This had all of the earmarks of a trap game. The back end of a back-to-back, on the road, playing a Winnipeg team desperate to turn things around and reduce the heat on their coach, form Blue Jackets bench boss Claude Noel. Add a very late flight from Columbus to Winnipeg, and the ingredients were there for a less than stellar effort.
The decision was made fairly early in the day to start Curtis McElhinney in goal, despite the heroic shutout effort by Sergei Bobrovsky the night before against Carolina. Bobrovsky had faced over 75 shots in his last two starts, and is coming off of a groin injury. The coaches wanted Bobrovsky to start against Tampa Bay on Monday, so it was a no-brainer to have McElhinney man the blue paint on this night. The only other line-up change was the insertion of Dalton Prout as a 4th line forward. With Skille and Comeau out and Tropp appearing to be a bit dinged up, it presented an opportunity for Prout to loosen the cobwebs and get some time on the ice.
Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge reported that the Blue Jackets did not have a morning skate, due to the very late (early) hour of arrival in Winnipeg. Actually, Columbus did have a morning skate -- everyone else just happened to refer to it as "the first period."
For about nineteen of the twenty minutes of the first, the Blue Jackets looked very much like a club suffering from pronounced sleep deprivation. They were a step slow in every zone, and the ice was tilted sharply in Winnipeg's favor. Just short of four minutes in, it appeared that Winnipeg had taken the early lead, with a Devin Setoguchi deflection of a Blake Wheeler point shot. However, Toronto came to the rescue, ruling that Setoguchi had his stick above the crossbar at the time of deflection. This was just a temporary reprieve, however, as just a minute later the Jets scored -- and it counted. McElhinney, surprised by an elastic bounce off the boards, misplayed the puck, and Winnipeg's Eric O'Dell punched it into the net off of Jack Johnson's skate, earning his first NHL goal, and giving Winnipeg the early lead.
McElhinney looked very shaky in the first, and only moderately better through the rest of the game. He had poor rebound control, seemed to have difficulty tracking the puck, and in general seemed devoid of confidence. Fortunately, Lady Luck was on his side, with Toronto negating one apparent goal, and at least three other solid chances bounced squarely off posts or the crossbar. It could have easily been 3 - 0 at the end of one, so Columbus had to feel relieved to be trailing by a single goal. The fact that the Jets held only a 7 - 6 edge in shots at the end of the first simply proves that statistics do not convey the whole story.
On the positive side, the penalty kill effectively dispatched both Winnipeg extra man opportunities. However, the only persistent pressure in the offensive zone came in the last shift of the period, when the Jenner-Anisimov-Horton line maintained possession and created some chances. It would prove foreshadow the events to come.
With 20 minutes of warm-ups now under their belts, the Blue Jackets could focus on the game at hand, and they wasted little time in doing so in the second. Columbus took the opening face-off, established possession in the offensive zone, and started to set up camp. Unfortunately, just 27 seconds in, Brandon Dubinsky was called for holding, ending the momentum and providing Winnipeg with its third consecutive power play. However, the Blue Jackets took precisely nine seconds to change the momentum.
Mark Letestu won the all-important face-off in his own zone, with the puck finding its way along the dasher to Derek MacKenzie on the left wing. MacKenzie brought the puck up the ice with speed, entering the zone unmolested. Letestu, in the meantime, had joined the rush, and had a slight edge on his defender approaching the high slot. MacKenzie sold the shot, then floated a perfect pass to Letestu. Ondrej Pavelec made an effort to attack the puck on Letestu's forehand, but the puck was already on its way to the backhand side. A soft tap in to a wide-open net, and the Blue Jackets had a shorthanded goal and a tie game. And they were just starting . . .
Just four minutes later, Cam Atkinson brought the puck into the neutral zone with speed. As he entered the offensive zone, the Blue Jackets created spacing across the line, while Atkinson dropped the puck to Ryan Murray. Murray zipped the puck to James Wisniewski on the point, who immediately found Atkinson low on the left for a lethal one-timer. It was a beautiful passing play, and shows the type of chemistry that the club is developing, and how potent the transition game is becoming. 2 - 1 for Columbus, with still more to come.
Fast forward another four minutes, and Columbus strikes again. Jack Johnson brought the puck into the middle of the zone, with speed, and found Ryan Johansen on the right wing. Johansen took the puck below the line, patiently waiting for things to open. Nick Foligno was inexplicably unmarked drifting down the slot. Johansen's pass found Foligno's tape at point blank range, and Foligno potted the puck past a surprised Pavelec. The Blue Jackets now held the dreaded two goal lead. Would that once again prove to be their downfall? Not tonight.
