Following Sanford, The Jackets' Defense Improves

It's been mentioned ad nauseum. Despite the loss last night, the Jackets have become what appears to be a completely different team with Curtis Sanford in net. Whether the team plays a completely different game with Sanford vs. Steve Mason is up for debate; I'll leave that to all of you.

What can't be ignored, however, is the improvement in the defensive numbers. Heading into the Boston game (Sanford's first start), the Jackets were allowing 3.71 goals per game, which was far and away the worst in the league.

Fast forward six games (3-1-2). The Jackets have allowed 9 actual goals in those six games (six and one-sixth, if you count the two OT periods). In the span of that time, they have trimmed their SEASON goals-allowed number down to 3.13, which is up to 24th in the league. Not great on its face, but a pretty stark improvement over 11 days. (It's fair to recognize that they've jumped from 2.24 goals scored per game to 2.35, however much that affects things.)

The biggest question is: which is the real team? Sanford can't possibly play this well for an indefinite period of time. So, the question that needs to be settled is: is it Sanford's recent play, or the improved play in front of him?

It's probably a little bit of both, actually. It's not like the Jackets are icing a completely different lineup. In fact, in my Bruins game preview, I wrote:

  • We're goin' streaking!! - The Bruins have won six straight games, outscoring their opponents 34-13. In other words, they're pretty much back into the form that won them Lord Stanley last summer. They're scoring almost six goals a game over their stretch. This is not good news for the Jackets.
  • Back that thang up - We finally get to see Curtis Sanford make his first start as a Blue Jacket. Try to contain your excitement.

That last part was definitely sarcasm. If only I'd known...

I don't feel like Sanford is playing Vezina-worthy hockey right now, but you have to give credit where it's due. He doesn't get rattled, even when giving up a goal. Right now, all of the bounces off of rebounds that were getting picked up by opponents and buried into empty nets are bouncing to the Jackets' players and/or getting cleared off to the side.

Which begs the question: are the guys in front of Sanford playing better defense than they were for Mason? I'm not suggesting that they tanked it in front of Mason in an effort to force a change. The questionable play was going on when the backup was Mathieu Corbeil and Allen York.

In fact, the "defensive system tweaks" happened before game 15 against Chicago. While the results didn't show in that game, other than a 20-second hiccup against Minnesota two games later the defense *has* been better since Game 16 against the Jets:

Game Non-EN/SO goals allowed
16 vs. Winnipeg 1
17 vs. Minnesota 3
18 @ Boston 1
19 @ Nashville 3
20 vs. Calgary 1
21 @ New Jersey 1
22 vs. Buffalo 1
23 vs. St. Louis 2

That means that in their last eight games (4-2-2) they've allowed just 13 goals that weren't empty netters or notched in the final score due to a shootout. That's an insane improvement. Is it sustainable?

I would argue that it's not sustainable to THAT level, but it's certainly sustainable if you look at the fact that the defense seems much more comfortable. Scott Arniel has been rolling the same lineup almost every night, and you can see the improved chemistry in the lines and pairs.

Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin seem to work very well together, which pushes James Wisniewski down to the second pairing with Marc Methot. Methot gets to stay on the left with a right-handed partner, which is clearly the setup in which he's most comfortable. Wiz is Wiz; he plays the same basically any/everywhere. Most importantly (to me) is that Aaron Johnson has played just once in that eight-game stretch. He's playing the role he was brought here to play: seventh man.

Finally, there's the issue of confidence. To my untrained eye, this team just seems more confident with Sanford in net. When I asked Sanford about it on Monday after the Calgary game, he noted that his demeanor comes from the fact that he's had the experiences of being a backup and of playing at every level. He's seen just about everything in his career, and that makes it easier to not get too high or too low.

And, the guys in front of him are feeding off of that. They don't completely pack it in when they get scored on (though it should be noted they've scored first in all but one of the games Sanford has started), and they're more confident in what they're doing. To me, they looked especially tentative in front of Mason, because most mistakes ended up in their net.

With Sanford, that has not been the case.

So, I think the answer to my original question (which was "[A]re the guys in front of Sanford playing better defense than they were for Mason?" - yeah, I had to scroll up and check, too) is yes with a caveat. They're not better so much as they're more confident in front of Sanford. As Arniel said after the Calgary game when asked if they were working harder, "We're working smarter."

Indeed. Bumps in the road like Sunday night notwithstanding, if they keep doing it the results will come.

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