June 21, 2008: Near the end of a long day, Columbus GM Scott Howson looks at his director of scouting. With the Islanders selecting Kevin Poulin 126th overall, they're back on the clock in the fifth round.
Notes are checked. Names briefly spoken and then confirmed. A microphone is turned on:
"With the 127th pick in the NHL entry draft, Columbus selects Matt Calvert from the Brandon Wheat Kings."
For one young man, his entire life changed in that moment.
For the rest of the Blue Jackets' fans, it would take a couple more years.
The game really didn't start well for the Jackets - less than two minutes into the game the Coyotes were swarming, and a bad clearing attempt by Samuel Pahlsson was served up to Mikael Boedker. Steve Mason tried to adjust the the broken play, but Boedker was able to find David Schlemko behind the scrambling defense, and Columbus would hang their goalie out to dry as the Coyotes took a 1-0 lead.
A few minutes later, the energy in the building would get a jump start when R.J. Umberger was hooked down on a breakaway, and awarded a penalty shot, but the veteran winger couldn't decide if he wanted to go top shelf or five hole, and ended up banging the puck into Bryzgalov's pads to no result.
Adding insult to injury, the Coyotes would take a 2-0 lead after a series of failed clearing attempts by Derek Dorsett and Pahlsson where the "checking line" just kept kicking the puck back to the 'Yotes before Mikael Boedker outworked Anton Stralman for the puck, Radmin Vrbata pushed his way past Pahlsson, and drove to the net to score before Marc Methot could beat him to the net.
In December or January, this might be where I said "and that's when the game ended", but this is February, and this is a very different Blue Jackets team.
Scott Arniel did not use his timeout after the second goal, but he took advantage of a TV timeout a moment later to light a fire under his team, particularly his defensive players, who were clearly struggling against a determined Phoenix attack.
A little over six minutes later, Derek Dorsett earned a little honor back by drawing a slashing penalty from Nolan Yonkman.
On the ensuing power play, the Jackets recovered from a broken play after Anton Stralman lost the puck at the back of the zone. Stralman got the puck to Matt Calvert, who pushed his way in, then fired a clean pass to Derek MacKenzie, who slipped the puck through the crease to R.J. Umberger - and if there's one thing we know about Umberger, it's that he won't miss twice on opportunities like that.
The Jackets had cut the lead in half with the power play goal, and started to buzz. Skaters began to push a little harder, and Steve Mason got more and more aggressive with his saves as he challenged the Coyotes and moved the puck to his defense and forwards.
Even Sammy Pahlsson going to the box for a holding call (despite the fact that Pahlsson was the one getting cowboyed from behind, but we'll not go there) didn't slow the momentum. First, R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette won the faceoff and raced up ice on a shorthanded 2 on 1, and Umberger shot just wide of the post after the feed from Vermette came just a second or two late, just missing the open net. Then, on the ensuing play, Derek Dorsett, out for the PK, drew a tripping call against Eric Belanger to make it 4-on-4, and as the Jackets killed the Pahlsson minor and went to the power play, Antoine Vermette drew a holding call against Martin Hanzal to give the Jackets over 1:30 of a two man advantage.
Just under 30 seconds into the power play, as the Jackets cycled, Grant Clitsome made a good pass to Rick Nash, who fed Jake Voracek at the goal line. Voracek fired a shot into the traffic in front of the net, expecting to set up Umberger for another tap-in, but the puck would take a funny bounce off Michael Rozsival's stick and into the net past Ilya Bryzgalov, tying the game at two.
The Jackets would be unable to convert on the final penalty of the period, but took much improved energy and a standing ovation from the just under 17,000 strong crowd with them into the locker room.
Then, the real fun began.
With the Coyotes back in the box early in the period after a tripping penalty by Lee Stempniak, Kri s Russell and Calvert played some pitch and catch - Calvert sending the puck from the far boards to Russell at the point, who slipped all the way behind the net, then sent the puck back to Calvert at the top of the right faceoff circle. Calvert controlled the puck, slipped in just a bit, and fired a shot that redirected slightly off the shoulder of Derek Morris before going in to give the Jackets their first lead of the night.
8 minutes later, Grant Clitsome broke up an attempt by the Coyotes to clear their own zone, and kicked the puck back to R.J. Umberger. Umberger got in, passed to an open Derek MacKenzie, and he scooted the puck to Calvert as he drove to the net, flipping the puck into mid-air, and Calvert served it up, lacrosse style, straight into the net for his second goal of the night.
With a 4-2 lead, not surprisingly, the Coyotes started to get a bit chippy. What WAS surprising was that it would be Chris Clark who answered the bell after Lee Stempniak took exception to a hit from Clark. It looked more like a greco-roman wrestling match than a fight, honestly, but Clark ended up bringing Stempniak down to the ice to the crowd's roaring approval.
The energy of the crowd was electric as the period ended, and I started wondering if I was about to lose my Hats for Heroes lid. (Autographed, even! It figures.)
That question was answered a a little over three minutes into the final frame, when Jan Hejda saved a puck from leaving the Coyote's zone after Derek MacKenzie missed a shot. Hejda charged in, fired the puck into Matt Calvert at the side of the net, and Calvert's first shot bounced off a diving Bryzgalov....but after he grabbed his own rebound, the second went straight to the back of the net, and the hats began to fall.
