Going into tonight's game against the Avalanche, the concern had to be how the team would come down from their 8-1 victory over St. Louis.
Would the team, despite the absence of RIck Nash, play with the same level of consistency? Would they give a full defensive effort?
Or would they see the multiple holes in the Avs' lineup and play down to the level of their competition?
Sadly, one look at the picture beside these words will answer the question.
The first signs of trouble came when the Jackets allowed Colorado to level the first five shots on goal without challenge - however, it seemed to turn itself around just past the four minute mark of the first period when R.J. Umberger dug the puck out from behind the Colorado net, sent a pass to a waiting Nikita Filatov, and Filatov threaded the needle to Antoine Vermette on Budaj's doorstep, who hammered it through for the 1-0 lead.
Unfortunately, even with the lead, the Jackets were playing fast and loose with the puck, and the shuffled first and fourth lines showed a distinct lack of chemistry. As a result, the team kept being forced back into their zone, and finally Colorado was able to generate sustained pressure with Matt Duchene working around the Jackets' net, firing a shot that bounced across the crease, and David Jones was able to grab the puck in traffic and flip it off the back of the crossbar and over Mason's shoulder while the netminder was screened by his own defense to tie the game.
Things appeared to go from bad to worse when the Jackets started to build some pressure in the late first period, and the fourth line nearly connected on a bang-bang play from Mike Blunden to Jared Boll at the goal mouth, but Boll was unable to handle the pass and ended up high-sticking a defender in the process, leading to a four minute double minor.
The Jackets' PK came out strong, even drawing a tripping call on Matt Duchene just past the two minute mark to even things out, and the team seemed to draw energy from this at the end of the first period with the score tied at 1.
In the second period, the Jackets started to put more pressure on Peter Budaj, but nothing was connecting. Pucks rang off the post, passes failed to connect, and far too many shots went off Budaj's pads with nobody able to collect rebounds.
Finally, the Jackets drew an interference penalty against Kevin Porter, and it seemed like the power play might get the team lifted back up. Unfortunately, the team's woes on the PP would continue - a Jakub Voracek shot bounced off Budaj and rimmed up the boards straight past Kris Russell, who was unprepared for it. Former Jacket draft pick Greg Mauldin, though, lept on it and charged up the ice, breaking past Anton Stralman and the still trailing Russell. The breakaway became a 2 on 1 past Stralman with David Jones, but Mauldin hung onto it and fired the puck past Steve Mason, who stayed back in his net rather than coming out to challenge the shooter, and got stuffed.
The Jackets seemed to deflate just a bit after giving up the shorthanded tally, and the power play ended listlessly.
The poor play continued to spread like a pandemic, and the Avs became more aggressive. A few minutes later, buzzing around the Jackets' zone, John Michael Liles would skate past Jan Hejda following a botched clearing attempt, and go to the net with Phillipe Dupuis. Dupuis would drag the puck into the crease, and what I THINK was meant as a clearing attempt by Blunden would slam Dupuis bodily into Mason, knocking the goaltender into his own net, and the puck crossed the goal line with as part of the collision.
A review was held by the War Room in Toronto, but because Blunden caused the collision, it was ruled a good goal - had Dupuis collided with Mason under his own power, it would have been considered goalie interference.
The dagger, however, came just a few moments later - the Jackets drove hard to the net after the ensuing faceoff, and Nikita Filatov performed another remarkable pass to Antoine Vermette as he skated past an out of position Budaj....and with the net empty, Vermette missed the wide open net, the puck drifting off his stick, and the 2nd line center clanged his jaw off the crossbar for good measure.
The Avs would press back, seizing on the Jackets' frustration, and in the dying seconds of the second period, Kevin Porter would intercept a weak clearing pass from Rusty Klesla, flip the puck to Chris Stewart, and Stewart would feed Paul Stasny at the side of the net as Mason attempted to slide back to face the new threat behind the defense, but could not get back in time. The Avs made it 4-1 with 9 seconds to go in the period, and the game was functionally over.
Just to put the English on, though, David Jones would tally his second of the night late in the third period, a once again beating through the defense and firing a wrister from the right faceoff dot that Mason simply didn't have a chance to react towards.
There are going to be nights like this, and it's important to remember that there are 67 more regular season games, but boy, that stunk.
I can't help but feel that the decision to scratch Rick Nash tonight, though the logic of allowing him to rest up and heal before the team's West Coast swing next week was sound, sent the wrong message to the club. Too many players seemed to have an attitude that this was an unimportant game, and so that's how they played.
The defense in particular had a terrible night - the Avs are certainly built as a speedy team, and they've had the advantage of playing in a much faster system than the Jackets for the past two years, but they simply sliced through defenders like they weren't there. The "shutdown" third line and the workhorse pairing of Marc Methot and Rusty Klesla had a particularly bad night, on ice for three of the Avs goals.
This was a night where the team really needed to be fired up by someone, anyone, and nothing seemed to work. It was clear that Chris Clark, Umberger, and Filatov in particular were trying to hustle, but too many passes went astray, too many players failed to chase the puck, and too many poor decisions lead to this game slipping away quickly. The lack of chemistry with Wilson on the top line and MacKenzie and Blunden was palpable, and though it's not entirely why the team lost tonight, it certainly didn't help.
The Jackets are scheduled to practice tomorrow at 11am. I have a feeling it will be...spirited. The coaches did not look pleased at all tonight, and I've no doubt that some guys are going to feel that displeasure as a result.
The Jackets will travel out to the West Coast for their next game against the LA Kings on Wednesday. The puck drops at the Staples Center at 10:30pm EST.