WASHINGTON, D.C. — The dried blood snaked across Nick Foligno's grill, bifurcating below his right eye and running down his puffy cheeks, even staining several mustache hairs dark red. It was miraculous that the Columbus Blue Jackets captain hadn’t required stitches—let alone an ambulance—when a slap shot cracked his visor and sliced his face early into Thursday night’s third period, leaving behind a trail of gory breadcrumbs as he fled the ice. Instead, he merely received some gnarly battle wounds, a dose of clotting spray that “stung like a bastard,” and clearance from trainers to rejoin his teammates on the bench in a tie game.
“I just told them, ‘Get me back out there. I’m not missing any time,’” Foligno said. “Wipe me off and let’s go.”
During his brief time backstage, Foligno looked around and took stock of the Blue Jackets’ thinned ranks. There was second-line center Alexander Wennberg, who had exited after getting clipped in the head less than a minute earlier. And rugged winger Josh Anderson, banished for boarding during the first period. Penalties, injuries, missing bodies, enough problems had mounted to break most teams. Yet there stood Foligno, smiling and laughing after a 4-3 overtime win over the Metro Division-champion Capitals, barely concerned about his maligned mug and, come to think of it, hardly worried about anything at all. “I really feel like we’re comfortable in these games,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’re a team that panics.”
Exhibit A unfolded at Capital One Arena. No one tensed when Washington center Evgeny Kuznetsov scored two power play goals after Anderson’s penalty; the Blue Jackets simply returned from intermission and killed the remaining 2:23 left on his major. No one stressed when the hosts regained the lead on a nifty spin-and-fire pass from Jakub Vrana to Devante Smith-Pelly in the third period; defenseman Seth Jones eventually pummeled the equalizer past goalie Philipp Grubauer on a man advantage with 4:26 left. Everyone rejoiced when Artemi “Bread Man” Panarin baked some overtime magic by beating Grubauer far side, bar down, giving Columbus its first playoff series lead in franchise history.
“Middle of the season, we’d find a way to lose these games,” Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky says. “We’d make a mistake and crack and try to push too far. Right now, we’re doing the opposite of that. We’re staying the same, playing the same. We have a lot of confidence. We know we can come back in games. I think we’re a really strong group right now.
“I don’t think anything makes us panic anymore.”
This resolve was forged through struggle. Last season, the Blue Jackets cruised to a franchise-record 108 points and 50 wins, relying on a scorching power play and stellar goaltending by eventual Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. They were bounced in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but could feel positive about outshooting the two-time Stanley Cup champs by 23 over the five-game series. “That was a fairytale,” Foligno says. “We didn’t go through anything. We’ve gone through everything this year. We’ve had to fight tooth and nail.”
It has culminated at the perfect time. A 10-game winning streak spanning most of March clinched the Blue Jackets’ postseason return, though consecutive losses last week dropped them into the wild-card spot to face Washington. The power play has been humming, converting at a 23.4 % clip since Feb. 15. Panarin closed the calendar ablaze with 13 points over his final five games. Even Dubinsky, sent home from a road trip in January and recently a healthy scratch, earned some pregame praise from coach John Tortorella for showing “good heart” in returning to the lineup.
“There was no nervousness,” Tortorella said. “They were having a ball. I’m just glad, early on in a series, that they get to experience something like this.”
As the scrum of reporters dissipated around Foligno, team president John Davidson approached and offered a congratulatory handshake, joking about how his captain might need to wear a goalie mask for Game 2. That is scheduled for Sunday night, enough time to allow the Capitals to address some thorny discipline issues—Tom Wilson’s charging and Andre Burakovsky’s tripping both led to third-period Columbus goals—and regain home-ice advantage. Of course, that will mean figuring out these scratch-and-claw Blue Jackets, bloodied all season but still stinging opponents like a bastard.
“We wanted to come here and get one,” Foligno says. “Now we’ve got to worry about two. Enjoy this, but know we have lots left to do.”