Playoff matchup against Capitals a needed reprieve for CBJ fans tired of seeing Pittsburgh in the first round

With the Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals set to commence their first round NHL playoff series (Game 1 is Thursday, April 12, at Capital One Arena in D.C.), hopefully, the issue of whether the Jackets tanked their regular-season finale to avoid the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round has been set aside. As if the Capitals are somehow less imposing of a matchup.

I don't buy the Jackets purposefully ducking the Penguins, but I admit I'm glad it worked out that way, for my health anyway. True confession time: I'm from Pittsburgh, and I was raised a Penguins fan.

My dad was a fan of the Pittsburgh Hornets, the minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the NHL expanded to Pittsburgh, I was a year old. Hockey posters, hockey cards, hockey books, hockey gear — all became the stuff that made up my childhood, even though my team was bad.

I was a resident of Central Ohio and still a Penguins fan when the team won two Stanley Cups in the early '90s. Around this same time, I became a season-ticket holder for the Columbus Chill. In the late '90s, when the NHL announced expansion to Columbus, I knew I would have to make a decision. Since I knew I would be a season ticket holder, and since Columbus was now my “home” town, I chose the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets as my number one NHL team.

That did not sit well with many longtime friends, or many of my Columbus friends who, like me, were western Pennsylvania (or Ohio Valley) expats. And don't get me started on what people from Columbus who were Penguins fans and didn't renounce said when the Blue Jackets joined the league. They're the worst.

So these past couple playoff matchups against Pittsburgh have resulted in extra grief for me. Add in that the CBJ's inaugural foray into the postseason involved the Detroit Red Wings, and it's about time the Jackets played a team without a built-in Columbus fan base.

I'm sure I can work up a pretty good hate on the Capitals, too, over the next couple weeks. Agitator/pugilist/cheap-shot artist Tom Wilson alone should see to that. Maybe CBJ Head Coach John Tortorella will have another heated exchange with Capitals star forward Alexander Ovechkin (although Torts was quick to apologize for his part in the brief war of words during a game at Nationwide Arena on Feb. 26).

Of course it's not hate or trash talk that will decide this series, which shapes up as pretty balanced, despite Washington having ranked among the NHL elite for the better part of a decade. The Capitals boast a roster that includes some highly skilled forwards — besides Ovi, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov are obvious concerns. But the Capitals are not particularly deep on defense, and head coach Barry Trotz must navigate a conundrum in goal, as established starter Braden Holtby has struggled while youngster Philipp Grubauer has excelled of late.

For the Jackets' part, I like the entire forward group a little better, even if it does lack top-end firepower (Artemi Panarin notwithstanding); the CBJ are deep and strong on the blueline; and maybe goalie Bob can find his playoff footing this go-round.

I don't do predictions. I'll say that whichever team's forward group can apply the most pressure to the opponent's defense will win the series. And should the Jackets win, I'll (mostly happily) deal with the prospects of a second-round matchup with Pittsburgh then.