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Jackets excited for first playoff game in Columbus

Tuesday, 04.21.2009 / 2:42 PM / 2009 Playoffs Conference Quarterfinals

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

COLUMBUS - Hockey fever has officially arrived in downtown Columbus at Nationwide Arena in anticipation of the first Stanley Cup Playoff contest in team history on Tuesday night.

"I don't think anybody considers you a legitimate franchise in the NHL until you've played in the playoffs," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We're in there now and we're a young team that has a lot of talented players, who, in my eyes are just going to get better. But you still have to be playing this time of the year to be considered legitimate and we're here."

The only negative to that equation is the fact the Blue Jackets drew the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings in this Western Conference Quarterfinal and find themselves in an uphill battle, down 0-2 entering Game 3 of this best-of-7.

"It's exciting to be playing in the first-ever game in Columbus and obviously we're going to need all the help we can get from our fans," said Columbus forward Rick Nash.

"It should be fantastic," said center Michael Peca. "These people have been waiting a long time for this and they're going to give us a big boost for sure. I think the important thing is we have to do what we can early in the game and throughout the game to keep the crowd into it."

Columbus rookie goalie Steve Mason, who has played as well as humanly possible in this series despite the hefty 4.00 goals-against average through two games, knows the atmosphere within the arena leading up to game time will be something unforgettable.

"It'll be a great experience; it's definitely time for this city to have some exciting playoff hockey," he said. "Obviously, we're not in the greatest position, down 0-2, but we'll be looking for the home support and hopefully win Game 3 and go from there.

"I really believe home ice can be an advantage for us and it could also discourage the other team. They're the seventh player on the ice and their noise and support gets the adrenaline going and will give us the advantage."

Blue Jackets center R.J. Umberger, who played collegiately at nearby Ohio State where he totaled 58 goals and 129 points in three seasons, is also ready to hear the roar of the crowd -- a familiar sound in the Buckeye State.

"It's just special to be a part of it all," Umberger said. "I'll always remember it and it'll be great if we can get a win."

Detroit coach Mike Babcock realizes his team will have to temper their emotions during the opening minutes of Game 3 as the Blue Jackets feed off of their playoff-crazed fans.

"I would assume that since they're at home and it's the playoffs, it's their opportunity to rebound so we expect them to play really well," Babcock said. "We thought they played well in the two previous games (in Detroit) and we expect more of the same here."

Babcock actually has first-hand experience of the hockey in Ohio since he coached the American Hockey League's Cincinnati Mighty Ducks from 2000-01 to 2001-02, leading the club to the playoffs both years.

"The city must be real excited because they've been in the NHL a long time and they have unbelievable fan support," he said. "I used to come here about twice a month when I was coaching in Cincinnati and the crowd was always great. It's a nice building and the downtown area has grown to support it and that's fantastic."

The Blue Jackets posted a 25-13-3 record (53 points) at Nationwide Arena during the regular season, setting club records for wins and points in a season. Now, they hope to establish new records in the postseason before the hometown faithful.

"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."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.
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