All of the extremist positions had been vented, the cliches tossed about like Christmas wrapping paper. The travesty of the Rout at Rexall is old news, and the focus turned to the Saddledome in Calgary to see how the Blue Jackets -- individually and organizationally -- would respond to the predicament that they created just 24 hours earlier. While suggestions that this was a "must-win"situation were overblown, there was little question that their effort would be scrutinized microscopically..
Come In Off The Ledge
The opening lineup was remarkably unchanged from the Edmonton squad, save for the scratch of Brandon Dubinsky, lost to a foot injury at the end of the second period against the Oilers. There was no official word on prognosis -- or even the specific nature of the injury -- but Dubinsky reportedly made an effort to go earlier in the day, but just could not answer the bell. His injury allowed Artem Anisimov to receive his pardoning call from Governor Todd Richards, escaping the fourth line to center Atkinson and Jenner. Jack Skille assumed Anisimov's slot on the fourth line. Remarkably, Tim Erixon remained on the sidelines, despite the horrific showing by the blue liners last night.. (As anticipated, Dalton Prout was placed on IR earlier in the day, due to back spasms.)
To the relief of all concerned, Columbus came out of the blocks skating hard. They entered the zone with speed, maintained their spacing and created opportunities early. Particularly noticeable was Nick Foligno, who has sneaky speed, a lot of tenacity, and may have worked his way into second place in the captaincy sweepstakes, behind only Dubinsky. Shaking of the personal concerns for his infant daughter, Foligno was the best player on the ice in the period, followed closely by Johansen. Foligno drew a penalty against Wideman at the six minute mark, and the power play showed good control and patience. Only an unbelievable acrobatic stop by Reto Berra on a Jack Johnson wrist shot denied the Jackets the lead. However, that did not last long.
At the 9:21 mark, Nikita Nikitin laid a pass in space for R.J. Umberger, who made a questionable play near the blue line, but just managed to get it to Foligno on the left wing, who zipped a laser past Berra for a 1 - 0 lead. Although the Jackets were out-shot 7-6 in the period, the stat does not describe the action. Columbus once again had trouble putting shots on net, but created ample opportunities. Calgary also blocked nine shots in the frame The Anisimov-Atkinson-Jenner line looked dangerous, but Atkinson needs to start skating and stop coasting, which is when he seems to disappear on the ice.
The defensive zone was an entirely different entity front he previous night. Bobrovsky was confident and more in control of his rebounds, and there was good support, for the most part, and quick identification of incoming threats. They still have a tendency to play a "soft zone" defense up high, giving the Flames too much time and space. However, though Calgary had some extended periods of possession, there was enough support to snuff out the threats.
All in all, it was an solid opening gambit, enough to call the jumpers in from the ledge and to the sofa for the next period.
The second period was an exercise in control, rather than opportunity. Again, the Blue Jackets's skating gave them some opportunities, but a few of those were quashed by R.J. Umberger's inability to make a quick decision with the puck. Still, they spent a good portion of the period in the offensive zone, forcing the Flames to expend a lot of their energy in the defensive end of the ice. Derek MacKenzie fought back spasms throughout the period, but still pulled shifts all the way to the end. Obviously, the club can ill-afford another injury up front.
The second period was all about control and discipline in all three zones, but particularly in the neutral zone. The Blue Jackets maintained an aggressive forecheck, which stymied the Flames' attempts at organized breakouts. Columbus was able to reverse the flow of the puck repeatedly, and when the puck did make it into their own zone, they quickly neutralized the offensive potential. Bobrovsky was only called upon to intervene during a couple of flurries, and he did so with alacrity.
Boone Jenner, Artem Anisimov, Blake Comeau and Ryan Murray were the standouts of the period. Anisimov looked more confident and in control than he has in a long time, and Jenner continues to do all of the little things that make a difference. Comeau is all over the ice, creating space and showing more puck skill than you might think. Murray is. . . well, just a helluva hockey player. His poise and execution are just beautiful things to watch.
