The Columbus Blue Jackets accomplished so much in this season to remember.
The 93 points accumulated was a franchise record and earned the club its second berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and first since 2009. The Blue Jackets earned their first playoff victory in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the second-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 4, Columbus had a comeback for the ages, erasing a three-goal deficit to take a 4-3 win to even the best-of-7 series at two games apiece.
But all of those accomplishments and the excitement they brought to this emerging hockey market were scant consolation when Pittsburgh snuffed another desperate rally by the Blue Jackets in Game 6 to escape with a 4-3 victory and end the highly entertaining and ultra-competitive series.
Columbus will have plenty of time to savor what it accomplished during the summer. For now, here are five reasons why the Blue Jackets couldn't extend their season any further.
1. Big-game nerves
The Blue Jackets have never played games as big as the ones during the past two weeks. At times, they handled the spotlight with amazing composure for a team truly undergoing a playoff baptism of sorts. At other times, there was definitely the need for more composure. They blew two multiple-goal leads (a sin of which the more experienced Penguins were also guilty), endured a streak of 97:26 bridging Game 5 and Game 6 in which they could not score a goal, and with their season on the line they came out, in their own words, not good enough to start a do-or-die Game 6.
2. Lack of killer instinct
In Game 1, Columbus scored a shorthanded goal in the first minute of the second period to go up 3-1. Less than three minutes later, it was a tie game on the strength of back-to-back power-play goals by the Penguins 45 seconds apart. Pittsburgh went on to win 4-3, and the Blue Jackets missed a chance to send a loud-and-clear message to start the series. In Game 3, Columbus took leads of 2-0 and 3-1, but couldn't hold either. Pittsburgh scored less than five minutes after Cam Atkinson made it 3-1, the first of three goals in a span of 3:13. Pittsburgh was looking at a 2-1 deficit in the series, but wiggled out of trouble to take the upper-hand. Columbus never won a game in which it scored first or led after either of the first two periods.
GAA: 3.17 | SVP: 0.908
Sergei Bobrovsky had a .908 save percentage for the series, the same number put up by his counterpart from Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury. That .908 save percentage is better than several playoff goalies had in the first round, including Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, who won his first-round series, and Ryan Miller, the trade-deadline acquisition of the St. Louis Blues. But it wasn't good enough to win this series. To win against the higher-seeded Penguins, the Blue Jackets needed to enjoy a clear superiority in the goaltending matchup, especially with the struggles Fleury has had in the past few postseasons. It didn't happen.
4. Inconsistent kill
The Blue Jackets scored some huge shorthanded goals, including one in Game 6 which fueled a comeback in the third period that fell just short. But they also gave up some huge power-play goals. As mentioned earlier, the Penguins' power play in Game 1 saved them. In Game 5, a power-play goal by Chris Kunitz erased a 1-0 deficit and started a three-goal run in Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory. In Game 6, Evgeni Malkin scored the second of his three goals on the power play, giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead in an eventual 4-3 victory in the game which eliminated Columbus. For the series, Columbus only killed 79.3 percent of the power plays it faced, the 10th best kill percentage of the teams in the playoffs.
5. Bad luckWith all of the above said, this series was as even as a six-game series could be. Every game except Game 5 was decided by a goal. The Blue Jackets played the Penguins closer than many had a right to imagine. Columbus got some bounces -- Game 4 mishaps by Fleury as an example -- but a well-placed break here or there in the other games and we could have been looking at an anything-can-happen Game 7 on Wednesday.
"They gave us everything we could handle," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said after Game 6.