Going into last night's game in San Jose, the Jackets had never won three out of three games on a West coast trip. The victories in LA and Anaheim were a franchise record, passing the previous "best" mark of 1-1-1 set on several trips to the golden state.
Going into last night's game, the Jackets had not won in HP Pavilion since 2004, and had never won in regulation.
But, as we're learning, things can change.
As if to dispel the concerns about the team's energy level in playing back to back games, the Jackets came out roaring, hammering at the San Jose net. The Sharks had a couple of early chances, but Garon handled them expertly before the Jackets drew an early penalty on Jamal Mayers.
After early difficulty keeping the zone, including allowing a shorthanded attempt by Joe Pavelski that Garon was able to kick aside, the Jackets power play was able to get set up. With Derick Brassard and Anton Stralman on the points, the first PP unit actually shifted a bit, almost forming the 1-3-1 formation that the Jackets used early, with R. J. Umberger at the front of the net, Jake Voracek around the left faceoff circle, Stralman at the blue line, Brass at the far boards, and Nash floating in between the top of the zone and the faceoff circle. In a nifty display of passing, Nash put the puck over to Stralman, who faked before passing off to Brassard, who performed a beautiful cross-ice feed back to the Captain, who fired the puck in as he slid down to the left face off dot, deflecting it past Niittymaki off Dan Boyle's skate for the early lead.
The Jackets would get a few more early chances, including a 2-on-1 with Nash and Brassard that didn't quite connect, but San Jose would respond late in the period, hammering the next 12 shots, while Garon alternatively froze the puck or slipped it out of trouble and back out to the Jacket defense. Despite a scary moment where Garon got trucked after stepping a bit of of his crease to handle the puck, and a late delay of game penalty when Antoine Vermette attempted a clear that went over the defensive zone glass, the Jackets hung on for the 1-0 lead at the end of the period.
In the second period, both teams made several trips to the box, but San Jose's impressive power play had no solution for the Jackets' PK, particularly in the face of some heroic efforts by Klesla and Tyutin. Klesla spent the entire game giving up his body with several big hits and at least 5 "official" blocked shots, and probably another 4-5 unofficially blocked attempts. Tyutin, on the other hand, though he also had some good hits, did a lot of work with his stick, getting the puck out of trouble and clearing the zone well.
Case in point? Just past the three quarter mark of the second period, Tyutin grabbed the puck as it dribbled at the back of the zone after a puck battle between Brassard and Logan Couture, made an excellent pass to a waiting Jakub Voracek, who took the puck up through center ice before passing off to Nash as they entered the offensive zone, breaking into a three on two with Nash, Voracek, and Commodore bearing down on the San Jose net.
Niittymaki shifted to cover Nash, going far out of his crease in an attempt to cut the angle down, but Nash simply slipped past the San Jose netminder, curled along the boards, and fired the puck into the empty net past Marc-Edouard Vlasic as he attempted to cover for his out of position goaltender. 2-0 Jackets.
In the third period, the Jackets again got in early penalty trouble, but drew a balancing call against Joe Pavelski to bring things back to 4 on 4 hockey. The team was never really in trouble from that point on, but with just over 8 minutes left in regulation, Ryan Clowe attempted to get some momentum back on the Sharks' side by dropping the gloves with Jared Boll.
Honestly, I suppose Clowe won the fight with that series of quick jabs, but neither guy really stood out. I'd almost be tempted to call it a draw. I'm less impressed, though, by the need for the bout at all - I know Boll had some big hits, and the Jackets generally dominated the physical battle, especially against the Sharks' top line (Mike Commodore had a fantastic hit on Thornton behind the Jackets' net that sent Jumbo Joe right onto his Jumbo Butt), so I can see why Clowe would try to get Boll to go as a sort of proxy for that, but it feels like an bad decision.
You're up 2-0, it's getting late into the game, San Jose generally looked frustrated and unable to generate a consistent threat at that point - why feed them anything that could invest them back into the game?
Regardless, the game continued to wind down, and once the Sharks pulled Niittymaki for the extra attacker with just under a minute left, the real question was less about San Jose attempting to bust the shutout, and more about if Nash could deliver the finishing blow.
It took a matter of seconds.
Marc Methot slipped the puck free along the boards before passing it up to Umberger, who worked his way through a pair of Shark defenders (and would have drawn a penalty in the process), but Umberger was able to tap the puck up to Nash, alone and unchallenged, who deposited it into the waiting net for his recommended dose of Vitamin Hat.
(Perhaps the best part was the pair of hats that actually landed on the ice from some far-wandering CBJ fans, which Mike Commodore collected and presented to his captain.)
With the dagger placed firmly into the Sharks' collective heart, the Jackets simply let time run down before celebrating the complete sweep of this road trip.
- Rick Nash - The natural hat trick, 5th of his career? Beautiful.
- Mathieu Garon - Every time the team needed a big save, Garon made it. It's hard to decide which goaltender is better - Garon just keeps pitching shutouts, but Mason keeps rising up in big games on the road. It's a great problem to have, though.
- Fedor Tyutin - I'm sure I'll shake my head and growl in frustration later this week when he makes a bad call or turns the puck over at an inopportune moment, but Fedor really was on his game tonight, and it showed just how good he can be.
- Really, the whole damn team - Seriously, who expected them to go out and win all three games, particularly with such a dominant closing performance?
There's no need for a bottom of the barrel today. The Jackets improve to 12-6-0, 5th in the West, 3rd in the Central Division. Their +9 goal differential is good for fourth best in the West and tied for 8th overall in the NHL. Rusty Klesla is the top +/- guy in the NHL at the moment with a +16. Garon leads the NHL with a .960 save percentage and 1.08 GAA.
It's almost a shame that OSU had a huge comeback win over Iowa yesterday. It means that the Buckeyes will overshadow the Jackets (not that they need much help, given it's Michigan week), and most casual fans will be far more invested in a possible share of the Big Ten title than the Blue Jackets team that seems to be gelling into a powerful whole.
But we see this team - players like Brassard and Voracek stepping up. Players like Nash and Umberger leading on and off ice. Players like Klesla, Clark, and MacKenzie unafraid to sacrifice their bodies for victory. We've gotten on board with them. For all the pain of the early losses, the victories have tasted even sweeter.
When asked about the game, Mathieu Garon had a blunt answer: "I think we're sending a message right now that we're for real."
The Jackets return home to Columbus today, and will take on the Nashville Predators Monday evening at Nationwide Arena. The puck drops at 7pm.