During our 20th anniversary celebration, BlueJackets.com will look back at a memorable moment in franchise history from that month with our Game of the Month feature. The series continues today with the team's 8-2 victory down the stretch against Detroit as part of the 2009 playoff run.
As 20,066 fans packed into Joe Louis Arena the night of March 7, 2009, they had certain expectations of what they would see.
The venerable building on the banks of the Detroit River had hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets on 24 previous occasions. The Red Wings had left victorious in 19 of them, with Columbus a paltry 5-17-2 in the iconic yet no-frills venue.
Things were familiar to those Red Wings fans. They'd walk up the steps of the old barn, be greeted by tight concourses and even tighter rafter space -- there were banners upon banners celebrating nearly a century of Red Wings accomplishments obscuring the light blue roof -- and watch a powerful Red Wings team remind the upstart Blue Jackets who was boss.
Instead, what they saw on this night was history.
Video: CBJ Moments: Unassisted Hat Trick
Not only did Columbus earn an 8-2 victory, setting franchise records for the most goals in a game and the club's largest margin of victory, but captain Rick Nash accomplished one of the rarest feats in NHL history. Nash notched his fourth career hat trick in the game, but all three goals were unassisted, making him the first player since the legendary Maurice Richard in 1948 and only the second player ever to do that.
Even now, Nash looks back and is floored he can share that little bit of NHL history -- thanks in part to the benefit of hindsight.
"I think I am more impressed now than I was when it actually happened," he recently told BlueJackets.com. "I don't think anyone has done it since, either, have they? It was crazy. It's something where everything went right, but I'm more amazed now than I was at the time. You think it would happen with all these games. That is the one thing that amazed me, how rare it was."
But even more exciting than the feat at the time was what it meant for the team's playoff hopes. Beyond Nash's monumental feat, the resounding victory still lives on as one of the signature victories in the team's first successful playoff push.
On Christmas morning in 2008, the thought of a first-ever Blue Jackets playoff appearance was not something on the minds of too many people in the capital city.
Coming off the first postseason flirtation in team history the year before, when Columbus stayed in the hunt for much of the year but ended up trading captain Adam Foote at the deadline, the Blue Jackets were 14-16-4 after back-to-back shutout losses Dec. 20 to Phoenix and Dec. 23 to Los Angeles.
It wasn't quite what general manager Scott Howson had in mind when he spent the offseason adding to what had been the lowest-scoring team in the NHL the year prior. It started June 20, 2008, when he acquired former Ohio State forward R.J. Umberger for a pair of draft picks. Sensing a chance to bolster a roster that was building around Nash and skilled youngsters like Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard and Kris Russel, Howson was busy in free agency, signing creative forward Kristian Huselius and adding rugged defenseman Mike Commodore.
In other deals, Raffi Torres came over from Edmonton in exchange for Gilbert Brule, while the defense was shored up in a trade with the New York Rangers that netted Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman for Dan Fritsche and Nikolai Zherdev.
It didn't all click immediately under head coach Ken Hitchcock, but perhaps some fans did unwrap a CBJ turnaround under the Christmas tree. Columbus won four games in a row after the Christmas break, with rookie goalie Steve Mason setting a team record with three straight shutouts in the final trio of those games.
A few nights later Jan. 10 vs. Minnesota, Nikita Filatov became the first Jackets rookie with a hat trick in a 4-2 win over the Wild. On Jan. 27, Nash highlighted a solid 7-5-1 month for the team when he scored all three goals including the winner in overtime in a 3-2 win vs. Detroit at Nationwide Arena.
The Blue Jackets were even better in February, going 7-4-1 to reach 31-25-6 at the end of the month. That placed them sixth in the Western Conference with 68 points, but six teams were within three points of the Jackets as the month of March figured to be a wild one.
But looking back, Nash said the momentum the team built was pushing it as it eyed that first postseason appearance.
"I think a lot of that was what Ken Hitchcock brought here, the culture, having won the Stanley Cup that he did in Dallas and having us as young players understand what it takes," Nash said. "I think that had a big part of it, and it's funny -- when you win, you come together as a team. It just makes it that much easier when you're a tight-knit group. It seems like it really shows itself on the ice.
"Momentum builds and confidence builds, and it's funny, you build some swagger when you go into these rinks and you know you have a chance to win every night. It's tough to fit 22 or 25 personalities into a room and have everyone like each other, have everyone on the same page, have everyone with the same goal and not be selfish about their own contract or their own career. From what I've learned over the years, the most successful teams have guys that check their ego at the door, and that was one of those years."
Columbus started March with a loss at Vancouver, a win at home vs. Los Angeles and a loss at Nashville. The Saturday night showdown with Detroit loomed next.
