Losing streaks are agonizing for all concerned -- fans, coaches, players, owners. Thousands of head coaches and GM's emerge, calling for trades, firings, new systems, old systems -- basically anything other than what currently exists. Such has been the life in Blue Jackets Nation for the better part of the past two weeks, as the club has found a dizzying variety of ways to lose. Tonight, however, the Blue Jackets ended the agony in the best way possible -- with a definitive 5 - 2 win over a divisional opponent. It was a game where the performance grew better as the game wore on, and fans glimpsed what can be , even with a short-handed roster of forwards.
Strange Start -- Decent Result
After the venting done by Todd Richards and Brandon Dubinsky in the wake of the loss to the Rangers, a different look and attitude was expected, and the Blue Jackets did not disappoint. Richards massaged the lines, with Dubinsky-Johansen-Atkinson taking the top slot, and Umberger-Anisimov-Gaborik on the second line. The club came out skating hard, creating space and opportunity. That pressure led to a power play at the 6:57 mark, when Nabokov was called for tripping a hard-charging Gaborik. (A later trip of Chaput went undetected). Dubinsky set the tone by giving the Blue Jackets their first lead since the Anaheim game, bouncing the puck off the right post, into Evgeni Nabokov's leg, and just across the line. It was the first "puck luck" the club had seen for ages, and it came at an opportune time.
The Jackets could not take advantage of their strong skating and creating of space, due to a familiar old nemesis -- the fear of shooting. Despite what visually looked like a strong period, the Jackets managed only two shots on goal, compared to nine for the Islanders. There were simply too many instances of passing up chances, looking for the "pretty"play, rather than the effective one. The Blue Jackets had seen how that can bite you in the course of the last five games, and the same held true this night.
The Blue Jackets played 17 decent minutes in the first period, but the last three were awful. Although the club was a solid 2-for-4 on the power play overall, they made a travesty of the extra man situation they were given at the 16:14 mark. Nonetheless, the end of the period was imminent, and it seemed a 1 - 0 lead was assured. However, nothing is assured these days. R.J. Umberger coughed up the puck along the boards, and the Islanders crafted an odd-man rush. With traffic in front, Frans Nielsen's wrister found its way through the seas of bodies -- and Sergei Bobrovsky's legs -- to trickle across the line with just 35 seconds left in the frame. You could almost hear the air leave the crowd, and with the dreaded second period looming, optimism was not running rampant among the crowd.
Nobody except the players and coaches know what was said in the locker room during the first intermission, but whatever it was had an impact. The Blue Jackets came out skating -- and shooting. The resulting pressure had the Islanders on their heels, and some prime opportunities either just missed or were foiled by Nabokov. At the 9:27 mark, Ryan Johansen tipped an Islander pass to Brandon Dubinksy high in the defensive zone, and streaked down the center of the ice. Dubinksy found him with a stretch pass, and Johansen did the rest. Protecting the puck with his big body, Johansen parked a forehand high glove on Nabokov, restoring the lead and bringing the assembled 13,949 to their feet.
The Blue Jackets dominated the frame -- with 14 shots to 7 for New York, but still could not escape the frame with the lead. At 13:30, Hickey fired a laser from the top of the circle, and Johansen just managed to tip the puck. The change of trajectory was dramatic, and Bobrovsky had no chance to make the play. Great effort, but still tied. However, the mood among the fans was decidedly different than after the first stanza.
Finishing the Job
The exclamation point on the game came just 27 seconds into the final period, with the Jackets again on the power play. Wisniewski wasted no time in firing a cannon shot from the right point, waist-high, directed at the right post. Parked in front, Umberger just ticked the puck with his stick, finding the back of the net, and providing a lead that the club would not surrender.
Just three minutes later, Cam Atkinson (who leads the team in shots on goal) finished off another of the frequent chances generated by the "new" top line, with Dubinsky and Johansen each garnering their second assists of the evening. That gave them three points each for the night, and Atkinson was a gaudy plus-3. Suffice it to say that this line will be seen again.
Atkinson's goal gave Bobrovsky a two goal lead, and he showed his appreciation by making some terrific saves at necessary moments. The team in front of him did not let up on the gas, posting another 13 shots on goal during the third, and winning the overall shot battle -- a result seemingly impossible at the end of the first. James Wisniewski's empty netter from a foot below his own goal line provided the final margin, much to the delight -- and relief -- of the assembled crowd.
Plenty of Positives
As Richards observed after the game, this was not a perfect effort, but a solid one that saw contributions from everyone. The Blue Jackets found their North-South game, with players driving the middle without the puck on a consistent basis. That creates lanes for shots, and once the allergy to shooting was overcome, the results were tangible.
In the defensive end, the "prevent defense" employed by some was nowhere to be seen. The Blue Jackets were able to hold a fast team in check, supported each other in the defensive end, and orchestrated some quick, precise exits of the zone. They found ways to frustrate the Islander efforts to chip and chase, including knocking the chip down with their sticks. This was a specific drill in the morning skate, and it paid dividends. Bobrovsky was solid, and perhaps more importantly -- confident.
There are still areas where improvement is needed. There were some horrendous turnovers in the defensive zone and neutral zone -- usually the result of not be situationally aware. There is a tendency to either hold onto the puck unnecessarily long, or send it into either no-man's land or areas of imminent peril. This was less pronounced tonight, but a better club might have capitalized. Progress -- not perfection.
The best takeaway from this one is the ability to convert chances, and create pressure through a vertical game that took advantage of the available speed and skill. Though they did not make the scorecard, Anisimov and Gaborik looked much better under this scheme, with Gaborik having a sniper shot just deflect off the near post.
Particularly encouraging is the fact that this was done without Boone Jenner, Matt Calvert, Nathan Horton or Nick Foligno. As Richards said earlier today -- having those players back gives him options. It also provides the ability to maintain an up-tempo game for 60 minutes. That's Eastern Conference hockey -- which Blue Jackets fans saw this night.
It is just one win, but it couldn't come at a better time. With a long road trip on the horizon, the club is looking to get healthy and build on what was learned in this one. It was nothing fancy, but that's the point. Basics work.