"This is hardly ideal."
-L. H. Franzibald
From a certain angle, you knew tonight's game was coming. The Blue Jackets have been a second and third period team all season, and the first period starts have looked progressively worse over the last three or four games. It was only a matter of time before an opponent took advantage of those glaring weaknesses to put the club into a hole they couldn't dig out of.
The injuries to various players requiring a patchwork lineup and unbalanced combinations certainly didn't help, especially when the team was desperately trying to find a spark, but the writing has been on the wall.
The Jackets actually had a pretty good first shift, giving Brian Elliot some work and registering the first shots of the game, but the wheels quickly started to wobble when a bad decision by Tim Erixon to challenge Jamie Langenbrunner in front of his own net meant that Sergei Bobrovsky was totally screened, while a Brandon Dubinsky turnover at the boards opened up Barret Jackman to bomb the puck from the blue line for the first of three St. Louis goals in the span of about ten minutes.
The second St. Louis goal would come on the power play, and again Bob could take some blame, but his defense was equally suspect. In this case the guilty party would be Jack Johnson, who lost his stick and glove along the boards during a puck battle, but instead of either committing his body to shot blocking or heading to the bench, he chose to awkwardly fumble with his glove while tucking his stick under one arm. This is a rather foolish decision in 5 on 5 play, but to watch him do it while St. Louis still had the puck in Columbus' zone was just baffling. Patrick Berglund would take the puck on a smooth feed from T.J. Oshie, Johnson sort of waffled like he could decide if he should drop the stick again or lay himself out to take away the shooting lane, and one hard slap later the St. Louis lead went to 2-0.
Not to be outdone by his normal partner, James Wisniewski would get undressed by early Calder favorite Vladimir Tarasenko a few minutes later, trying some strange combination of interpretive ballet and pokechecking that, to his credit, did knock the Russian winger askew, but Tarasenko managed to acquire the puck while sliding back to his knees and still managed a shot that beat Bob cleanly, ending his night. Even though Bob did demonstrate a few impressive saves, including an insane soccer style headbutt to shut down a David Perron attempt in close, it wasn't his night by a long shot.
To their credit, the crowd at Nationwide gave Steve Mason a rousing cheer as he came into the game, and despite a bad situation, he turned in a strong effort. Stopping one St. Louis attempt before the end of the period, he kept sharp and reacted well to the puck, helping to kill a rather questionable penalty on Derek MacKenzie (if you stop in front of the goaltender after a save and Scott Nichol cross-checks you in the back after the whistle, it is apparently your fault), and attempting to get the puck moving out from the defensive zone.
The Jackets would leave the ice to more than a few jeers, and things would not improve when Artem Anisimov took a tripping call to start the second period, but again Mason and the Jackets PK got themselves out of trouble, and a Nick Foligno tilt with Jackman would start to get fans' attention back in the game, followed by a Derek Dorsett / Chris Stewart bout.
The real fireworks, however, were yet to come.
First, the crowd got a taste of the potential in Jonathan Audy-Marchessault when he tore up ice on a gorgeous breakaway, but unfortunately he decided to try for a cross-crease pass rather than taking the shot, and no one was close enough to receive the puck. (If this makes you think that JAM and Cam Atkinson on a line could be insanely dangerous, you're not alone.)
Then, the Jackets would earn a power play thanks to Jackman cross checking Derick Brassard, and fans would be treated to an actual display of playing with the man advantage. Cycling the puck and working it around the zone, James Wisniewski would send a shot in that Brandon Dubinsky would find and send to Brassard for a beautiful snipe from the faceoff circle.
(For all the complaints about Dubinsky not scoring yet, I would point out that he now has three assists, tied with Dorsett and Wiz for second on the club.)
After the cannon blast had faded, the fourth line once again looked to spark the club, this time thanks to Derek MacKenzie and Mark Letestu setting up a scoring play that came within inches of closing the gap, but after Elliot froze the puck Nichol would once again go after Mackenzie, this time sparking one hell of a donnybrook between pretty much everyone on the ice except for the goaltenders.
Jared Boll and Ryan Reaves renewed their undying love for one another through vigorous exchange of haymakers, which Boll has generally been accepted as taking the decision this evening, but the more interesting spectacle was D-Mac taking Nichol to task for his liberties, which ended in MacKenzie dropping his opponent to the ice with authority.
(See here for a rather NSFW visual aid.)