Again, the statistics did not reflect the momentum of the period, as the Jackets never were seriously threatened. Calgary had an 8-7 shot advantage in the stanza (and 15-13 overall), had a big 13-4 edge in blocked shots, and a narrow 15-13 advantage in face-offs. However, this simply illustrates a point -- that the Blue Jackets need to convert all of that domination into goals. Heading into the third with a slim 1 - 0 lead on the road is a shaky position, but it certainly beats the alternative. Cycling is great, and pretty to watch, and the low-high passes are also impressive, but they are not ends in themselves. The whole point is to score goals, and right now the club seems to have more guys interested in passing than shooting.
One major element of discipline that cannot be ignored is the fact that the Blue Jackets avoided the confines of the penalty box during the first 40 minutes. That's huge in any road game, but most certainly for Columbus, after a positively transparent effort last night on the PK.
Solid, if not spectacular hockey was the byword for the first two periods. But could the club make it a sixty minute effort?
The good news is that the Blue Jackets came close to playing sixty minutes of hockey. Call it 55 minutes, including 2:25 of overtime. The problem is that they abdicated the ice for the first seven minute or so of the third period. They stopped skating, exerted no offensive pressure, and simply fed the aspirations of a Calgary team that came out with desperation. The Flames carried the play and tilted the ice, with the predictable result. A stretch pass to Joe Colborne caught Jack Johnson napping, and Colborne was able to use his large frame to protect the puck and park a nifty backhand behind Bobrovsky. Suddenly it was a tie game, and folks were creeping off the sofa to go back on the ledge.
To the club's credit, they righted the ship -- and leveled the ice -- once again getting the legs moving, being active in all three zones and diffusing the pressure in their own zone. Still, much of the effort was expended in passing and cycling, with few true scoring opportunities. Still, they regained control of the game and extended matters through the end of regulation, guaranteeing at least a point. While not on the ledge, the folks on the sofa were fidgeting with their Xanax bottles.
Columbus came out strong in overtime, and really carried the play throughout. After stemming a brief Calgary rally, during which Bobrovsky was run over, triggering a delayed penalty, the Jackets took to the offensive zone with speed -- and an extra attacker. Anisimov carried the play and showed terrific patience in moving the puck across the crease, finding a seem, and firing a shot. It was blocked, as was a follow up by Atkinson, but the force of the attack sucked all of the Flames to the center of the ice. The puck caromed to Savard, who fired another shot, which was blocked. This time, however, it went right to Nikita Nikitin on the left, who had 24 square feet of net to look at -- and did not miss the opportunity. Two points in hand, and you could hear the collective exhales of relief, from the Saddledome to the sofa.
Good News & Bad News
Of course it was important for the Blue Jackets to put the Edmonton matter behind them, and to come out in a back-to-back and garner two points was huge. They showed control and discipline (no penalties in 62+ minutes), even without their spiritual leader in Dubinsky. There were a lot of contributors to this win, which is a distinct positive. Anisimov is on the verge of a breakout, and that could be huge. Atkinson is hopefully in about the same situation, and Jenner needs to start looking for more offensive opportunities. Foligno seems ready to pick up any slack that Dubinsky's absence might precipitate.
The problem is that even a Ken Hitchcock club cannot consistently win NHL games with fewer than 20 shots on goal. Again the Todd Richards mantra of "battle"and "compete"is fine, but only to a point. Battling and competing is only useful to the extent that it creates opportunities to score (or prevent the opposition from scoring). That's where the skill and talent kick in -- converting those chances. There are few guys willing to step up and take on the shooting mantle. The club is in desperate need of a 45 shot, 8 goal game to loosen up the guys and get the offensive juices flowing.
In the final analysis, Columbus has 4 of 6 points on this road trip and 9 of the last 14 possible points. They found a way to win this one, when it had all the earmarks of one that could slip away early in the third. There's value in that fact, which can be leveraged later in the year, when the pressure is ratcheted up a few notches. For now, it's on to Vancouver on Friday. I sure hope the guys with the Xanax bottles wake up by then . . .