It all started sometime in January. I realized that I had not taken a good look at the schedule at the beginning of the season to find any away games that I might be able to go to. See, I have this goal of seeing the Lightning play in the homes of all 30 NHL teams. So far, I've only had three checked off; the Lightning (of course), the Florida Panthers, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
At that point of the schedule inspection, I didn't see much that was making me excited particularly since I was just looking to make a weekend trip somewhere. Then there on the calendar sat a game in Columbus. A Sunday game which was underwhelming, but upon further inspection I noticed it was a 3pm game.
I began checking available flights and soon found that Southwest Airlines has non-stop service between Tampa International Airport and Port Columbus International Airport. On top of that, the prices weren't exorbitant and the flight times gave me plenty of cushion to make the game work. To keep it as cheap as possible, I had a 6:20 am flight out of Tampa. Coming up from Sarasota, that meant I needed to factor in an hour's drive to get to the airport. Unfortunately, daylight savings time exists and I ended up with very little sleep, having woken up at 4 AM (which was really 3 AM in my mind) to get to the airport on time. Fortunately security was quick and I made my way to my gate.
My plane was already there and ready to be boarded. Now, if you're not familiar with Southwest, they don't do assigned seating like most other airlines. Instead, you are assigned a position in the boarding process based on the order that everyone checks in. I had a late start to checking in and was somewhere around the last third of passengers to board. Instead, I shelled out an extra $30 (nice gimmick) to put myself at the front of the line which let me pick a window seat in the first row, which got me extra leg room and assured I'd be one of the first people off the plane. Worth it.
I got a little bit of sleep during the flight, but not much and arrived in Columbus to overcast skies and rain.
I made my way out to baggage claim and the passenger pick-up area where I was met by my friend's Annabelle and her mother, Liz. Annabelle is on spring break this week and she and her mom were driving to Michigan to see family, deciding to stop in Columbus to see the game. Upon finding out about this before even booking my flight, we started talking and decided to spend the day together and have fun watching some hockey.
We made our way downtown to the North Market. Let me just say that the North Market is a really cool place and I wish there was something like it in Sarasota or even in Tampa for that matter. There were a bunch of little shops, and as I understand it they sometimes open up stalls outside on weekends like a flea market. There's also a large variety of restaurants with many ethnic food groups represented; BBQ, a kosher deli, Indian, Thai, Sushi, Cupcakes, Donuts, a bakery, and other places too. I've been there a few times and have sampled from multiple places, but I decided to go with the pizza this time because I had a little craving.
After the North Market, we made our way over to Nationwide Arena just a few blocks away. One of the things that stands out to me with the venue is that there are a multitude of restaurants and bars surrounding the arena. There were plenty of places to go for a pre- or post-game meal and drinks. I really wish that Amalie Arena had better restaurants around it and hopefully with the development of Vinikville that will come with time.
We made a lap around the arena just to see every way around. On one side, we could see through windows into what must be the team's practice rink. There, we saw a women's hockey game being played, the Penguins versus the Blue Jackets. It looked exciting though I think we distracted the Penguins goalie for a moment. Anyways, we went around and figured out that there were two entrances with little plaza's outside. Unfortunately, there was nothing going on outside. No music, no entertainment, nothing. Oh well. We hung out waiting for the doors to open. We took some pictures and found a very nice Blue Jackets fan wearing a Hall of Fame jersey who was more than ready to talk hockey.
When we finally gained entrance to the arena, the first thing we did was go to the cannon to get our pictures taken. The one rule they had was "You have to take off your jersey!" The guy was kidding of course, but the only real rule they had was don't touch the barrel. Easy enough.
We then made our way down to the glass near the bench for warm-ups and waited for the team to arrive on the ice. There were a good number of Lightning fans around. The usher was super nice and apparently had been working for Columbus for a good number of years. The only rule was that if someone came that had the seats were we standing in front of, we had to move. Reasonable enough, they did pay for the seats after all. We watched about half of warm ups before having to move to the second row because of people coming to their seats.
