As Columbus welcomes playoffs, looking back at other first-timers

It's OK to be a little jealous of the Columbus Blue Jackets fans tonight. You always remember your first time, no matter how awkward it was.

Down 0-2 to the Detroit Red Wings, and thoroughly dominated by the defending champs, the Jackets' best hope for Stanley Cup playoff salvation is in the Nationwide Arena, where the first two home playoff games in franchise history will be played this week.

Special lower-priced tickets went on sale today, prompting lines of Columbus fans to camp out for the chance to snag them. Coach Ken Hitchcock said the atmosphere in the city is incredible for the team, even down two games:

"I think everyone is happy and proud and the buzz in the city is that we matter again; we're more of the fabric and not just kind of the also-rans," Hitchcock said. "We matter and we have our time in the city just like OSU (Ohio State) has their time, but we matter right now and that's the most important thing."

Of course, the arena seats won't all be filled with playoff virgins. Red Wings fans will no doubt infiltrate Game 3, and arena workers are ready to find octopi smugglers attending the game -- even ones saran-wrapped to the body.

The keys for Game 3 are clear: Get Rick Nash rolling, as the BeeJays load up a top line of Nash, Antoine Vermette and Kristian Huselius; and play a more structured style of hockey that cuts down on the mistakes the Wings have been preying on.

How much of a boost will playing the first postseason home game in franchise history have on the Jackets? We looked back as some other "expansion era" playoff home debuts for comparison -- including two against the Red Wings.

Game 1 (April 16, 1997): Mighty Ducks of Anaheim 4, Phoenix Coyotes 2

Teemu Selanne's first full season on the Ducks, playing against his now-relocated former team. Ron Wilson was behind the bench, and 36-year-old Jari Kurri was on the playoff roster. Mighty Ducks, indeed.

Game 1 (April 12, 2007): Atlanta Thrashers 3, New York Rangers 4

When Blueland hit the big time, even if for a moment. Please recall this was the only season the Thrash made the dance, and the year that GM Don Waddell traded for both Alexei Zhitnik and Keith Tkachuk. From USA Today:

Waddell took criticism from some who said he gave up too much for the four players, especially as all but Zhitnik can become unrestricted free agents in the summer. Waddell pointedly disagrees.

"For the franchise to be able to hang that first banner next year, regardless of what happens the rest of the way, is a big forward step for us," Waddell said. "Obviously we want to go deep in the playoffs. But the regular season is important, and whatever we paid for players - and at the time I didn't think it was too much - I can sit here now and say it wasn't too much."

Braydon Coburn disagrees. But thanks you, sir.

The Rangers would sweep the series and won Game 3 at MSG, 7-0.

Game 1 (April 17, 1996): Florida Panthers 6, Boston Bruins 3

Ah, the Year of the Rat. Before a packed Miami Arena, the Panthers scored three goals in 90 seconds during the first period to stun the Bruins:

Stu Barnes, FTW.

Game 3 (April 14, 2003): Minnesota Wild 0, Colorado Avalanche

An electric crowd in Minnesota could overcome Patrick Roy and the Avs. After the Wild dropped Game 4 at home, Coach Jacques Lemaire said they had no shot at winning the series ... until they did just with back-to-back overtime wins in Games 6 and 7.

Game 3 (April 11, 2004): Nashville Predators 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Hey, what do you know: a division rival playing their first postseason game against the Red Wings.

David Legwand and Adam Hall each scored in the first period, and Tomas Vokoun stopped 36 shots for the victory. But that paled in comparison to the news that VINCE GILL WAS AT THE GAME!

Nashville would also take Game 4 before falling in six to the Wings. 

Game 3 (April 21, 1997): Ottawa Senators 2, Buffalo Sabres 3

The Senators would eventually lose a scrappy series against the Sabres in seven games, but honestly there's no way we can mock a playoff newbie with some of the greatest names in hockey history assembled on the same roster: Ron Tugnutt, Lance Pitlick, Radek Bonk and, of course, Steve Duchesne.

Game 3 (April 22, 1994): San Jose Sharks 2, Detroit Red Wings 3

Yes, the Irbe series. Against the Wings again. What great memories, from a time when the Sharks were known as Cinderella's rather than postseason pumpkins. Ridiculous time for Sharks fandom as well, as Sports Illustrated revealed with its fan exposé on Sign Lady:

But the wittiest barbs in the Arena consistently come from a woman known only as the Sign Lady, whose slogans are usually more wholesome than the one she posted during a game in March against Toronto, which said IT MAY BE SPRING, BUT THE LEAFS BLOW. A visit by the New York Islanders in the regular season inspired KASPARAITIS CAN BE CURED IN OUR LIFETIME, a reference to grating Islander defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. During the series against Detroit, Red Wing coach Scotty Bowman was bedeviled by the mazelike passageways beneath the Shark Tank, twice having to pound on doors and call for help after locking himself in rooms. The Sign Lady editorialized:




The Sharks would beat the Wings in seven, and lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the same duration.

Game 3 (April 21, 1996): Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Philadelphia Flyers 4 (OT)

The playoff home game in the "Thunderdome" of Tampa. We'll let Sticks of Fire take the mic:

It was the greatest sporting event I've ever attended. Every second of the game was breathtaking; I say that not to be cliche, but because lack of oxygen might explain why I don't remember a second of the actual game before Alexander Selivanov (in case you're wondering, he's been playing in Germany) scored the game winner in overtime. 5-4 over the Philadelphia Flyers.

I do remember every second after the goal. I remember high-fiving every one of the 25.944 other people in attendance - some of them were Flyers fans, but I didn't mind. I remember one obnoxious Flyer fan getting a beer bath from one not terribly sporting Lightning fan. I remember helping my brother honk the horn at every other honking car from the ThunderDome all the way over the Gandy Bridge and well into Tampa.

Now that was a playoff atmosphere. Your move, Columbus.

(H/T to Hockey Reference for the history.)

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