lasted 15 days – in retrospect this also was not self-improvement), going gluten free (lasted less than one day), learn a foreign language (banõ is about the extent of what I learned), learn to play the acoustic guitar (I have four chords that I am really, really skilled with as long as you only want to hear them one at a time with no consistent strumming pattern), and increase the business of my side consulting gig (success!). Seeing the above track record, I knew for the 16-17 period (this typically starts in the summer) I needed something that would be low on time investment and it had to fit in with things I enjoyed recreationally. Enter the Columbus Blue Jackets.

I have been a fan since we were blessed with a franchise as a part of the 2000 expansion draft that brought both the Jackets and the Wild into the league. I graduated high school in 2000, I was drinking beer with Jody Shelley and Rick Nash on campus on 15th avenue in 2002 (don’t calculate my age, just know I look a lot like my older brother – at least in his ID photo). When we made the playoffs for the first time against the Detroit Red Wings in the 08-09 season I could not wait for the first home playoff game. I sat with one of my closest friends in the highest seats that nationwide has to offer. Long before we became the 5th line, I spent over $200 (that I really didn’t have) on bourbon in nationwide arena after Detroit scored inside of the first minute never looked back sweeping us out of the playoffs.

I sat in Nationwide at the end of the shortened lockout season watching the Minnesota Wild on the scoreboard lock us out of the playoffs by winning and getting the edge over us via tie breaker. I celebrated our move to the eastern conference and no longer falling asleep on the couch in the middle of all our never ending west coast games. In 2014 I bought tickets to every home game in the playoff series against the penguins. I remember wondering if I had actually gone deaf as I left the stadium after our OT win in game four. I will never forget Dubinsky’s game tying goal or Umberger’s sprawled out poke to Foligno for the OT game winner. My wife and I took our then six-month old son to game 3, the first of many questionable parenting moves we have made – though my son (now 3) may be a bigger CBJ fan than I am playing hockey year round in our living room even though I never actually played the game myself.

The Blue Jackets officially  became a part of our family tapestry that year.

I remember only half-way joking that a fan would get to play if one more person got hurt in the 14-15 season. Hope abounded in the offseason prior to 15-16. I told everyone (much like all CBJ fans were doing) that this was our year, we were going deep in the playoffs and Joey was about to blossom into the all-star we all knew he could be. Bob was going to be Vezina Bob again. We traded for Brandon Saad. Ryan Murray was finally going to be healthy. We named a captain finally.

We sucked. We sucked bad in 15-16.

We traded Joey, fired our coach, replaced him with the coach that tried to fight another coach in the dressing room, and were still enjoying the privilege of watching David Clarkson remind us that Nathan Horton’s contract wasn’t insured every time his overpaid keister skated down the ice. Poor Rimer discussed Torts training camp every ten seconds trying to give us a reason to stick with the team and I think it took 30 games for the commercial with John Davidson telling us how we are here to play for the Cup came off the air. I watched all 82 games, even after being knocked out of the playoffs by Thanksgiving.

This brings us back to my self improvement project for the year. I watched the CBJ already, I wanted to get back to writing in some form, writing is easy (hahahahahahaha), so this would be a breeze. We were the league darling prior to the 15-16 season and our pieces had largely remained the same. I was cautiously optimistic. I had written out some preseason player profile and predictions, but I had not yet named this blog thing. Every pundit in the world was predicting bottom of the heap for us and I thought about a National Lampoons Christmas Vacation Clark Griswold Christmas night type melt down if we had another season like last year. JacketsRant.com was born.

Once the season began I learned two things:

  1. Writing, even about something you enjoy immensely is not easy. At least not writing something remotely interesting. Also if clever doesn’t come naturally to you, it isn’t magically going to come to you when sitting in front of your MacBook.
  2. Just because you write it, doesn’t mean anyone is going to read it.

I struggled finding what I actually wanted to write about, I really enjoyed doing the game predictions, but post game recaps added nothing that wasn’t already out there and bed outweighs staying up to write 10 out of 10 times.

A decision was made. I would write only about one out of every five games, and just give my own editorial about what I saw on the ice – no one was reading it anyway. I picked a game to start this tradition – our rematch with the Montreal Canadiens, they would look to avenge the 10-0 beating we put on them early in the season (my son was in attendance for this game too, he still thinks that when he goes to nationwide that we will hear the cannon every ten seconds).

Then we beat Pittsburgh 7-1. The streak was alive, we were legitimized in the eyes of the national media and I didn’t want to write a damn thing in fear that it would surely jinx us. I was convinced that if I wrote a positive word and expressed any public optimism that even with essentially zero readers that this would cause Bob’s groin muscles to eject from his body, Werenski would remember that he is just a rookie and David Clarkson would somehow be back on the ice giving me a karmic middle finger.

Instead, we won 16 straight. Instead Blue Jackets games weren’t just must see tv for my family, but almost everyone we knew. Instead I got text messages asking me about rules and strategy from non-hockey fans trying to understand the rules so they could claim to be the world’s biggest hockey fans come Monday morning around the water cooler. Our bandwagon was (and still is) taking on all comers. We not only finally began defending nationwide arena, we filled it up. Every game felt like a playoff game. It was absolute magic.

We were present for #16 over Edmonton. I will never forget it. My appreciation for what they accomplished and the timing of it (over the holidays) added something to it that is indescribable. This city wants to love this team. I want this city to love this team.