A Saturday Smackdown
Going into The Joe and beating Detroit would be no easy task, and that's even beyond the history of the Jackets at the time in the venerable downtown arena. That Wings team would go on to win 51 games and come within a game of winning the Stanley Cup, as Mike Babcock's squad was led by such names as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Tomas Holmstrom, to name a few.
But if there was an Achilles heel on the team, it was defensively, as the NHL's top-scoring team on the season finished 19th in goals against. Chris Osgood struggled to an .887 save percentage in 44 starts, while Ty Conklin fared a little better, posting a 2.51 GAA and .909 save percentage.
Osgood got the start on this night and Columbus quickly took a 2-0 lead, with Torres scoring at 4:18 of the first and Umberger adding a goal four minutes later. Jason Williams made it a 3-0 game 13 minutes into the second period, then Nash got on the board at 15:40 when he tallied his fourth shorthanded goal of the year, breaking up a pass by Zetterberg, skating into the offensive zone on a breakaway and firing past Osgood's glove.
But Zetterberg got one back a minute and a half later, and it was a 4-1 game after two periods. Considering Columbus' history in the building, it wasn't enough to feel comfortable, but Nash took a little bit of the edge off just 15 seconds into the third when he scored to make it 5-1. Rafalski's pass from the wall went behind a teammate and right to Nash in the slot, and he had plenty of time to beat Osgood between the arm and his blocker for his 30th goal of the year.
From there, the floodgates opened. Umberger scored on a power play at 2:49 to make it 6-1, then Andrew Murray tallied 36 seconds later to make it 7-1 and end Osgood's night.
After Detroit's Aaron Downey made it 7-2, the stage was set for Nash to make history. He stole a puck off a Datsyuk pass at the defensive blue line, skated through the neutral zone and let go a slap shot as he hit the top of the left circle. Somehow, it snuck through Conklin, giving Columbus eight goals in a game for the first time ever and giving Nash the unassisted hat trick.
"It is unbelievable to do it against a franchise like this," Nash said in the postgame locker room. "(The three unassisted goals) is unheard of. I don't know how that happens."
"He's doing what most captains do right now; he trying to help us get in the playoffs," Hitchcock said.
Looking back, Nash feels it was an example of what can happen in a game where everything goes right.
"The one that always stands out is the (final) one coming down the left wing and the slap shot," he said recently. "I think out of all my (437) goals I scored in the NHL, I can probably count on one hand how many I scored with a slap shot. I just use that as a point that to score goals or get a hat trick, you need everything to go right. To score an unassisted one, you need a little help."
As Joe Louis Arena slowly emptied that night throughout the third period, a hearty group of blue-and-red clad souls remained. The drive from Columbus isn't that far, and a cadre of Blue Jackets fans made the trip and made their voices heard as the final moments ticked away.
"I do remember that," Nash said. "The 'C-B-J' chant wasn't around then, but it was 'Let's go Jackets' throughout Joe Louis Arena. It was pretty cool for a newer franchise and a team that had been trying to find their identity and they take their rival down. Obviously Detroit got the last laugh with sweeping us in the playoffs, but still, I feel like it was a big moment for our team to gain even more confidence. It was a big moment for the organization, for our fans, just to do that against a historic franchise."
As Nash said, the playoff dream would come true. The win in Detroit kicked off a four-game winning streak, and by the end what had been dubbed the "March to the Playoffs," Columbus posted a 9-4-2 record in the crucial month.
Then, on April 8, Nash put another stamp on CBJ history. With the Blue Jackets needing just a point to assure the first-ever postseason berth in franchise history in game No. 80, Nash scored in the final moments of a game vs. Chicago to tie the game and clinch the bid. Tyutin would go on to net the shootout winner, and Columbus was postseason bound, only to be swept by the Wings in a postseason rematch.
The clincher and the playoff run are sweet moments but slightly bitter given the passing of team majority owner and founder John H. McConnell during the previous summer. Looking back, Nash said he remembers two games vividly from that magical stretch run -- the clinching win in Chicago and the historic night in Detroit, memories that last a lifetime.
"It meant a lot to us as well," Nash said when told that playoff run sticks in the minds of the fan base. "I think it was in May when (Mr. Mac) passed, and it was a weird summer, just losing someone that had so much faith in the team and so much love for the city. So we always said he was up there helping us through that whole season.
"I still say to this day that one of my favorite goals by far is that one in Chicago. It's probably one of my ugliest goals but it meant the most to the city, to this organization and to Mr. Mac. It was a fun year, and I am with you, those are the two games from that year that stick out to me."