This was the third hat trick of the year for the Jackets (not counting the Kubalik pre-season hat trick), but the first on home ice. The crowd made sure the players knew how happy they were to have seen it.
The hats fell for over 15 minutes. The referees finally had to get Greg Murray, the PA announcer, to ask the crowd to please stop throwing hats. I'm pretty sure some people threw hats, bought new hats, then went back to throw their new hats.
And what about my hat? I tossed it from my seat in 224, and I saw it land somewhere in 119, where I lost track of it, but I'm pretty sure it made it out to the ice via the zamboni tunnel. I'll miss it, but Calvert earned it.
Through it all, the crowd roared, and Matt Calvert stood their with a look of someone who just felt his dreams come true. Steve Mason left his crease as the hats started to fly, and made a beeline down to Calvert to congratulate him. Rick Nash welcomed him to the club. Jan Hejda skated out, took the puck, and made sure he handed it to Calvert.
His 20th game in the NHL couldn't have been celebrated in a bigger way.
Finally, it was time to resume play, and the Coyotes nearly gave up another goal due to Nolan Yonkman delivering a nasty hit to Jared Boll from behind and trying to instigate a fight.
To his credit, Jared Boll looked at Yonkman, looked at the scoreboard, and skated away. Then Yonkman knocked him down again, and as the refs whistled for the penalty, Ethan Moreau charged in to explain why that behavior was unacceptable.
Play stopped for another 5-6 minutes amid the scrum - less than a line brawl, but more than a frank exchange of views - and when the dust settled the Jackets had a double minor to work with.
Despite some golden chances for goal #6 (or as we began to chant for it, "Double Chili!"), Bryzgalov stood on his head for several saves, and the Jackets ended up having to go back to 4 on 4 hockey after Calvert took a penalty for a slash.
That was OK, though. It ate time, and time was valuable.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be the next to go to the box after a nasty high stick on Jared Boll that sent him to the ice clutching his eye (and sporting a nasty cut above his cheekbone for the rest of the night), but again the Jackets couldn't take advantage, despite pouring on 34 shots for the evening.
Instead, the final marker on the score sheet would come with less than a minute and a half left, when Lauri Korpikoski took the puck across the ice after the Pahlsson line made another turnover inside their blue line (though I think Anton Stralman had a fair share of the blame, trying to force a puck to the middle of the ice instead of just clearing it down the boars), and the score was 5-3.
Phoenix would get two more half decent chances afterwards, but Mason swallowed up every attempt, and the roaring crowd gave a standing ovation to the Jackets for the final 30 seconds of the game before screaming their hearts out into the night.
Final Score: Jackets 5 - Phoenix 3.
- Matt Calvert - One of the guys I went to the game with pronounced this game as the biggest coming out party for a Blue Jacket since Steve Mason's first NHL shutout. I think he's got a point. Calvert talks about wanting to play like Marty St. Louis. They're similar sized players with a lot of skill and aggressive noses for the puck. Tonight? He sure looked like it. All he needed was a fight to get a hat trick AND a Gordie Howe hat trick in the same game.
- R.J. Umberger / Derek Mackenzie - Talk about the guys stepping up. Umberger had hustle all night, earned that penalty shot, still had a goal and two assists, and was second only to Antoine Vermette in ice time. MacKenzie has stepped into the top six and just keeps showing why he's such a valuable utility player, bringing two more assists tonight.
- Steve Mason - Despite being hung out to dry for two goals (and arguably on the third as well), Mase just tapped his stick on his pads, shook his head, and went right back to work. He made some huge stops as the Jackets worked to come back, and prevented the Coyotes from finding any momentum before Calvert could sweep the legs and take them out of it. This mental resiliency is the Steve Mason we have desperately needed all year, and it's a big reason why this club is 8-1-1 in their last ten games.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- Sammy Pahlsson - Pahlsson owes Matt Calvert a steak dinner. Possibly an entire cow. He had a horrible night and was a -3 tonight. If it hadn't been for Calvert's heroics, the Jackets were losing this game, and Pahlsson would have been bearing it on his shoulders. Instead, they're celebrating being right in the mix as they head down to Nashville on Sunday.
- Anton Stralman - Another guy who fought the puck all night, and took a bad penalty besides. Maybe we need to call up John Moore just to extend his zen for the road trip.
With last night's win, the Jackets improved to 8-2-1 for the month. The first time in franchise history the team has won 8 or more games in February. Their playoff chances improved from 14% to 31%. Since January 14th, when they broke their losing slide thanks to the "Money On The Board" fan campaign, the team is 11-3-3. That's a .735 winning percentage.
If they keep on that (remarkable! Insane! AWESOME!) pace, they'll end the season with 16 wins in the final 22 games. That would translate to 100 points, and almost guarantee a playoff spot.
Can they do it?
I have no idea, but I'm not betting against them. This team has earned the right to our faith.
The Jackets will start a 5 game road trip in Nashville on Sunday. I hate to borrow a Rimmerism, but with the West so tight, getting as many points as possible on this trip is critical. If the boys can bring home 6 of those 10 points (or better!), I think we're in for some real excitement, regardless of what Scott Howson can pull out of his hat at the deadline.