When two NHL teams meet, the primary objective is always two points and a victory. But when victory seems unlikely, sometimes you have to look at secondary goals which might be served even in a loss.
For the struggling Blue Jackets, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Sunday matinee matchup offered a daunting challenge, particularly after the hosts had dismantled the Tampa Bay Lightning the previous day. On the other hand, the battle offered a strong opportunity for the Ohio club to showcase potential trade bait before Monday's deadline, particularly captain Rick Nash.
The game also marked the debut for Jack Johnson with Columbus following the defenseman's acquisition from Los Angeles, though he was unable to practice with the team prior to gametime due to the trade not being officially complete in the eyes of the NHL before late Saturday afternoon. Pairing him with James Wisniewski, the team would have a chance to see how the blueliner might fit into their lineup going forward.
Finally, the Penguins would have a secondary objective of their own - giving recently called up netminder Brad Thiessen his first look at the NHL level, while offering Marc-Andre Fleury a rest in the back to back starts.
In the first period, both Thiessen and Columbus netminder Curtis Sanford were sharp, though Sanford had the lion's share of the work. Pittsburgh would dominate possession in the Columbus zone for much of the afternoon. Hammering the Columbus net for 15 shots to a paltry 5 against their own, it took several acrobatic stops from Sanford on Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal to keep the game scoreless through 20 minutes.
Despite the hammering, Columbus came out with a noticeable jump in their play for the second period, with increasing physical confrontation, but the adjustment appeared to backfire when Derek Dorsett was called for boarding midway through the period.
With the struggling Columbus penalty kill facing the NHL's most dangerous goal scorer, a secondary objective was suddenly achieved in dramatic fashion.
With Rick Nash out to lead the Blue Jackets' PK, defenseman Nikita Nikitin would bank a clearing pass out and around the Pittsburgh D, sending it off the boards and into the open ice for his captain, who charged down the ice and blasted a shot through Thiessen for his first short handed goal of the season.
Columbus would proceed to protect their lead for much of the period, but the Penguins would finally break through on their third power play of the period when James Wisniewski attempted to clear the puck, but James Neal would intercept and set up Malkin with a cross ice pass. The former (and quite possibly future) Hart Trophy winner would collect the puck and unleash a wrister that cleanly beat the journeyman goaltender to tie the game with under a minute left in the period.
Tied to start the final frame, Columbus tried to keep Pittsburgh to the perimeter, but an attempt to take away a shooting lane by the newly acquired Johnson would end up screening Sanford from a seeing-eye shot by Pascal Dupuis that slipped between Sanford's leg and the post.
Once the lead was secured, Pittsburgh would intensify the pressure on the Columbus defense, hemming them into their own zone for long stretches before finally drawing another power play opportunity. The Penguins appeared to strike immediately off the faceoff thanks to a blistering slap shot by Kris Letang, but a questionable goaltender interference call would see the goal waved off.
Undaunted, the Penguins went back to work, moving the puck and forcing the Columbus PK to collapse in front of the net before setting up Letang for another powerful shot, and the defenseman would find the back of the net once again.
Joe Vitale would extend the Penguins' lead to 4-1 when he finished a shot from Eric Tangradi that had slipped through Sanford's legs, poking it across the line, and though Columbus would finally respond with a goal by Vinny Prospal off an odd man rush on the ensuing faceoff, the game had already been effectively decided.
In evaluating the newly acquired Johnson, the defender had several strong offensive plays and seemed to find good passing chemistry with his partner, but the defensive combination with Wisniewski seemed problematic, particularly on the PK. If I'm Todd Richards, I think trying out Johnson with Moore or possibly the more defensive minded Nikitin, and perhaps pairing Wiz and Tyutin might be a good compromise. Keep Johnson and Wiz together for the PP, but avoid the PK and 5 on 5 situations - at least until he can get some practices under his belt.
Meanwhile, though Thiessen was not exceptionally tested, the goaltender did handle 20 saves on 22 shots for his first win, while Sanford would end the game with a .900 save percentage, allowing four goals to 40 shots in the match.
Finally, Nash would refuse to comment on any possible trade rumors, though he did tell members of the press that it had been "...a great time living in Columbus." Though Nash spoke of the fans deserving a winning team on the ice, it appears increasingly likely that both he and Blue Jackets' management feel the best route achieving that product will be without the all-star forward.
- Rick Nash - If this is it...thank you. Thank you for your loyalty, for your class, and your attempts to win here. Thank you for amazing memories. Thank you for "The Goal". Thank you for the playoffs, as short and bittersweet as they were. Thank you for stepping up, and thank you for one last "Whoa!" moment to remember you by.
Vinny Prospal - The goal came too late, but it was still a nice effort and a bit of life to get the team back into it.
- Nikita Nikitin - A good effort from Niki6, and that PK move to set up Nash was just brilliant. Much like Prospal, Nikitin's debut season with the Jackets will hopefully bode well for his role in building a new future for the team.
- Curtis Sanford - A fired up effort through 45 minutes or so, with clear desire to win. Considering he got hammered for 40 shots, I think we can be happy it wasn't worse.
- Cam Atkinson - Congrats on the first NHL assist. Let's hope that this leads to more scoring out of the trade deadline - we'll need it.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- Johnson / Wiz - Hate to bang these guys in their first chance to play together, especially since they couldn't practice together, but this wasn't a promising debut. Too many cases of doubling up coverage or being caught on the weak side of the play. I think they showed enough chemistry, particularly passing, that this may be fixable, but it'll take time.
- Power Play - After the hot run, the PP is cooling off rapidly. The offense in general didn't really put much pressure on Thiessen, but the man advantage just wasn't.
- Todd Richards - Hi, Todd. May I introduce you to Ryan Johansen? He's kind of good. With the offense struggling constantly to get any penetration, I don't understand why the Johan wasn't given a chance to play up in the lineup, especially once the Pens had a three goal lead. Why not experiment with a Vinny - RyJo - Camsanity line?
As we wait for the final blow, the Jackets will return to Columbus before the next steps in reconfiguring this roster takes place, then attempt to assimilate whatever happens before taking on the Red Wings at home Tuesday.
I'm sure that'll end well.