COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Columbus Blue Jackets went to school in Hockeytown.
The Jackets, outclassed in their first two NHL playoff games in franchise history, left Detroit trailing 2-0 in their first-round series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.
But a sellout crowd of playoff-starved Columbus fans will fill Nationwide Arena on Tuesday night to support the Jackets in their home playoff debut. It's up to the players to prove they learned from the punishment administered to them on the road.
"I know it going to be challenging but I really believe that we can play at another level," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said of his team, which has shown resiliency all season.
"I think we have the mental capability. We've prepared for this type of game really since September. All the barking and scratching and complaining and demanding things was for this time. Our problem has been that we have not been able to sustain the level for 60 minutes."
Aside from the first half of Game 1, and other random moments of five-on-five play, Detroit has overwhelmed the young Blue Jackets. Columbus came out strong in the series-opener and generated numerous scoring chances on Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood but was unable to capitalize.
Detroit eventually took a 1-0 lead on a Jiri Hudler goal in the second period of that game and Columbus immediately responded with an equalizer by R. J. Umberger. Since that moment, the Wings have dominated with superior puck possession, traffic in front of rookie goalie Steve Mason and a lethal power play that cashed in three times in Game 2 alone.
"It's tough hockey," said captain Rick Nash, who's finding little room to operate in his first playoff series. "They're a good team.
"We're going to play the same way we've played all year. We've been trying that the first couple games and it hasn't been working. But we're back at home. We'll be a bit more comfortable and we'll have a lot more energy in front of our fans."
Despite facing their Central Division rival six times during the regular season (each team won three games), the Jackets saw a Detroit team that was humming in the first two meetings. The Red Wings' complete play was reminiscent of their 4-0 dismantling of the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Mar. 15, a game that prompted Hitchcock to suggest Detroit might not have much competition if they continue to play that way throughout the spring.
"The alarm bell went off for me after that 4-0 game," Hitchcock said of the final regular-season meeting. "I left here thinking, there's the top level."Â??Â??
The Red Wings brought that exact game to the post-season and have outscored the Jackets 8-1 at Joe Louis Arena.
"It was really fast," said defenceman Rostislav Klesla. "I was expecting it because playing the Red Wings, you always have to be ready, even in the regular season. But it felt like they stepped it up a level. You have to really focus on the skating and not giving up anything."
Luck hasn't been with the Jackets either. Four of the eight goals Detroit scored were deflected behind Mason, though the Jackets understand they cannot put themselves in bad position by taking unnecessary penalties.
"We realize that we have a lot of work to do in order to even this series up," said Mason. "We're a confident bunch still.
"We have no time to be nervous in front of the home crowd. We have to come out with a great effort in the first 10 minutes and make sure that we're putting the pressure on them and putting them on their heels for a change."
Columbus will be looking to make Osgood work much harder in Games 3 and 4. The three-time Stanley Cup winner made some big saves early in the opener but was rarely tested after that. Columbus had few second-chance opportunities on the veteran goaltender but that's because there weren't many initial opportunities according to centre Michael Peca.
"It allows the goalie, who may not have had the highest level of confidence in himself, to gain confidence because he's feeling the puck, he's making saves," said Peca. "When a goalie doesn't face those second chances and we're not pushing to the net, he's playing comfortable. "We have to make sure we change that tomorrow."
Speed through the neutral zone was a point of emphasis at Monday's skate, the desired result being more chances and more traffic. But Hitchcock admitted that Detroit isn't the type of team that can be intimidated by crease congestion or a punishing hit. The goal for Columbus, he said, is to respond with a more sound and consistent game.
"One play isn't going to shake them up," said Hitchcock. "It's going to be the cumulative minutes we have to put in.
"I think it's been an eye-opener for anybody that's played them," the coach added. "These are unbelievable lessons. I saw a huge difference today in practice because of what we experienced in the first two games."
Hitchcock said it was the Jackets that "cracked first" in Detroit. A more sustained effort will be required if Columbus hopes to make it a series.
The crowd at Nationwide Arena, which grew progressively louder as the season wore on, could help.
"I think it's going to be incredible," Peca said anticipating the noise. "Hopefully, it'll be like an OSU (Ohio State football) game."