The last hockey game I attended in Nationwide Arena, the team laid their opening night egg.
Tonight was at least 200% better.
From the opening faceoff, the Blue Jackets were on top of the Flyers and driving hard for the net - in fact, Antoine Vermette nearly scored with a stuff attempt before the crowd had a chance to sit down. It was an odd reversal of last Friday's match against Calgary - only this time, the Jackets were the highly motivated and aggressive squad, and the Flyers, outside of an impressive effort by Brian Boucher, seemed like they had more interest in the Monday Night Football matchup than the hockey game taking place around them.
After hammering at the Flyer net for the first 10 minutes and outpacing the Flyers 9-2 on shots, it seemed like the question was not if the Jackets would score the first goal, but when.
The answer would come when Chris Clark would break up a play as the Flyers attempted to enter the Blue Jackets' zone, put a sick move on Chris Pronger at the blue line, crashed the net and fired at Boucher's legs, caught his own rebound, fired again, and the rebound found its' way to Kyle Wilson, the former Hershey Bear, who cashed into the open side of the net for his first NHL goal.
With that goal, the Flyers seemed to wake, fitfully, from their slumber, but Mathieu Garon was equal to the few tests they put before him, and the Jackets went to the locker room for the first intermission with a standing ovation, rather than the boos that chased them away against Calgary.
The second period began very similarly, with all four lines rolling offense and contributing defensively. Even when Philly managed some sustained pressure, Garon was solid or another Jacket would step up, like Nikita Filatov(!) drilling Claude Giroux into the side boards, Derek MacKenzie upending Jeff Carter, or Marc Methot sprawling to block a shot, and then throwing himself across the ice on one hip to bat the rebounded puck out of danger with his outstretched hand.
Finally, just as we predicted, the Flyers began to crack a bit under pressure. Danny Briere took a hooking call just past the 8 minute mark, drawn by Antoine Vermette as he pushed his way around the Flyer net, and a power play unit of RIck Nash, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek, Nick Holden, and Anton Stralman went over the boards.
What followed was probably one of the best executed Blue Jacket power plays I have ever seen.
I won't even try to describe it - it simply demands to be watched. (Skip to the 2 minute mark.)
Total puck control, several near-miss chances, and then finally a textbook cross-ice feed from Nash to Brass for the goal. Swish.
(Also, how good did Nick Holden look? I was surprised at how well he settled in for this game.)
With a Jackets taking a 2-0 lead, the Flyers would get a chance to put themselves on the board a short time later after Sammy Pahlsson was called for holding, but the PK did their job admirably, and a short time later the Jackets would be up on the man advantage again after Darroll Powe went to the box for (basically) attempting a piggy-back ride.
After a brief flash of aggression, though, this power play would be as weak as the first was excellent, and nothing would come of it. The rest of the period seemed to be winding down gracefully when Kyle Wilson was called on a somewhat questionable interference penalty with just over a minute to go in the second. The PK, however, was incredible, handling that final minute, and the opening minute of the third period, allowing all of two shots, and though the Flyers began to wake up a bit, the Jackets worked just as hard on squeezing out their opportunities, though perhaps at the cost of applying more offensive pressure on Boucher. As play went on, the Flyers got chippier and chippier, but the Jackets refused to rise to their bait, skating away and keeping control of their tempers. For fifteen minutes, the two teams battled back and forth, and a few people began to quietly whisper the one word question: "Shutout?"
Sadly, it was not to be. The Flyers top line of Ville Leino, Danny Briere, and Scott Hartnell finally won a battle for a loose puck behind the net, and Briere fired it at the crease while Leino set up shop on the doorstep. Garon caught the first attempt, but before the defense could clear, Leino took the rebound and wristed it over Garon and into the net to cut the lead to 2-1.
Fortunately, before Philly could take momentum from the late goal, Powe would again decide to play horsey, this time with Jakub Voracek, and was sent to the box accordingly. With the Flyers down a man, the Jacket PP wasn't spectacular, but it did a good job of burning off two vital minutes. The Flyers attempted to pressure, but the Jackets did a good job of pushing play back into their offensive zone, not allowing Philadelphia to pull Boucher for the extra attacker until there was less than a minute and a half to go.
The Jackets cleared wide and shallow twice, but the Flyers regrouped to attack. Finally, R. J. Umberger (playing in his 400th NHL game) seemed to win the battle at the boards and sail the puck slowly down the ice from the end of the Philly bench, but it would clang off the iron and spin back into the corner of the rink rather than falling into the net.
All was not lost, however, as the Jackets would steal the puck away again with less than 10 seconds, and Derrick Brassard appeared to be headed up the far boards, looking for a chance to put the game away with the empty netter or pass to the open man, when he was delivered a vicious cross-check by Briere. To make matters worse, Scott Hartnell then decided to KICK Brassard when he was pinned at the glass in frustration, and Chris Clark responded by attempting to deposit Hartnell bodily into the penalty box without bothering to open the door.
When the scrum was broken up and the penalties assessed, Clark and Briere would be in the boxes, Hartnell would get two, ten, and a game for Roughing, and the Jackets would have a (rather brief) power play for the final 5 seconds of regulation. As the 11,900 fans in the building rose to their feet to recognize a strong effort, the horn sounded, and the Jackets defeated the Flyers for only the second time in franchise history, with both victories coming inside Nationwide Arena.
As my friend Dave put it, the Jackets delivered a game with "Thrill-power" tonight - a truly exciting, 60 minute game. It was probably the best game they've played under Scott Arniel, and if they can take the lessons from this game and continue to apply them? Watch out, NHL.
- Chris Clark - I don't know what happened to the Chris Clark who seemed sluggish and overwhelmed in the pre-season, but frankly? I don't care. Leave him locked in the trunk of a car somewhere, and let the impostor wearing #71 play as much as he wants. In addition to his huge first period effort, Clark was FLYING tonight, delivering hits, playing smart on the PK, and creating quite a headache for the Flyers on both sides of the puck.
- Mathieu Garon - When they needed him to make saves, he did. When they needed him to calm the game down by gloving the puck or knowing when to rim the puck around the boards, he did. I don't blame him one bit for the one goal that got past him - I was simply disappointed that we couldn't keep the goose-egg that he'd clearly earned.
- Marc Methot- If I was somewhat skeptical about Methot jumping up the depth chart before, I sincerely apologize now. He didn't just look like a guy who had worked his way up the chart tonight - he looked like our best defenseman
.Bottom Of The Barrel:
- Nikita Filatov - He had some surprisingly decent physical play, but he wasn't able to do much offensively, and he spent most of the third period on the pine. Filatov needs to get his game going - I almost wonder if an AHL conditioning assignment to find some confidence might not be a bad idea.
- Down In Front! - Look, I appreciate that a large group of kids from the local schools attended tonight's game, but if your buses are going to leave during the third period, don't suddenly stand up and walk out DURING PLAY five minutes into the third period. Leave during intermission, for god's sake.
- John Mitchell, Fox Sports Ohio - I totally get that handling Kyle Wilson the puck from his first NHL goal on live TV was fun for you, but c'mon. That's a moment the guy wants to savor with his teammates, not deal with in an awkward interview before he goes back into the dressing room.
The Jackets will have tomorrow off, then take on the Edmonton Oilers Thursday at Nationwide Arena. The puck drops at 7pm.