After stern lectures from the refs to St. Louis captain David Backes and Columbus' Vinny Prospal, wearing the rotating "A" tonight, the dust settled with 56 minutes worth of penalties being assessed, including Nichol receiving 2 for instigating, 5 for fighting, and a 10 minute misconduct (MacKenzie would only receive 5 for fighting, proving that everyone loves a winner), while Reaves and Boll would both hit the showers early, being issued Game Misconduct penalties to go with their fighting majors.
The Jackets had a pair of near goal experiences on the ensuing power play to end the period, including a Jack Johnson shot that hit iron and an Umberger shot that would bounce off Elliot's stick and nearly go in before David Perron managed to bat the puck out of the air safely, but would have to be content ending the second period back in the game, if not on even footing.
Unfortunately, their momentum would not carry over to the third period, even though the Johansen / Prospal / JAM line did stand out for creating several more chances, including drawing one final power play opportunity. The Blues were clearly on their heels, but Columbus simply could not establish themselves with enough presence to take advantage.
Things would get even stranger when Erixon would take another interference penalty late in the game, and R.J. Umberger would manage an amazing shorthanded chance that he unfortunately was unable to finish.
With under two minutes to go, head coach Todd Richards decided to pull Mason to try for a Hail Mary goal, and to his credit it seemed like the Jackets had a little luck on their side after Andy McDonald's attempt to exploit the empty net bounced harmlessly off the pipe, but what shot attempts they managed would be negated by some dedicated blocking work, and David Backes would close out the game with his first of the season into an empty net.
Final Score: Blues 4 - Jackets 1
- Steve Mason: This game was the equivalent of being handed a flaming bag of dog shit, and he kept his cool, stopping 13 shots and helping keep this game from turning into a total blowout.
- Derick Brassard: Though Brass had a few less than suave moments, his goal was a welcome sight, and hopefully helps him get back onto the right track
- Derek MacKenzie: Seriously, daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn. Maybe you should give Boll some lessons in the sweet science.
- Jonathan Audy-Marchessault: Clearly adjusting to the NHL, but equally showing promise on several plays. Give him another game or two and I think we're going to see some fireworks. The biggest compliment I can give him was I saw several plays where he clearly saw where the puck was going to be, and he successfully put himself in position to receive it.
- Honorable mention: The Face Save (I think we can all agree Bob had a rough night, but seriously. He saved a shot with a headbutt. How is that not awesome?)
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- First Period Effort - It wasn't there. This team, maybe, charitably, gave us a 30 minute effort tonight. Perhaps not even that. They cannot play like this. It's unacceptable, and I have no doubt that history could repeat itself if we see another game like this, shortened schedule be damned. Post game comments indicate that Dubinsky, at least, is sick of it. Here's hoping that others respond as well.
- R.J. Umberger - Yes, he had two really good plays tonight (that he unfortunately couldn't finish), but that's two good plays out of - my GOD - 21 minutes of ice time, much of which was spent chasing the puck, sending passes to nowhere, and looking nowhere like the player this team needs him to be. I'll be blunt - I think he's getting ice time on reputation instead of results, and until that changes, I don't know if he can improve. He needs a kick in the ass to get him going, and I don't think he's going to play up to his ability until he receives it.
- Power Play - Yes, they cashed in, but St. Louis came into this game tied for 27th in the league on the PK, and Columbus was only able to go 1 for 5 with the man advantage. Outside of the productive cycles that set up the Brassard goal, the club still fails to maintain possession or create pressure despite carrying the extra skater, and it's getting incredibly frustrating to watch. (On a related note, when the hell are we going to see Artem Anisimov on the power play? He's created some of the club's best even strength scoring opportunities. What does it hurt to try?)
- Vinny Prospal - This...this one hurts, guys. While I remain committed to Sparkle Motion and enjoy #VINNING as much as anyone else, it felt like Vinny was not playing with his normal fire for a lot of this game. Perhaps it's the travel, perhaps it's the short schedule, perhaps it's simply the fact that he's 37 years old and some days will be better than others, but this was one of the more lackluster games I've seen him play in Union Blue, and that concerns me.
- Tim Erixon - Honestly, for 16 of his 18 minutes on the ice tonight, Erixon was fine, but those other two minutes were two VERY BAD minutes. Hopefully a little extra time to practice with the more established d-men before Saturday's game will help.
Here's the crazy thing, kids: At 2-5-1, this club is far from out of it. A win against the 3-2-1 Red Wings on Saturday pops them right back into the hunt, and the fact that Columbus is going to get a big fat dish of home cooking for the next few games should be helpful.
That was a thing. It happened. Put it behind you, learn, and move on.
Nothing is finished yet.