After making what is likely to be the final round of cuts until players like Kris Russell and Andrew Murray are able to come off the IR, the Jackets brought together a solid, nearly complete NHL roster to face the Atlanta Thrashers at Nationwide for their last pre-season game in North America.
Though the team made the decision to sit Mike Commodore and Chris Clark, using this game to get another look at Kyle Wilson and Nate Guenin, the lines were otherwise likely to be the game day roster, including an interesting experiment in the top six, with coach Arniel putting Nikita Filatov, Antoine Vermette, and Rick Nash on the top line, while putting Kristian Huselius, Derick Brassard, and Jakub Voracek on the second line.
So, how did that work out...?
Despite Atlanta scoring an early opening goal off a Freddy Meyer point shot that was redirected in off Marc Methot's leg, the Jackets came back firing, with Nikita Filatov getting his first of two goals tonight off a 2 on 1 with Vermette, taking a pass and waiting an impossibly long moment before firing the puck past Atlanta's Chris Mason.
The Jackets would keep up the pressure on an early power play, hammering away for the full two minutes without ever leaving the zone, but were unable to convert despite several beautiful shots from Anton Stralman and Filatov.
(The power play unit tonight, by the way, featured Filatov, Nash, Vermette, Huselius, and Stralman in a 1-3-1 formation - Filatov would start on the point but sneak down as play permitted, and whenever the PP was able to feed him the puck, it turned into a shot.)
Despite a good effort, though, the Thrashers would draw a series of penalties late in the first period, and the PK finally cracked on a Tobias Enstrom slapper that Steve Mason had no chance on due to a heavy Thrasher screen.
Going into the second, play mostly see-sawed back and forth with no clear advantage, though each team had a breakaway chance (Atlanta's from Andrew Ladd, Columbus from Jared Boll) that each goalie would deny. However, at just past the mid point of the second, Boll would commit a nasty hit on Ladd at the boards, getting a Charging major, while Atlanta's Anthony Stewart jumped Boll in retaliation and earned a Roughing penalty as a result. After several chances for each team on the ensuing 4-on-4, the Jackets would kill the Atlanta penalty and draw an additional high-sticking call on Evander Kane before Kristian Huselius drew the game even on an absolute bullet fired from above the circles.
The Jackets seemed to draw some extra jump and dominated much of the early third period after Arniel performed several line shuffles to spark offense, but it would be the Thrashers who took the lead again after Nigel Dawes got past the checking line of Moreau, Pahlsson, and Umberger, beat Marc Methot to the inside, and went one on one with Mason. Mason made two great leg saves as he hacked and whacked, but Dawes was finally able to put it over Mason's leg pad as he fell to the ice on the third rebound after Stralman and Methot were unable to clear him out of the crease.
As the Jackets trailed again, and I saw Nash, Vermette, and Huselius going over the boards, I turned to the friends I was sitting with and said "Man, it'd be nice if the top line really took over this' -*HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONK*
After getting control in the zone, Nash fed the puck to Huselius, who set up a waiting Vermette on the doorstep. The 'Twan must have gotten tired of hearing about missing an empty net in Minnesota, because he was waiting on one knee for the pass from Huselius, and buried it without hesitation.
As the crowd of just shy of 12,000 got more into the game, the lines continued to shift as the coaches experimented with the 23 man chemistry set, eventually throwing Pahlsson, Moreau, and Filatov over the boards. Nate Guenin moved the puck from the Jackets' defensive zone to a waiting Moreau, who passed to Filatov as they entered the Thrashers' zone. Filatov headed for the deep end of the faceoff circle, firing from what seemed like such an oblique angle as to be impossible, but somehow the puck slid right into the net past Chris Mason's legs, giving the young Russian his second goal of the game, and the Jackets a 4-3 lead. Even the game ops crew though that Moreau must have redirected it, hitting him with the post-goal spotlights, but a video replay clearly showed that it was all Nikki, all the time.
As time ran down, Atlanta would pull Mason for the extra attacker with about 1:30 to go in the game, and hammered away on Steve Mason despite several attempts by the defense to clear or attack the empty net, but the Jackets would hang on, with Mason making several impressive pad and stick saves in the dying moments, giving the home crowd a 4-3 win before packing their bags and leaving for Port Columbus and onward to Europe.
Nikita Filatov: Really, what else is there to say? 2 goals, he made several good moves on the power play, and he had some nice defensive moves as well. I was a little disappointed that the coaches didn't see fit to send him over the boards after the Thrashers pulled their goalie, to see if he could complete the hat trick, but on the other hand I also understand the logic of "Let's just get the win and go on."
Derick Brassard: Despite not showing up on the score sheet, Brass probably had his best preseason game. He won 9 of 15 faceoffs, made some good plays with and without the puck, and several good moves to break up Atlanta passes and get the puck moving out of danger.
Rick Nash: Not his biggest offensive game, but it's not a coincidence that two of the biggest goals (both to tie the game after Atlanta had taken a lead) were set up by good plays with the puck by Nasher.
Special consolation mention goes to Chris Mason, who made some incredible stops for the Thrashers, especially on the PK, and Tobias Enstrom. Enstrom is pretty much exactly the kind of defenseman we wish that Columbus had one or two more of. Mobile, offensively gifted, and physical. Ah, well.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
....y'know what? Nobody really stood out to me as having a bad game. I thought that several guys made a bad play or two, a missed pass, a lazy clear, but just about everyone I can think of also had a big hit, a good pass, a great block, or drew penalties to balance things out.
Enjoy the flight to Sweden tonight, boys. Have a safe flight, and lykke til in Sweden.
The Jackets will be in action against the Malmo Redhawks on Tuesday. The game will be streamed from NHL.com.
The Jackets kick off the regular season Friday, against the San Jose Sharks from Stockholm. The game will be on Versus and there will be official game watching parties at B.C. Roosters for Friday's game, and unofficial parties at the R-Bar for Friday and Saturday's games.