On a night where the team celebrated their 10th anniversary, and honored Bruce Gardiner, who scored the first goal in franchise history against the Chicago Blackhawks, the 2010-2011 edition of the club took on a seemingly depleted 'Hawks team...and made it feel like 2000 all over again.
Anyone else notice the remarkable editing job by the team to avoid mentioning that they in fact lost that inaugural game, 5-3?
Maybe that should have been a warning sign.
In terms of the presentation of the 10th anniversary, the team did a very nice job. In front of a sold out crowd of 18,305, the team ran through a bit of the history, highlighting major milestones and achivements over their history, including jumbotron videos featuring Dave King, Gardiner, Tyler Wright, Ron Tugnutt, and others.
The team was introduced onto the ice with appropriate flash and energy, and following Leo Welsh's stentorian performance of the national anthem, the building seemed ready for a big night, chanting and cheering for the team well into the opening period. An early (successful!) PK energized the building, and they got louder and louder in recognition of the strong early performance.
The Jackets seemed to respond, coming out firing against the Hawks, and Marty Turco had to make a couple of nice saves, as well as got lucky on a few shots - in particular a Nikita Filatov sharp angled bullet that pinged off the inside of the far post and bounced away from the net - had he hit the post a half inch the other way, perhaps the whole game might have changed.
Instead, that same Filatov shot would rebound away, Viktor Stalberg would grab it and race up ice, and a combination of players (including Jakub Voracek and Fedor Tyutin) would be unable to stop him as he went to the net and scored on the breakaway, beating Mason after the netminder came out to challenge the shooter with a head fake and firing to his glove side.
A bit over a minute later, the Jackets' checking line and the defensive unit of Klesla and Methot stood, apparently hypnotized, as Tomas Kopecky curled around the boards after a defensive zone faceoff, fired a shot that Steve Mason would stop with a kick save, then the Jackets defense did nothing as Marian Hossa cleaned up the rebound, collapsed into the crease, and fired again.
(Also, a moment of personal pique: I'm re-watching game highlights on NHL.com to make sure I get the scoring right, and I can't but notice that Jeff Rimmer sounds incredibly cheerful when the team he works for is getting wasted. He honestly sounded more excited on the Chicago goal calls than almost any Columbus goal call I can remember outside of perhaps the Rick Nash "goal of the year" against Phoenix. Why does Jeff work for Fox Sports Ohio again? It strikes me that he knows where some bodies are buried, because I can't explain why he otherwise remains with the team.)
The Jackets were being outskated and outhustled to end the period, made worse by Kris Russell taking a penalty in the dying seconds on a slash. They were outshot almost 2 to 1 (19 for the Hawks, 11 for Columbus), and you could feel the sense of unease.
(Also, to the Hawks fans who decided to whoop it up in 208 between periods - Patrick Kane didn't actually score either goal, as he didn't play tonight. And it's pronounced "TAY-VZ", not "TOH-ES".)
In the early second period, the Jackets showed signs of life, again performing well on the PK, before Derek Dorsett performed an excellent pick-pocket of Hossa, stealing the puck, keeping on-side in the Hawks zone, and threading a pass to R. J. Umberger, who crashed the net, whiffed wide on his first shot, caught his own rebound off the boards and managed to bank the puck off Turco's back and into the net to cut the Hawk lead to 2-1.
As the Jackets began to return to an up-tempo pace, they battled in several end to end plays before a sequence where the Umberger - Pahlsson - Moreau line was facing Chicago's top line. Pahlsson won possession behind the Chicago net and attempted to make room for himself at the far boards, when Kopecky got tangled in his skates and fell to the ice, dropping his stick and lunging to try to knock the puck away from the Swedish centerman. Instead, he'd end up grabbing and holding onto the puck on the ice, and was whistled for a delay of game penalty.
The Jacket powerplay tonight was...troubled, at best, with several occasions where players simply didn't seem to know where the puck or their teammates where. This initial PP would be particularly rancid, as Antoine Vermette would attempt a drop-pass to where no less than three Blackhawk PKers were standing, and Patrick Sharp would race back up the ice. Anton Stralman made a fantastic pylon for Sharp to deke around at the middle of the Jackets zone, and though Nikita FIlatov hustled back and attempted to stick-check the puck away, Sharp would beat Mason top shelf to restore a two goal lead for Chicago.
The Jackets seemed to deflate after the shorthanded goal, failing back into their zone and letting Chicago dictate the play.
Worse, less than two minutes after giving up the shorthanded goal, Antoine Vermette would turn over the puck in the defensive zone to Troy Brower at the boards, and the Hawk Winger would walk right around Jan Hejda, firing a shot at Mason. Mase would make the save but let loose a rebound that went straight to Sharp, who deposited it for his second of the night.
The Jackets left the ice to the sound of boos, outshot 30-20 and down 4-1, and the exodus to the doors began. I heard more than a few Chicago fans taunt the home crowd with "Same old Jackets!", and that mantra stuck. By the start of the third period, what had been a loud, enthusiastic and excited crowd had turned silent and sullen, wondering just how bad it would get.
The answer would come moments after the opening faceoff. After the Jackets won the draw, Marian Hossa intercepted a lazy pass from Rostislav Klesa intended for Rick Nash, and both Klesla and Methot attempted to skate next to Hossa and......honestly I don't even know what they intended to do. Flank him? Sandwich check him? Make him feel securely enclosed? It didn't matter. He split through them cleanly and fired on Mason, who went down to make the initial save, but thanks to the defense continuing to coast backwards with no apparent purpose, Tomas Kopecky would be left alone in the slot to grab the puck and pop it over Mason before he could rise.
