Earlier this week, Falcons coach Brad Larsen thought about the possibility of playing the "defending champions" of the American Hockey League and seemed genuinely excited about it.
While the Syracuse Crunch didn't technically win the Calder Cup a year ago, several players on its roster played for the Norfolk Admirals before the Tampa Bay Lightning switched AHL affiliations in the offseason. The Admirals' run, fueled by many of the brightest young prospects in the Lightning organization, was as impressive as it was dominant - with the Admirals going on a record-setting win streak en route to the postseason.
Some of the players at the core of Norfolk's championship run - Cory Conacher up front and Radko Gudas and Mike Kostka on defense - have moved on to different organizations or are now full-time NHL players with the Lightning. But there remains a dynamic, committed group with the Crunch and it showed in a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
The Crunch also spent several weeks atop the league standings before Springfield and the Texas Stars caught fire.
This conference semifinal series will be a big test for the Falcons, who are coming off a four-game triumph over the structured, disciplined Manchester Monarchs - a team they know very well. Springfield knows less about the Crunch having played only two regular-season meetings against one another, but all it takes is one look at the stat sheet to know that Syracuse can pretty much score at-will.
Springfield won 5-3 over the Crunch at the MassMutual Center on Feb. 1 - a game that featured the top two top teams in the Eastern Conference at the time) and Syracuse earned the season split with a 3-0 win at War Memorial three weeks later.
The series gets underway with two games this weekend at The Nest, beginning with Game 1 on Friday night. Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday night before the series shifts to Syracuse for three games next week, and if necessary, Games 6 and 7 will be played in Springfield.
For two pretty historic teams in the AHL, it's a bit surprising that this will be their first ever meeting in the playoffs.
Here's the series schedule:
Game 1 – Friday, May 10, 7 p.m. MassMutual Center
Game 2 – Saturday, May 11, 7 p.m., MassMutual Center
Game 3 – Wednesday, May 15, 7 p.m., War Memorial Arena
Game 4 – Friday, May 17, 7 p.m., War Memorial Arena
Game 5 - Saturday, May 18, 7 p.m., War Memorial Arena (if necessary)
Game 6 - Tuesday, May 21, 7 p.m., MassMutual Center (if necessary)
Game 7 - Wednesday, May 22, 7 p.m., MassMutual Center (if necessary)
No disrespect to the United States' team in the IIHF World Championships, but with all of the offensive firepower on Russia's roster, a 3-3 tie entering the third period of their preliminary round match-up was already an upset.
The first two periods were back-and-forth, exciting hockey with four goals between the two teams in the first 14 minutes of the game - two of those coming off the stick of Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny, who has been anchoring the top line for Team USA. Russia opened the scoring, though, set up by a nice play from Blue Jackets center Artem Anisimov, who drew a delayed penalty in the offensive zone and proceeded to carry the puck along the half wall.
Anisimov made a quick dish to the left point where veteran defenseman Denis Denisov sent a one-time pass over to Anton Belov, who wired a one-time blast past U.S. goaltender Ben Bishop at 5:23 of the first period. That was just the start of the offense, as Stastny scored his two goals in the next eight minutes (back-to-back) to give the Americans a 2-1 lead.
Like many leads in this game, Team USA's lead in the first period did not last long. Set up deftly by Ilya Nikulin in the neutral zone, Ilya Kovalchuk snapped his tournament-best fifth goal of the Worlds by Bishop's blocker side to tie the game once again at 14:04.
The Blue Jackets came a point shy of a Stanley Cup playoff berth after a remarkable run to end the regular season, but they wouldn't have been in contention without a goaltender who came up big for them like clockwork.
At the NHL Draft in Pittsburgh last June, Columbus paid a price of only draft picks to acquire 24-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky, a promising young netminder who saw his opportunity for playing time evaporate with the signing of a big-name free agent. He welcomed a new beginning with the Blue Jackets, and in a short period of time, authored quite a story along with his teammates who nearly shocked the hockey world.
More affectionately known as "Bob," Bobrovsky has quickly become a household name in Columbus and had his own "Top 10" highlight reel on the NHL Network this season.
Bobrovsky was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy this morning, annually awarded to the player voted to be the league's best goaltender by NHL general managers. The award winner is usually announced at the NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas, but due to a compressed schedule, the league will announce the winner during the Stanley Cup Final.
The other finalists for the Vezina Trophy are Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks (who just eliminated the Vancouver Canucks in a four-game sweep last night) and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.
One of the most common questions on exit day at Nationwide Arena was whether Blue Jackets players were headed to the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Stockholm and Helsinki - and one of the most common answers was "no."
Several of those players invited or under consideration from their national teams (Cam Atkinson, Jack Johnson for Team USA among them) declined to participate in this year's tournament for the purpose of getting healthy after injuries piled up down the stretch of an intense playoff run. But two Blue Jackets - Artem Anisimov and Fedor Tyutin - accepted invites from their native Russia and are taking part in the tournament.
They are the only Blue Jackets in this year's tournament after a handful were involved a year ago, namely Johnson - who served as captain for the United States on a squad that also included Atkinson after his rookie NHL season.
Marian Gaborik, acquired by Columbus at the NHL trading deadline in a blockbuster deal, had committed to play for Slovakia at the World Championships but experienced abdominal discomfort near the end of the season.
