There was an interesting dynamic as the Jackets laced up to face the Colorado Avalanche on New Year's Eve.
On the one hand, the team has historically had a lot of problems winning in the Pepsi Center, with only a few recent exceptions, including last year's dramatic OT win at the end of the season.
On the other, the club has extraordinary luck on New Year's Eve games, having gone 4-1-1 over the last seven years. (With last year's NYE, of course, being spent wondering if there would be any hockey at all in 2013.)
Things started off on the right foot - after a wonderful tribute to Columbus assistant coach Dan Hinote for the work he did both on and off the ice while a member of the Avs, the Jackets hit the ground running. Pushing the Avs back into their zone and pressuring Semyon Varlamov, they'd open the scoring thanks to Nick Foligno working the cycle with R.J. Umberger and Ryan Johansen, taking the puck behind the net and firing a shot into Varly's legs that rebounded right to the Johan, who went top shelf for his team leading 16th goal.
Unfortunately, despite outshooting the Avs 6-1 by that point, the next marker went to Colorado, and it was a fairly self inflicted wound. With the puck along his own boards, Umby tried to win the puck battle, but ended sending the puck right to former jacket Jan Hejda, who surprised Curtis McElhinney with a shot. It appeared to be a fairly routine save, since he had time to see and adjust to the shot, but the puck zipped past, and this game was tied.
The Jackets didn't fold, however, and ended up pushing play firmly into the Avalanche end for the rest of the period, but were unable to find a way to sneak one past Varlamov.
That would continue through most of the second period, with the physical play beginning to boil over between the two clubs.
Ironically, that would hurt the Avs. With the puck in the Colorado zone, Brad Malone went for a big hit on Derek MacKenzie, but allowed D-Mac to get the puck back to Fedor Tyutin. Cycling the puck to Jack Johnson and then down to Blake Comeau, he would move across, find a wide open shooting lane, and fire the puck on net, where Boone Jenner was camped at the doorstep to clean up the rebound.
Unfortunately, that's about where the good news stops.
Jack Skille would take a couple of hard hits on his next shift, and ended up having to be taken to the dressing room. The Jackets would announce that he would not return to the game. He is travelling with the team to Phoenix, but on the other hand, so is Ryan Craig. I'd expect him to miss at least a game.
Past the midway point of the second period, Jamie McGinn got down around the net behind Ryan Murray, and would tie the game after collecting a Matt Duchene rebound. Not a great play for Murray, but one of the few times this year I can say he's made a "rookie" mistake.
The next insult to injury game when Jack Johnson taking an elbowing penalty after a hit on Brad Malone along the Avs bench.
Our penalty kill was a major reason for the loss on Sunday, and it didn't look too stellar here, either. Ryan O'Reilly went down to the end boards, worked the puck past Murray and Artem Anisimov, and picked his shot to the top corner for the go-ahead goal. That's the fourth power play goal given up in the last five opportunities, if you're counting.
Actually, wait, make that five.
With Derek MacKenzie in the box for a hook early in the third period, Gabriel Landeskog would do the damage with the man advantage, taking a cross-crease pass from Paul Stasny to beat McElhinney, who had set up to face a shot from Stasny, and could not get into position to stop the tap-in.
Nick Foligno tried to drag the Jackets back into this game when he had a great individual effort on the next shift, taking the puck into the Avs' zone, catching a rebound from Umberger's shot, and wrapping around the net to close the gap, but the Blue Jackets couldn't find a tying goal.
As time wound down, it looked like the team was preparing to call C-Mac out of the net for an extra skater when Paul Stasny got into a battle with Foligno at the boards and fell over. Foligno would be called for a trip, and the Avs had a power play with just over a minute and a half left on the lock.
Nathan MacKinnon would take a page from Landeskog's book, and set up at the side of the net for a rebound, which McElhinney obliged him with.
Final Score: Avalance 5 - Jackets 3
- Ryan Johansen - Keep on trucking. The Johan leads the team in both goals and points, and is on pace for a 38 goal season.
- Nick Foligno - He didn't give up on this game, and while his late penalty was frustrating, I can't criticize him for trying to get the puck in that situation.
- Boone Jenner - Jenner's game is getting back to what we saw in the preseason. Perhaps not as much of a scoring machine as when he was on a line with Dubi and Gaborik, but a strong winger who can make space for himself and find opportunities to put the puck in the back of the net.
Bottom of the Barrel:
- Penalty Kill - In the last two games, the difference was three Power Play Goals, mostly surrendered late. The Jackets have allowed six goals in their last nine kills. You cannot win games in the NHL if you do that.
- Curtis McElhinney - On a related note, C-Mac seems to really be struggling. I'm thankful that Bob appears ready to return soon, but perhaps giving McKenna a start last night would not have been such a bad idea. McElhinney's reactions to several of the Avs goals seemed a bit off. I'm really wondering if he's having some lingering issues with the back injury.
- Mental Discipline - Both at even strength and the power play, the Jackets made a lot of little mistakes that added up into big problems.
Yet, even as the year ended with a reminder of old problems, there is new hope. Both Bob and Nathan Horton could play in Phoenix on Thursday, or at worst in St. Louis this Saturday. Somehow, despite the recent frustrations, we're still only seven points out of 2nd place.
There are going to be opportunities to make up some ground. There will be some relief for a lot of the injured with the Olympic break coming up, and last year taught us that we cannot discount this team when things get down to the wire.
There are still problems, but there are reasons to believe they can be fixed, and the overall team improved.
It's not a lot to grab on to, especially after the last two games, but you take what you can find, and we'll hope that 2014 may be a bit kinder to the Blue Jackets and their fans than 2013 was.