I am going to complete this writing project as I had planned prior to the streak. One game out of every five games. No deadline other than to myself. Unless of course, the Jackets win ten in a row and then no one would be happier not to write a word.

The list: Preseason Edition

Periodically, I intend to post a list akin to a high school year book (think “most likely to _____”). It’s for fun, try to remember that.

Most likely to have a breakout season: Alexander Wennberg

Player I would most like to have a beer with: Scott Hartnell

Biggest surprise of the season: Bobrovsky is healthy for the entire ’16-’17 season

Most likely to throw all of the sticks on the bench onto the ice in pregame: TIE Brandon Dubinsky/John Tortorella

Best hair: William Karlsson

Player that is not allowed to meet my wife: Alexander Wennberg

First player to take penalty minutes: Boone Jenner (it’s a positive, he plays aggressive)

Player I would let babysit my children: Nick Foligno

Player I would definitely not let babysit my children: Cam Atkinson (no more pets)

Biggest impact in first 13 games: Sergei Bobrovsky

First CBJ player to drop the mitts this season: Dalton Prout (who else?)

Most likely All-Star game selection: Brandon Saad

Surprise All-Star game selection: Seth Jones

Name that isn’t household yet, but will be: Zach Werenski

 

16-17 CBJ Preview – Three for and three against CBJ success this year

We are making the playoffs this year. There, I said it. As a longtime fan of the team am I biased? You’re damn right I am. But, I think that a closer look at the (almost) complete roster and you might see why I am seeing sunshine in our schedule rather than the biblical level of downpour we endured last year. I will do my best not to rehash what I have already written in the player profiles that have been posted already (read them!), but some redundancy is unfortunately inevitable.

Before jumping into the season outlook, a note about the national coverage of the CBJ. There isn’t any. What limited coverage we receive typically is regarding a “your season’s over, time to start selling off players to playoff contenders” . I don’t fault any of them for it. Before last season we started to get a little taste of coverage from the likes of Pierre LeBrun and Greg Wyshynski, but that was quickly dashed when we fell down without ever getting out of our starting gate. I bring this up for one reason: because we get little to no coverage many of the pundits are predicting for us to finish in the bottom two of the metropolitan division based on what appears to be last season and no new significant player pieces. I don’t think they are correct. We finish third in the metro or take a wildcard spot this year. Bank on it.

Three things that catapult us to the playoffs:

  • Jenny Craig. I don’t actually believe any of the squad has run out and joined weight watchers, but all of Torts talks about the team being out of shape clearly resonated with the players. Dalton Prout is reported to have lost 11 lbs. Bobrovsky apparently went on a voluntary hunger strike and shed 17 lbs(!) as he believed it would increase his flexibility and help keep those groin issues at bay. Based on reports coming from the Dispatch team, it appears many came into camp this year a lot more play ready than in years past. Was it simply the threat of Torts grueling camp schedule or was their some locker room leadership regarding off-season activities? Who cares, this is a significant improvement based on reports from the last three years.
  • That blue line. Youth springs eternal on our blue line, but of greater import is the fact that we now possess a defensive core that has the ability to competently move the puck. Yes, they all need to further develop, but I think this lineup puts us ahead of the curve when it comes to adjusting to the new speed and possession style that appears to be overtaking the NHL. Werenski has the potential to really shine on the power play and I am truly excited to see what influence Brad Shaw has on our penalty kill after building the Blues into a PK machine the last two years. Outside of Gagner, Brad Shaw may be the biggest addition of the off-season.
  • The Hartnell decision to stay. I may be over-emphasizing this, but I don’t take it as a small thing that Hartnell decided to pull his approved team list and stay in Columbus. This guy has been around the NHL for a longtime and I cannot believe he would want to spend his last few seasons as an NHLer with a team that he didn’t believe has a real shot at winning.

Three things that lead to me buying makers mark by the case:

  • Bobrovsky’s health. It’s hard not to be excited about the showing Bob had at the world cup of hockey. There is not a doubt that our season most likely goes along with Bob’s save percentage. The top of the metropolitan division contains two teams (Pens, Caps) that are going to pepper the net early and often. While we have some quality youth coming up between the pipes, if Bob goes down again – or starts in the same manner that he did last season, give me a makers single ice cube and a labatt chaser. Hell, just put them in the same glass, I will make it work.
  • Offensive hesitancy. In order to score, you must shoot the puck. While Wennberg’s tendency to pass rather than shoot has been well documented, the truth is looking for the perfect play has gotten in the way of making really good plays for years on the Jackets offensive end. We finished 21 in the NHL in average shots on goal per game (29.1). Again, Brad Shaw is a big coaching addition that helps us to limit the shots against per game (we had the 4th highest average), but to win you have to put shots on frame and capitalize on some of those rebounds.
  • Lack of line chemistry. With last season in the bag, it seemed the lines were changing not by the game, but by the minute. Maybe Torts garnered some information about player skill sets that help us going into 16-17, but if we immediately go back into the cycle of having to change lines on the fly to try to generate offense it will be a red flag in my book. By no means am I saying set the lines and live with them until the end of the season, but chemistry is developed over time and there has to be some patience in letting our leaders in the locker room lead on the ice.

Here we go, this Thursday is the first game of the regular season. Bring on the Bruins, bring on the cannon, and bring on a season that proves many national pundits wrong.