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Columbus ready to rock as playoff hockey returns

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- Fans began lining up at 5 a.m. Monday outside Nationwide Arena for the few tickets the Columbus Blue Jackets hold back every game day.

By 10 a.m., a radio station had put up a tent near the ticket office to host programming throughout the day, and inside the home of the Blue Jackets, the red, white and blue bunting had been installed around the arena seating.

Monday is no ordinary day in Blue Jackets history, because the first Stanley Cup Playoff game in nearly five years is coming to Columbus.

Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert can't wait to step onto the ice at 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN, CBC, RDS, FS-O, ROOT) and hear the roar of the fans as well as the cannon that greets the players' entrance for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The best-of-7 series is tied at one game apiece after Columbus won the first postseason game in franchise history, a 4-3 overtime decision Saturday in Game 2 in Pittsburgh.

"They were really pushing for us to make the playoffs last season and it was really awesome," said Calvert, who scored the winning goal. "I can only imagine it's going to be five times what that was. The fans are passionate here. They finally get to see some playoff hockey. It's going to be great."

The last postseason game at Nationwide Arena was April 23, 2009, when the Blue Jackets' inaugural run ended quickly in a four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings with a 6-5 loss.

RJ Umberger, Jared Boll and Fedor Tyutin are the lone Blue Jackets still left from that season, but the players got an example of how crazy the arena can be in the 2013 regular-season finale when Columbus had to beat the Nashville Predators to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

"There's a lot of energy in the building," Columbus coach Todd Richards said. "You saw it last year (against Nashville). Our last game against Phoenix (April 6) there was great energy, and tonight it's going to be elevated to a different level.

"The city has earned this. The fans have earned this. Our players have earned it. The organization has earned it, but now we've got to use it the right way."

The players couldn't help but notice the attention they're getting, whether it's the "Go Jackets" in lights on Nationwide Arena or the "Let's Go Jackets" banner signed by school kids and children from an area hospital that greeted the players Sunday as they walked to the locker room.

"The past few weeks, ever since we've been a playoff contender, this city has done a great job of getting involved and supporting us," Columbus forward Derek MacKenzie said. "The last couple of days you can definitely tell, more people are watching. More people are excited.

"We never get sick of hearing a story about where someone was watching a game or why it was so exciting. We've waited a long time for this, so it's great to see."

What the players and a national TV audience will hear is the new rallying cry that started organically in the last home game against the Phoenix Coyotes. Since the team's inception the rallying cry was "Let's Go Jackets!" but spurred by the latest supporters' group, #WeAreThe5thLine, a throaty chant of "CBJ, CBJ!" cheered the team in the closing minutes.

Undoubtedly, Nationwide Arena will be rocking. The question is how many fans will be cheering for the road team. Before the Blue Jackets arrived in 2000, most of the area hockey fans followed Detroit or Pittsburgh, and the 185-mile drive west to Ohio's capital city from the Steel City allows hordes of Penguins backers to flood the arena.

So much so that Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson said last week he didn't feel like Columbus had played a home game this season against the Penguins despite hosting three games.

"You get a lot of real, blue-collar fans that travel from Pittsburgh," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Regardless of who the fans are rooting for, the whole energy in the building is really good."

Penguins forward Chris Kunitz praised the crowds at Nationwide Arena.

"This is an exciting building to play in, especially toward the end when they were pushing for the playoffs, so I can imagine what it's going to be like for their first home game in a while," he said. "It's a building the fans get into it. It's an energizing building, not necessarily intimidating. It's an enjoyable building to play in for both teams."

There is one thing that Orpik and his teammates can do without.

"That cannon scares the [heck] out of everyone," he said. "Every time you come out you forget about it. The less you hear, the better. Hopefully you'll only hear it once at the beginning of the game."

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