The game had probably been effectively over since the Sharp SHG, but this put the exclamation mark onto it.
The crowd started to briefly chant the "Same Old Jackets", a taunting, frustrated counterpoint to the cheerful "LET'S GO HAWKS!" going up from several sections.
The Jackets would draw two more penalties in the third period, and converted on the first, with Umberger crashing the net, creating a rebound, and Kristian Huselius banging it past Marty Turco.
On the second penalty, despite having nearly a minute of 6-on-5 before the Hawks could touch up, the Jackets failed to make any noise despite controlling possession, perhaps because for reasons I will not speculate on, the coaching staff saw fit to play the fourth line for almost the entire time, sending out Nikita Filatov as the additional skater, rather than trying to change up to add more skill.
In the end, it simply...didn't matter.
The team looked like they left their talent and energy back in Sweden. Here's hoping British Airways can deliver it back to them for the flight up to Minnesota tonight.
Jackets Lose, 5-2.
Standard Bearers (Such as they are):
Derick Brassard: Though he couldn't get any of his (team high) 5 shots on goal past Turco, Brass actually looked good tonight. He created some puck movement, he won almost 60% of his faceoffs, and he did a good job of trying to set up his line. He also ended the night with a clean +/- sheet, which is an achievement in and of itself.
Nikita Filatov: Even though he ended the night with a -2, he at least was trying to get back and assist defensively on both of those goals after another member of the team made a turnover or defensive gaffe. Filatov was also one of the few Jackets who seemed willing to shoot the puck, particularly as the game dragged on late. Guys got very pass-happy, unwilling to risk a shot that might be exploited into a turnover. Filatov just kept firing at the net when he had opportunities, and nearly broke through much more than the three official shots on goal he was credited with suggest.
Derek Dorsett: For some very good PK work, and some aggressive attempts to create something.
Game Ops: The 10th anniversary opener tonight was handled very, very well, and I thought the focus on 10 year season ticket holders was a nice touch. We got to see some good replays, and the use of slow-motion cameras for some of them was a very good thing! I also noticed the team's entrance music and goal song have been changed, but sadly I didn't really get to hear enough of either to ID them. (Anyone able to help me out?) I also thought the new in-arena host (Ana Jackson) did a good job, particularly when trying to pump the crowd up during some flat periods.
Steve Mason: People will ride Mason for 5 goals on 40 shots, but frankly? If Mason hadn't been playing as well as he was this game, it would have been much, much worse.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
The Columbus Blue Jackets: As coach Arniel said afterwards: "We laid an egg." I'd say you guys laid an entire dozen. About the only positive thing I can say about the team's defensive efforts tonight was that they didn't give up a power play goal, and they didn't allow Sharp to pick up the hat trick. All in front of a sellout crowd. After all the ticket woes this offseason, the fans came out to show their support after the Sweden trip, and you play like this?
Marc Methot: Supposedly Marc played his way past Commodore on the depth chart? Given his performance today I have a hard time crediting that. Despite playing 21 minutes tonight, he was a turnover machine and I was left cringing regularly, to say nothing of his truly horrific performance on the Kopecky goal.
Turnovers: Some of the team's most important players - Nash, Vermette, Umberger, Huselius, all committed horrific turnovers, many of which were scored on.
Game Ops: While I like the idea of live bands in the arena, the cover band that the team had headlining tonight (70 West), was HORRIBLE. Ignoring the fact that 70s soft rock covers aren't exactly the right demographic for a lot of the fans you're trying to entertain, the lead singer couldn't find a note in a paper bag and the lead guitar needs to learn what a hammer-on is. That might have been the worse rendition of "Rockin' In The Free World" I'd ever heard, and their version of "Purple Haze" left me wondering what Jimi Hendrix did to them in a past life. Aside from quality control issues with the music, perhaps actually going for music that might fit the fans better? What about some of the excellent local music? I'd love hearing The Tough & Lovely or The Sovines (aka the Townsmen, aka the Sovines) showing up, or if you want a cover band, go for something, say, from the late 90s?
I also wasn't too impressed by the crowdwave jumbotron game. Aside from being...well, basically a mass form of playing Dance Dance Revolution, the "rankings" during the game seemed to indicate it was only taking input from fans in the lower bowl.
I realize that people in the lower bowl pay a pretty penny for those seats, but do they REALLY need more extra freebies that the upper bowl can't even hope to compete for? What's the point of "interactive entertainment" that ignores half your attending crowd?
One thing that was pointed out by The Dark Blue Jacket: Chicago played four games this week. The Jackets sat, or practiced, while trying to recover from going to Sweden. It showed. The systems were not executed, far too many mistakes were made, and the team paid a heavy price, losing their home opener for the first time in four years. If there were silver linings outside of the things I already mentioned, it is that the team did cut down the amount of penalties taken, only allowing the Hawks to draw two.
Are these "The Same Old Jackets"? For some portions of the game, it certainly felt like it, but I'm going to do my best to reserve my judgment. Teams returning from European Premiere games have frequently suffered rough stretches in the past. I'd like to think it was a combination of that plus perhaps buying a little bit too much into the Hawks being vulnerable due to missing some key components, and expecting the game to be easier than it was.
Regardless, it wasn't a pretty night - but the bigger challenge is tomorrow. The team will need to develop some selective memory before playing in Minnesota, putting this stinkbomb behind them and attempting to clear the air.
The Jackets take on the Minnesota Wild tomorrow at 8pm Eastern Time at the Xcel Energy Center. The game will be televised on Fox Sports Ohio.