Hockey is a funny game. Sometimes, just when things appear hopeless, a club pulls a rabbit out of the hat and earns an improbable victory. Such was the case for Columbus in Carolina just before Christmas, when two late goals earned a head-scratching win. Other times, such as last night's game in Newark, New Jersey, the good guys dominate the play, but have to struggle mightily to earn two points. The 2 - 1 shoot out victory over the New Jersey Devils was a testament to tenacity, as they had to overcome a vintage performance by one of the top two or three goalies in NHL history to do it.
Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object
In the pre-game build-up, much was made of the Christmas break, and whether the Blue Jackets would come out flat, having lost the edge obtained by consecutive wins over the Flyers and Hurricanes. There was no cause for concern. Columbus came out of the gate flying, withstood a few early rushes by the Devils offense, and then turned up the pressure.
This game was all about the pressure of the Blue Jackets' offense and forecheck and the ageless Martin Brodeur, who -- on this night -- was as good as he could be. But for Brodeur's heroics, this one would easily have been 3-0 or 4-0 after two, as the Blue Jackets created turnovers, consistently beat the Devils to the puck, found empty seams in the defense, and dominated the neutral zone. Ultimately, however, they needed to find a way to beat Brodeur, which proved to be a daunting challenge.
The Blue Jackets hit pay dirt at the 7:34 mark of the first period, earning that all-important first goal, and -- at the time -- appeared to be the first of many goals to come. Jack Johnson started the play with a stretch pass to Artem Anisimov at the far edge of the neutral zone. Anisimov, in turn, nudged a deft pass to Cam Atkinson on his right, who beat his defender and approached Brodeur unmolested from the right wing. Nobody would have criticized Atkinson for taking that shot, but he waited for Brodeur to commit, and saw Brandon Dubinsky filling the middle. He placed the puck squarely on Dubinsky's stick, and it appeared that all was needed was the goal celebration. However, Brodeur had other ideas. He managed to get back in position, and caught Dubinsky's shot with his right pad, sending the rebound in front. With Brodeur down, Anisimov joined the fray, found the puck and roofed a backhand for his 11th goal of the season and the early 1- 0 lead.
Anisimov is finally being rewarded with points for the effort he has been expending in all three zones. While he'll surrender the odd turnover, he creates far more opportunities than he surrenders, and has that mix of skill, discipline and strength that can prove essential down the stretch -- as he showed last year.
If it had been suggested that Anisimov's goal would be the only Blue Jackets tally in regulation and overtime, you probably would have been willing to make a rather sizable contrary bet. Columbus out-shot the Devils 8-5 in the first, 10-4 in the second, 9-8 in the third and 3-0 in OT. The Columbus forwards -- particularly Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner -- were creating havoc in the offensive zone, forcing New Jersey to take penalties and creating prime scoring opportunities. They decisively won the face-off battle, and time of possession would not have been close. In the end, however, all roads ended at Brodeur, who consistently made remarkable save after remarkable save. Particularly memorable was his denial of a point blank chance from Fedor Tyutin, off a nice feed from behind the net by R.J. Umberger.
If a flaw was to be found, it was on the power play, where the Blue Jackets went scoreless in five opportunities, including a 57 second 5-on-3 advantage early in the third. Again, much of this was due to Brodeur being in the right place at the right time. Still, the Columbus entries were inconsistent, and they found themselves bunched up too frequently, making the defense's job easier and limiting passing opportunities.
At the other end of the ice, the Blue Jackets were consistently good. They found ways to neutralize Jaromir Jagr's line, skated hard to the puck, and made quick and accurate exit passes. The Blue Jackets met the Devils at the blue line, and provided little room to operate in the neutral zone. Curtis McElhinney surrendered a couple of worrisome rebounds, but these were pounced on and cleared with alacrity by an attentive defense. The penalty kill was solid, successfully neutralizing all three New Jersey power plays.
Despite Brodeur's best efforts, all signs pointed to a 1-0 New Jersey loss. While they managed more shots in the third, there was no massive shift of momentum. Instead, a single flurry evened the score, and was the result of a sequence of small mistakes. Blake Comeau overcommitted on the fore-check, and was beaten badly as the Devils came through the neutral zone with a four man rush. Derek MacKenzie similarly got caught flat-footed in the neutral zone, and ended up trailing the play. The puck worked quickly to Marek Zidlicky at the right point, who fired a shot on goal. Patrik Elias deflected the puck down low, but McElhinney made the save. However, there was no chance to control the rebound, which careened to McElhinney's right. Adam Henrique, storming the crease, barely beat Jack Skille to the puck, and parked it in the net before crashing into McElhinney. Tie game, and the domination was now irrelevant.
To the Blue Jackets' credit, they were only briefly daunted by this turn of events. They surrendered a slightly scary chance on the ensuing shift, but quickly regained their poise, and pressure, and had control of the contest for the remainder of regulation and overtime.
If you had conducted a straw poll of Blue Jackets fans at the end of OT, there would likely have not been abounding confidence in the prospects for a shootout victory. In case you missed it, Brodeur was stopping everything that came his way, while McElhinney was decent, but largely untested for the night. The Devils would undoubtedly trot out guys like Jagr and Elias, who know a thing or two about scoring goals. The stars did not appear to be aligning in the Blue Jackets' favor. Then again, the stars could be wrong . . .
New Jersey trotted out Jagr, Ryan Clowe and Elias, in that order. The only surprises were the inclusion of Clowe, who was playing in his first game since early October, and their election to go first. The Blue Jackets sent Mark Letestu, Johansen and Atkinson on the ice. Again, largely predictable, with the exception of Letestu, who has struggled to find his scoring touch in his parade up and down the line ladder this season.
Jagr came in slowly, then accelerated with a left-right move intended to catch McElhinney going the wrong way, but McElhinney stayed home, saving the shot on his left pad. Letestu put a nice shot on Brodeur, who just managed to deflect it with his stick. Clowe caught McElhinney squarely in the chest, and Johansen missed wide right. After McElhinney made the save on Elias look easy, it all came down to Atkinson. Displaying the certitude of youth, Atkinson wasted little time in bringing the puck squarely on net, make a quick deke to the right, then parked the puck through the five hole. Game, set, match to Columbus, with Atkinson notching his second game-winning shootout goal of the season. The irony of the brash youngster beating the Hall of Famer for the win was merely icing on the cake.
While it's easy to over-state the importance of wins such as this one, it does have significance. It brings the Blue Jackets back to the .500 mark, and gives them three wins out of four attempts in an important stretch of games with Metropolitan Division opponents. They now sit in fourth place in the Metro, tied in points (38) with Philadelphia, who has a game in hand. Columbus holds a game in hand on both New Jersey and Carolina, who are also at the 38 point logjam. Additionally, the Blue Jackets are now edging into the conference-wide discussion for a wild card slot, pulling within five points of both Toronto and Detroit, while holding games in hand on both of those teams.
More importantly, with the halfway mark looming, the Blue Jackets have managed to insert themselves into the thick of the playoff picture, playing without Nathan Horton and with injuries to multiple key players, including Sergei Bobrovsky. With Horton, Bobrovsky and Matt Calvert all slated to travel with the club on their trip to Colorado, Phoenix, St. Louis and New York, it is fair to say that Columbus has withstood the storm fairly well, and are poised to do some damage in the second half. Intriguingly, they are also demonstrating that they can win in different ways -- capable of putting serious numbers on the board, or prevailing in a defensive battle. That's the kind of versatility that pays dividends in a playoff race.
For now, the focus remains one game at a time, as the club embarks on a busy stretch between the Christmas and Olympic breaks. It promises to be fun.