Gaborik visited a specialist in Philadelphia last week and it was determined that surgery was the best option, taking him out of the Worlds with a 3-4 week recovery period.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the regular column of Rob Mixer, writer for BlueJackets.com. You can follow Rob on Twitter (@RobMixer) and follow his work on the CBJ Today blog.
It was the first day of March and I was posted up at one of our Buffalo Wild Wings viewing parties - most likely making short work of some pickle chips - when a friend texted me to let me know these were the "same old Jackets."
Not only did that phrase make my blood boil, I was flabbergasted in reading it and couldn't figure out why my friend would say this. Had he watched the game, a 4-3 overtime loss at the United Center in Chicago when the Blue Jackets' sixth defenseman arrived in an airport cab halfway through the first period? Did he not understand the collective resolve that this club had shown despite a number of one-goal losses?
At the time, none of this mattered and I was a little ticked off. I simply replied: "You're wrong. Just wait."
Over the next few weeks, the image of that text message replayed in my head but it no longer upset me. It made me think and ponder why my friend felt that way about a team that was obviously different than those which came before it. As someone who was born and raised in this wonderful city, I was confident that I was right but I was also *really* hoping that I would eventually be right.
And I wasn't naive enough to gloss over the obvious (a 5-12-2 record and last place in the Western Conference at the time), of course, but I really wanted to figure out if said friend was the only person who had those feelings - and if he wasn't, then why?
This year's Scotiabank NHL Draft Lottery was largely uneventful...until the final two spots in the order.
With an 18.8 percent change leap frog over the Florida Panthers (owners of the lottery's best odds at 25 percent), the Colorado Avalanche won the lottery and will select No. 1 overall at the 2013 NHL Draft, to be held June 30 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Widely considered to be the "Seth Jones sweepstakes," the Avalanche get the opportunity to select the 18-year-old defense prospect who grew up playing hockey in the Mile High City.
The Blue Jackets, owners of three total first-round picks in this year's draft after the Rick Nash and Jeff Carter trades, are new owners of the 14th overall pick in the first round. The final order will be determined upon conclusion of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin with first-round series on Tuesday night.
Here's a brief breakdown of the Blue Jackets' history in the draft lottery:
Under this system, the Blue Jackets had the most regular-season points and smallest chance (0.5%) of winning the lottery. The percentage chance of being selected in the 2013 Scotiabank Draft Lottery was as follows, based on team finish: Florida (25.0 pct.), Colorado (18.8 pct.), Tampa Bay (14.2 pct.), Nashville (10.7 pct.), Carolina (8.1 pct.), Calgary (6.2 pct.), Edmonton (4.7 pct.), Buffalo (3.6 pct.), New Jersey (2.7 pct.), Dallas (2.1 pct.), Philadelphia (1.5 pct.), Phoenix (1.1 pct.), Winnipeg (0.8 pct.) and COLUMBUS (0.5 pct.).
Much of the credit surrounding the Blue Jackets' dramatic turnaround in 2012-13 rightfully goes to the players in the dressing room - namely goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky - but the players were quick to point out another deserving party.
When the season could have easily gone off the rails in late February with the Blue Jackets sporting a 5-12-2 record and occupying last place in the Western Conference, the club needed a steady hand that could reinforce the positives from the first month of the season. The Blue Jackets found themselves on the wrong end of seemingly countless one-goal games and were gripping the sticks tight, but they found a way through it.
James Wisniewski, a guy who has been around the NHL for a few years and played for different kinds of coaches, was particularly impressed with how positive and supportive Todd Richards and his coaching staff were through some of the roughest patches of the season.
Rather than making drastic changes and looking for a shake-up, Richards kept morale high and kept the group focused on one game at a time. As is well-known by now, the Blue Jackets used that approach to climb back into the playoff picture and leave the basement faster than a kid scared of the dark.
"They really just let us be the group that we had, and formed and molded their coaching styles to what we had," Wisniewski said. "You can ask anyone: we obviously weren't the most talented group on the ice, but you couldn't beat our work ethic and that just showed we really were a blue-collared, hard-working team."
While always holding the benefit of hindsight, the consensus among Blue Jackets players was that had the season not ended when it did, it had the chance to be special.
Heading down the stretch, this was a club that posted a 19-5-4 record since Mar. 1 and went from last place into the thick of a playoff race. The Blue Jackets played their best hockey when it counted, but unfortunately, they came up one point shot of the second playoff berth in franchise history.
But one positive was to end the season the way they did: in front of a sold-out Nationwide Arena with an atmosphere unlike any they've experienced in Columbus. That was the common refrain coming from the players as they cleaned out lockers, went through exit physicals and interviews before heading into the offseason today.
The emotions were still very raw from last night's extreme high to extreme low in about 10 minutes, RJ Umberger said, and the most difficult part was balancing how proud they were with their late-season run with the disappointment of not getting the job done.
At the very least, Umberger said, the Blue Jackets established a standard of going into every game with an expectation of winning.
"As a group, we learned how to win hockey games," Umberger said. "I think we have a foundation of how we want to play here, a work ethic, and a group that's shared a lot together this year. I think the majority of us will be back, and I think it's a great foundation to build off of."