The barn was full. It was a division game. The crowd was electric. The intros were grandiose. The hitting was fierce, as it usually is with these teams. But, it was defensive lapses and sloppy play that cost the Jackets the most tonight.
The Jackets scoring lines looked as advertised. At times, their defense looked shaky, as was feared. And, Nashville got a couple of opportunities, and didn't waste them. Once the Predators got up two, you could almost feel the air come out of the balloon as Barry Trotz's boys shifted into shut-down mode.
The Jackets would get close thanks to the excellent play of their top line, but in the end they just couldn't get the equalizer past Pekka Rinne.
The first period got off to a fast start for Columbus, as their scoring lines hummed, and they peppered Pekka Rinne with shots early. But, the Predators weathered that initial storm, and tried to swing the momentum back their way. In a first period marked by shots, shots, and more shots, both goaltenders were equal to the task.
The line of R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette, and Cam Atkinson was tremendous early, and Atkinson almost made it 1-0 midway through after Vermette fed him beautifully across the ice. But, Rinne covered the ground and stopped the one-timer cold. For Atkinson, it was fun to be in his first game, though he was admittedly in "shoulda" mode:
"It was exciting. Coach and everyone before the game just said, 'Have fun with it, it's your first NHL game. No other way to put it, just have fun; you have family in the stands.' We had great chances--especially myself--that we've gotta bury. ... It was a great pass [from Vermette], a great look. The puck was fluttering a little, but I got pretty good wood on it. He just made a great save. There's no excuses; we had our chances, we just have to bury them."
Columbus almost got on the board first early in the second period, as, while killing off a Vinny Prospal interference penalty Antoine Vermette got a stick on a pass and flew into the Preds' zone short-handed, almost beating Rinne. However, it was the Predators that would score first.
Kris Russell would take a delay of game penalty at 2:35, and during the kill Derek Dorsett played most of the two minutes without his stick and the Jackets couldn't get a clear. As the penalty was ending, Dorsett finally had the puck bounce to him, but he essentially caught it and literally threw it the length of the ice. A cool looking play, but also illegal: Dorse went off at 4:35 for closing his hand on the puck, and Nashville made the Jackets pay on the ensuing Power Play.
"I just tried to smack it out of there," Dorsett said. "I brought it from far back [behind me], and it looked like I had it closed on it. The penalty is what it is. Maybe I should have just smacked it straight down to the ice, but then again I had no stick. It's a frustrating penalty to take."
"Well, you probably have to bat the puck instead of catching it," Scott Arniel said. "I don't think he tried to [catch it]. Probably in any other situation you'd grab it and drop it at your feet. I think he realized he was in no-man's land; if he dropped it at his feet it probably wouldn't have been a good play either. You have to bat it."
Columbus would finally get on the board nine minutes later, as the new look top line finally cashed one in. Rick Nash brought the puck in on the right side, and fed it to Jeff Carter on a beautiful drop pass in the high slot. Carter snapped off a wicked shot that managed to trickle through Rinne's five-hole. Vinny Prospal was waiting on the doorstep to poke it the rest of the way home to tie the game. "It's always good when you can get on the board," Prospal said, "but the main thing here is that we didn't get the two points we wanted."
"[Prospal] reads off other players really well," Rick Nash said of his new line-mate. "He brings a lot of energy to our line, too. He's an exciting guy to watch. I'm impressed. It's only our second game together as a line, and I thought we clicked pretty well."
However, the Jackets just couldn't stand success. Not even two minutes later, and after some sloppy defense in which they couldn't clear, Shea Weber got two cracks to unleash his rocket shot. The second one saw Radek Martinek partially screening Steve Mason, and Craig Smith was there to finish off the rebound to make it 2-1 at 15:56 in the second. "Somebody skated past, and I lost the puck and didn't know where it was," Mason said. Mason did say he was screened; Martinek was the guilty party.
It was early in the third period that positively killed the Jackets. After some more sloppy play in the defensive end--lax is a good word for it--Cal O'Reilly was able to skate in on the right, slip a pass across the middle, and an unmarked Matt Halischuk backhanded it past Mason. It was clear Mason thought it was going all the way across, as he started to move before the shot. Just 39 seconds into the third, it was 3-1 Nashville, and the fighting Trotzes went into defensive mode.
Columbus got another solid chance with a Power Play at the 5:21 mark, as Jarred Smithson went off for tripping. But, the Power Play was sloppy at times, and the Jackets just couldn't convert. However, it was the top line that would inch them closer and make a game of it again.
Jeff Carter had the puck and tried to fire a shot from the left slot, but a Preds defenseman got a stick on it. The puck fluttered over and to the side of the goal, where Johnny-on-the-Spot Vinny Prospal gathered it, whirled behind the net, and fed it to Rick Nash who was camped at the doorstep. Nash pounded it home at 10:19, and the Jackets were down just a goal.
They got one more chance to flex their muscles on the Power Play as Craig Smith went off for hooking at 12:32. But, again, they could not convert.
That was almost the theme for the night: the Jackets had chances--they out-shot the Predators 34-31 on the night--but they just couldn't convert. The ice was a bit rough out there, and pucks did seem to be bouncing a bit. But, those conditions were there for both teams.
"I thought it was a good game," Rick Nash said. "We did a lot of good things. We've gotta be cleaner come out of our own end. I thought the second period and the first five minutes of the third we were a bit sloppy, and it ended up hurting us." Indeed. While the Jackets were good offensively, they could have been better.
"We had some opportunities, but I think that Pekka Rinne was solid for 60 minutes," Arniel said. "Both our goals were our guys plowing into the crease area and getting second and third whacks. I thought we played hard, but couldn't get the third one."
"I don't think we drove the net as hard as you have to against a world-class goalie," Nash added.
At the end of the night, it continues to be a work in progress. There are 10 new guys on this team. "Our puck decisions [weren't always good]. [We need to put] the puck in a smarter place, a better place. It led to a few chances by them. I didn't think that we spent a whole lot of time in our end, but obviously they capitalized on a couple of them. We won D-zone faceoffs and didn't get the pucks out, or we gave them some zone time from turning it over. But, that's new guys playing together. We'll continue to work on it."
Thankfully for the boys, they get to lace them up and go right back at it tomorrow night in Minnesota. "The best thing about it is that you don't have to think about it for too long," Prospal said.
Final Score: Predators 3, Blue Jackets 2
Vinny Prospal - Prospal never looks out of position. The puck follows him. And, when he gets it, he knows exactly where it needs to go. It helps to have two other world-class players on his line, but if this is him "gelling" with Nash and Carter, well, that line is going to be just fine.
Jeff Carter - In addition to his two assists, he was a mammoth 24-of-31 in the faceoff circle, and +1. That's what you expect from a number-one center.
Rick Nash - The Captain looked lively out there with Carter and Prospal. And, he was inches from tying the game up late. Nash was +2 on a night in which the Jackets lost by one, and also had two points.
Bottom of the Barrell:
Kris Russell - Shake was dreadful tonight. He had a lousy delay-of-game penalty that set the whole Dorsett-closed-hand penalty in motion, which led to a Preds' PP goal. He turned the puck over, made sloppy breakout passes, and actually killed some zone time by plowing into Rick Nash at the point. He looks tentative, and just flat-out not good enough.
Marc Methot - Played only 15:33, and wasn't noticeable. He also looks completely afraid to pinch in on offense.
Radek Martinek - his screen of Steve Mason on the Predators' second goal caused Mason to lose sight of the puck. He looked a bit uncomfortable at times, as well.
The Jackets pick it right back up tomorrow night in Minnesota, taking on the Wild at 8:00 PM.