As the Jackets welcomed the Washington Capitals into town for the New Year's Eve game, the fanbase in Columbus held a lot of optimism for one last win in 2011. The team had played quite well against Dallas, the defense appeared to be stepping up to compensate for the loss of James Wisniewski, Steve Mason seemed more in control, and even though the Caps are a good team, New Year's Eve has always been a special night for the Blue Jackets.
With a 4-0-1 record on New Year's Eve in the past five years, it's no surprise that the building was sold out and looking for a good time.
Unfortunately, what they got was a perfect representation of the season to date: Early excitement, interesting thrills and a blaze of hope followed by frustrating, sickening inevitability, and disappointment.
In the opening period, Steve Mason was looking sharp against a Capitals team that clearly had some issues thanks to coming off the second night of a back to back, making excellent saves against Brooks Laich and former Jacket Jason Chimera, but Tomas Vokoun was his equal, stopping a late flurry of attacks as the first period came to an end.
With the Jackets tilting the ice firmly in their favor, the sellout crowd responded with a glorious noise, ready to lift this team up. Fuel was added to the fire when Derek Dorsett and Alex Ovechkin got into an early second period tussle, but the Jackets would not break the scoreless tie until late in the period with Rick Nash busting into the zone. The Captain skated in after Jeff Carter forced a turnover from Chimera, waited as John Moore cut into the zone, then sent a textbook setup pass to the rookie d-man. Moore unloaded a clean shot that bounced off Vokoun's shoulder and into the net, and the building exploded.
Even better, the Jackets extended their lead to 2-0 just before the end of the period when Sammy Pahlsson cleaned up a long rebound in front of Vokoun and popped it in before the Czech goaltender could get back into position after a sprawling save.
The game wasn't so much a matter of skill as pure hard work and hustle, and the crowd loved it. It was the sort of game that made a perfect match for a Big Ten Football crowd, where the fans could recognize the effort going in from every player. Mayor Michael Coleman, who dropped the opening puck as part of the city's bicentennial celebrations, talked about the excitement of the game when interviewed by the Blue Jackets radio team, and fans were 100% behind him.
Unfortunately, it would not last.
Early in the third period the Capitals turned up the pressure, with Alex Ovechkin appearing to be a one man army against Steve Mason as he fired four shots in quick succession, and Steve Mason could not freeze the puck, giving up rebound after rebound that kept finding their way to the former Hart Trophy winner's stick. Finally, as he charged through a scrum of defenders around the net, the Great Eight was able to unload a top shelf wrist shot that Mason could not stop, and the Capitals had cut the lead in half.
Grant Clitsome and Dmitri Orlov got tied up in a brief scrap that put the teams into 4 on 4 hockey, and again the Capitals dominated the play before Alexander Semin took a Dennis Wideman pass in the high slot and fired a wrist shot that Steve Mason did not see through traffic to tie the game.
With the game still at 4 on 4, Washington pulled away as Greg Murray was still announcing the Semin goal as Dennis Wideman drove down the far boards and fired a shot right through Steve Mason as the goaltender came out to challenge the shot.
The Jackets attempted to right the ship and get back into the contest, but a Marc Methot holding call would drain out what precious energy they'd scraped back together. Rick Nash had one brief shorthanded chance that brought the crowd back into it, but Alexander Ovechkin would ice the game with his second goal of the night on the Capitals next volley, pounding a hard slapper from the top of the faceoff circle.
Columbus would get a chance to cut the deficit on the power play, but despite landing four shots on goal during the man advantage, they were left wanting, and another late period flurry with the net empty came up with nothing but a Brooks Laich attempt on the open cage that sailed wide, preventing insult on top of injury.
Final Score: Jackets 2 - Capitals 4
Normally, this would be the end of the story and we'd head into our final assessments, but this game came with one last postscript. In his post-game press conference, Scott Arniel was clearly frustrated, and made the decision to take his frustration out on WBNS-FM reporter Lori Schmidt when she asked him about the team's 4 on 4 collapse.
I've said before that I think Scott Arniel is a good guy. I've always been treated nicely by him, and I would say that before last night he had generally been respectful to members of the media when talking to them. This was not OK.
You frustrated, coach? Welcome to the club. Angry? Us too. But asking questions and looking for the truth is part of Lori's job, and she does it well. Snapping at her and walking off is not only a disservice to her, but a disservice to the professionalism of the club.
Contrast this display of temper with guys like Derek MacKenzie, Rick Nash, and Derek Dorsett who came out and answered questions. I don't doubt that they were equally frustrated and wanted nothing more than to go home and blow off their steam and watch 2011 go away. But they handled themselves like professionals, and they did so with courtesy.
You learn a lot about people in the good times. You learn even more in the bad times.
I think we've learned about Scott Arniel this year, and it has not been what we hoped to see.
- John Moore - His second NHL goal was a beauty. Again, I ask, why isn't he getting power play time?
- Sammy Pahlsson - Not only did Pahlsson get a goal, but he and the checking line looked quite solid against the Ovechkin line at even strength.
- Derek Dorsett - Dorsett played his role perfectly in trying to inspire the team and get the team into it with his agitation, and clearly had Ovechkin off balance for much of the game.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- 4 on 4 - As Lori pointed out, this team has been outscored 8-1 at 4 on 4, including the two scored in this game.
- Steve Mason - A great 40 minutes, but Mason simply was not there for the final frame, where the Capitals scored on four of their eight shots.
- Coaching - One of the things that came out of the press conference before the blowup was Scott Arniel putting the third period problems on "Four games in six nights." No, sorry, not buying it. Not when you cancel practices for most of this week, not when you brought in Kevin Collins last year and said "Fatigue is no longer an excuse", not when you repeatedly called out this team for their conditioning when you took the job, and not when the opponent was on the second night of a back to back. If you are claiming fatigue in this game, I put that back on the coaching staff, and I argue instead that you got outcoached by Dale Hunter and his staff. I argue that this team cannot play with a lead. I argue that we've seen this club fall apart in the third period almost every time they enter the last 20 minutes of a game tied or in front. If there's fatigue, it's for hearing that same excuse used again and again when it's clearly not the root of the problem.
So, that was it for 2011. Frustration, anger, disappointment, and pain. Seems apt.
Here's hoping for a lot more in 2012.