Warm-ups came and went,, time to take our seats and wait for the game to start. The Zamboni entrance was right to our left. The Blue Jackets players came out through that entrance for their pregame announcements, but for the rest of the game used the entrance to the locker room directly from their bench.
We were on the end that the Lightning attacked twice and got some immediate action with the first power play of the game down on our end.
While we did not score on that first power play, there was a lot of action through the first period as the Bolts controlled the play early on. When Columbus put the puck in the net during the first period, we initially didn't see the referees signal or the goaltender interference. Two replays were shown in the arena, but only the second one, an overhead view, really showed the play and even then was not very conclusive. Up until this point, the Blue Jackets fans had been very quiet. They then had a reason to make noise though as they began to boo. When the refs came off the ice down the Zamboni entrance at the end of the first period, they were pelted with boos.
During the second period, the boos continued whenever Ben Bishop touched the puck and even escalated to goalie taunting. We had a very nice family of four sitting next to us and I turned to the father and said "They're tempting the hockey gods. You don't taunt a goalie in a 0-0 game." About two minutes later, Steven Stamkos scored. Unfortunately for us, it was on the other end of the ice, but little did we know we'd be in for a treat in the third period.
Later in the second, we also saw Nick Foligno take out Ben Bishop. As soon as it happened, Jackets fans on that end of the arena stood up and began to cheer. It then turned to boos as Foligno was (correctly) escorted to the box. In addition, Dalton Prout received the roughing minor and misconduct for a sucker punch on Nikita Kucherov in that scrum and likely will be suspended for one or two games.
It was pretty clear from our spot in the stands that the Blue Jackets were playing dirty, even without the aid of replay or being able to see the other end of the ice very well from our corner seats. It only got worse in the third period as the Lightning would go on to pick up an insurance goal from Vladislav Namestnikov on a Prout turnover. That was followed up by two short handed goals from Stamkos and Ondrej Palat. On both of those shorties I was coming out of my seat with them racing down the ice, knowing that those pucks would find the twine.
Unfortunately, Columbus continued to show their goon side. Rene Bourque was running around, charging at players and trying to land big, borderline illegal hits. Thankfully, he mostly missed as he's not exactly a great skater. He did receive a 10 minute misconduct within the last minute of the game. Later checking the box score, it was an Instigator Misconduct which means he was trying to pick a fight. According to the NHL rulebook, that is also an automatic one game suspension though it is subject to review by the Director of Hockey Operations. It was followed by Matt Calvert taking a cheap shot slash at Brian Boyle right at the buzzer as well.
I understand that Columbus head coach John Tortorella is trying to instill a sense of toughness and hard work into this Blue Jackets club. However, he should be absolutely embarrassed by the way his team played this game. Cheap shots, dirty plays, and just plain being awful. I've seen from multiple Columbus fans on social media how embarrassed they were of the game. I ran into the fan with the Hall of Fame jersey on the way out and he told me he doubted he'd come to another Columbus game until he saw that change.
Bishop seemed to relish the boos and played lights-out in goal. The team somehow managed to weather multiple penalties in the third period while down two forwards and trying desperately to roll three undermanned lines. I loved what I saw of Mike Blunden and hope that he sticks with the team. At this point in the season, I'd rather have him than Erik Condra on the bottom line. With Brian Boyle, they can be our very own Bash Brothers. Size, grit, character and a dash of skill make up both of those players and they complement each other with their hard working, blue collar style of play. It's also important to note that the Lightning used one of their four recalls to bring up Blunden and made Condra and Jonathan Marchessault healthy scratches in favor of him.
During the intermissions, we got to explore the arena a little bit more. Below you can see a couple highlights, including a display showing all of the hats they've collected in the arena for Blue Jackets hat tricks.
After the game, I made my way back to the airport, got a cup of tea from Starbucks to wait out the two-and-a-half hours until my flight boarded, and came home. It was a long day, just over twenty hours from wake up to bed time. It was exhausting, but it was fun and well worth it. The Blue Jackets fans didn't cause any problems with us and we didn't cause any problems with them. While I won't make it to another away game this season, I'm already looking forward to planning some away games for 2016-17.