It was one of the loudest moments of the season in Nationwide Arena, and all the credit can’t go to the 20 or so members of the Blankenburg family that were in attendance Sunday afternoon.
Surely, they helped, but the rest of the noise has to be attributed to the Blue Jackets fans, who knew a special moment when they saw it, not to mention recognizing a fan favorite in the making.
The roof nearly came off the barn when Nick Blankenburg scored his first NHL goal, the game-winner in a 5-2 victory over playoff-bound Edmonton. It was even louder when Greg Murray announced Blankenburg’s accomplishment of him, one the rookie defenseman could still hardly believe when he spoke to the media postgame.
“No, I really can’t,” he said when asked if he could put the experience into words. “I can’t, really. I’m trying to think about it and I’m trying to hold on to a smile the whole time, I feel like it.
“Obviously, it’s a dream come true playing in your first game and getting your first point (April 13 vs. Montreal). Just to score a goal, especially at home, against Edmonton, to go up 3-2 with 10 minutes left, and getting a chance to go out on PP1, it’s just very special for me.
Video: EDM@CBJ: Blankenburg’s 1st NHL goal
The feeling seemed to be mutual among everyone in the barn, including his teammates. As Blankenburg pumped his arms and flashed a mile-wide smile on the ice when he scored the tiebreaking goal, veteran Jakub Voracek pointed to the young defenseman before embracing him in a bearhug. The rest of his teammates on the ice joined in with matching smiles, while Oliver Bjorkstrand raced to the net to retrieve the puck, which Blankenburg said will go to his parents.
The tally came on a wrist shot through traffic, with Blankenburg taking a pass from Bjorkstrand, faking a dish to Voracek and then wiring the puck past a screen set by Sean Curaly and into the net behind Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen before he could even see it.
“That was a big goal,” Voracek said. “Obviously, the first one is always huge. It was really good timing on that shot and a screen, so it was a huge goal for us. He’s been really good — on the puck, without the puck, physical. It’s been really impressive by him so far, so I’m happy for that.
One reason CBJ fans and teammates seem to have become so in love with the 23-year-old Blankenburg in just his first six games is he’s the underdog story come to life. A prep standout at Romeo High School, about 30 miles north of Detroit, he was passed over repeatedly for junior and college programs throughout his life, likely because of his diminutive stature.
But it was clear he always had will and skill, and the decision to play one last year of AAA hockey with Victory Honda led to a position change to defense. There, his battle level and ability to see plays develop turned out to be suited for the position, and enough people caught notice of his play that he was able to secure a spot with Okotoks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, a Tier II junior squad in Canada that often sends players to the NCAA level.
After one season with the Oilers, Blankenburg returned to his home state as a walk-on at the University of Michigan and earned immediate playing time on the blue line. But he didn’t get a scholarship until this season, the same year he was named team captain on perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent in college hockey history.
He’d go on to score 14 goals among 29 points and lead a team that got to the NCAA Frozen Four, and by the time he was done, there were plenty of NHL suitors. He chose Columbus because of a comfort level with the team — perhaps helped by the fact the Jackets also drafted UM teammate Kent Johnson — and quickly you have earned his stripes in Columbus.
Video: BLANKS GETS HIS FIRST GOAL
Blankenburg has moved up the defensive lineup through his first six games and has skated on both the power play and the penalty kill. In all, he has posted a goal and two assists, has topped 20 minutes twice in a game and drew part of the assignment against Connor McDavid on Sunday.
“You’re watching him, right?” head coach Brad Larsen said. “He’s a hockey player. He goes and plays. He’s a fearless competitor. You watch him, he goes into corners, he takes in the information. If it requires him to take a hit, he takes it. If he has to slip the check, he does it. If he sees the play, he makes it. And he skates.
“He’s a guy who has just really impressed me in a short amount of time at a real tough position. We get undermanned and we talk about opportunity all the time, and for the short time he’s been here, he’s been very, very impressive. ”
It certainly has been a whirlwind — while starting his pro career, which included a week-long trip to California, Blankenburg also is finishing his studies at UM with graduation set for Saturday — but Blankenburg says he’s starting to feel more like an NHL player each day.
“I think it’s starting to settle in more as you get more games and you get more minutes and you earn more trust with the coaching staff,” he said. “I think the first probably four games, the first couple of shifts, I was shaking. I could feel it a little bit. And then I think last game against Ottawa, to me, it was just another hockey game. Even (Sunday) , I feel the same way. I just try to prepare myself, and the biggest thing for me, I’m trying to enjoy it. I’m trying to take in each moment and take in each day.”
And the best part might be he got to do that on such a memorable day with his family. If you could have put out a few picnic tables Sunday afternoon outside the locker rooms at Nationwide Arena, you could have hosted a Blankenburg family reunion, with sweaters bearing his name and UM shirts greeting him after he finished his media responsibilities.
“I think they’re just really excited,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words. There’s a lot of sacrifices that have been for me to be able to get to this level and be able to do what I do. I think the biggest thing for me is just how thankful I am for them.” and for friends and family who made the trip out here and supported me and shoot me texts of encouragement or anything like that.”