Less than a minute later, Boone Jenner went down on the ice to block a shot. Nathan Horton took the deflection, and found Jenner with a stretch pass. Adam Pardy had little recourse other than to mug Jenner, which he obligingly did. The referees took notice however, and properly awarded Jenner with a penalty shot. Jenner extended the lead to 4- 1 when he confidently zipped a nasty laser to the low stick side of Pavelec. The assembled crowd quickly turned from restless to hostile.
Winnipeg kept themselves relevant later in the period, when Bryan Little stole the puck in the neutral zone, and dished it to Tobias Enstrom at the left point. With some traffic in front, Enstrom let fly, and cashed in when the puck caromed off the near post and into the net. It was an essential goal from the Jets' perspective, and a fairly soft goal from the Columbus viewpoint.
The balance of the period was uneventful from a scoring point of view, with Columbus again carrying the play much of the time. In another statistical anomaly, shots for the period were even at 12. However, all of the Blue Jackets' tallies came ff the rush, when just a pass or two required to create and cash in on the opportunity. That doesn't build shot totals . . . but it does wonders for the shooting percentage.
One scary moment came when Wisniewski went down in a heap along the boards, with replay suggesting a possible knee or ankle injury. However, much to the relief of all concerned, he did not even go back to the locker room, and remained to finish out the game. Whew . . .
Finishing the Deal
Recent history has suggested that the young Blue Jackets can, every now and then, experience troubles closing out games. Would this be another one? Simple answer . . .No.
Columbus came out of the locker room with great pace and energy, and took only four minutes to convert once more. Again, the Jenner -- Anisimov -- Horton line starred, as Horton took a pass from Jenner and fired a shot on Pavelec. The rebound came out long, right to a charging Jenner, who wristed it into the net for his second of the evening. Artem Anisimov did a great job of keeping the puck alive, feeding Jenner and garnering the second assist on the play..
The only anxious moments of the final 40 minutes came about five minutes into the third, when Prout was called for cross-checking. About a minute into the power play, McElhinney surrendered a juicy rebound high in the slot, and Bryan Little pounced on it to cash in and bring the lead back to two goals. At the same time that Little was scoring, Wisniewski was wielding a high stick. He got called for it, and the ensuing two minute PK carried the potential of making it a one goal game. However, the penalty kill came through, squelching Winnipeg's last real threat of the evening.
Columbus would enter the sin bin no more in the third, leaving the penalty parade to Winnipeg, who took three minor penalties over the remainder of the game. The Blue Jackets were unable to convert on those opportunities. However, they did earn one more tally at even strength, when Mark Letestu parked a rebound of a Derek MacKenzie shot from up high, joining Jenner with two goals for the evening.
That created the final margin of 6 - 3, and the Jets exited the seen of the crime with great haste, seemingly trying to outrun the boos that came from the unhappy locals.
As a team, the Blue Jackets climbed above the .500 mark for the first time in recent memory, and brought their road record to .500 in the process. They are squarely placed in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race, with 46 points, and have a "real"winning streak underway.
Even more significant, however, are some of the stories within the story. The fact that Jenner and Letestu led the scoring march is a terrific development, as neither player had dented the scoresheet with the frequency that was anticipated ending the year. Jenner suddenly has 8 goals, and a sense of confidence and purpose that is can mean nothing but good things.
Equally notable was the club's ability to shake off the cobwebs and find their game for the final 40 minutes. It's not an easy thing to do, and they not only improved their play, they dominated. With a compressed Olympic schedule, and their positive experiences last year in a condensed format, the club is well poised for a second half run.
Finally, the ability to execute off the rush and in transition is extremely impressive. Horton is looking better every game, and Anisimov did everything but put the biscuit in the basket on this night. The squad obviously likes to play with speed, and is now discovering the way to do that responsibly. So, the Blue Jackets are quickly mastering the versatility needed to win in different ways as circumstances dictate. Bob carried them through some sloppy play last night, and the forwards carried McElhinney tonight. That's the way it needs to work, and is a helluva lot of fun to watch.
The Lightning come into town on Monday, presenting another stern test for the club. Bobrovsky earned the 1 - 0 shutout over Tampa Bay the last time they were in town, on December 3, and will be looking to repeat the feat. That was also the game in which he sustained the groin injury that sidelined him for a month, so he won't be looking to emulate everything from that game. Still, with the echoes of the Carolina game crowd in his mind, it should be a great atmosphere. Stay tuned.