Jackets' Streak Blocked At Eight

Kirk Irwin

The Buffalo Sabres put an end to the Columbus winning streak, taking advantage of a couple of miscues, some suspect play in goal and more than a bit of puck luck. These things happen, and the good news for Blue Jackets fans is that this is a case of minor adjustments, not major failings.

All good things must come to an end, including NHL winning streaks, and the Blue Jackets' eight game run ended at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres, 5-2.  We all knew the Blue Jackets were not going to win the remaining 32 games of the season, but the end of a streak is nonetheless a melancholy event.   It is made more so by the fact that Columbus truly dominated this one.

Chances Surrendered, Opportunities Missed

There is a single overriding theme for this one -- the inability of the Blue Jackets to convert numerous chances, and Buffalo's opportunistic conversion of the few chances Columbus surrendered.  Consider the numbers: Columbus put 38 shots on goal, surrendering only 22 to the Sabres.  That's fine, but the context only comes after you consider the next number -- blocked shots.  The Sabres blocked 30 Columbus shots, while the Blue Jackets put their bodies in front of just 6.   Buffalo missed the net 4 times, while the Blue Jackets missed 24 shots.  So, all told, Columbus fired the puck in anger a whopping 92 times, compared to 32 for the Sabres.  It takes a lot of time in the opposing zone to fire that many shots, and the Blue Jackets frequently camped out in the offensive zone for extended periods, maintaining pressure while executing line changes on the fly.

The level of domination was all the more surprising, given that Columbus played the game with only five defensemen.  David Savard was a late scratch, and Dalton Prout could not be called up in time.   Cody Bass filled out the last spot on the roster, but spent more time in the penalty box (5:00) than on the ice (2:43).  Johnson and Wisniewski each logged in excess of 27 minutes, and all of the defensemen were over 20.

So, how did this one get away?

Small Mistakes, Big Consequences

Maybe Savard's late scratch was an omen of things to come.  Despite Columbus spending the bulk of the first few minutes in the Buffalo zone (as they did all night), Buffalo tallied first.  Mark Letestu lost the puck along the right wall coming out of the zone, and Matt Ellis grabbed it near the blue line.  He launched a seemingly harmless backhand in the direction of the net, and it somehow eluded Bobrovsky and found the back of the net.  While Bob may have been screened by Nikita Nikitin, subsequent events suggest that he may just have lost focus and had difficulty picking up the puck.

As has been their tendency, the Blue Jackets shrugged off the early deficit, and continued to pound away in the offensive zone.  If there was criticism to be found, it was that a little too much East-West play crept into the game, together with just enough hesitation to alter the equation.  To be honest, the Blue Jackets were able to establish such time and space, that they fell victim to the "fancy"play, rather than the direct play.  Several odd man rushes were defeated by simply making one too many passes, or hesitating just long enough to allow a Sabres defender to block the resulting shot.

No matter, Columbus pulled even at the 12:53 mark, when Ryan Murray made another one of his glorious passes to a streaking Derek MacKenzie, who semi-whiffed on the shot, but managed to bank the puck off the skate of Zenon Konopka to beat Ryan Miller for the equalizer.  Make no mistake, Miller was in top form all night, and was a key reason his club prevailed.

The back-breaker came with just 30 seconds left in the first, and the Blue Jackets on the power play.  A missed shot came out to center ice, and the Blue Jackets retreated to their own zone to regroup.  James Wisniewski made a lazy drop pass in front of the net, assuming that Ryan Johansen would be there.  Johansen had moved on, however, and Buffalo gained possession.  The Puck went to Ehrhoff at the left point, who fired a big slap shot at the net -- more in the ït's almost the end of the period so what the hell" manner than anything else.  As we have pointed out numerous times, however -- good things happen when you put the puck on net.  In this case, Bobrovsky made a wave at the puck with his glove, missed it, and watched in horror as the puck caromed off the right post and into the goal.  An end-of-period, short handed goal that deflated the 16,272 in attendance.

The second period was a reprise of the first -- only without any Blue Jackets scoring.  Just over three minutes in, the Blue Jackets were on another power play, and surrendered possession to Buffalo.  Marcus Foligno brought the puck down the right wing -- again with the apparent primary intent to eat up time, rather than present any offensive threat.  However, the Blue Jackets retreated as he entered the zone, allowing him to cut to the middle.  He fired the shot on goal, and it again eluded Bobrovsky, who seemed genuinely perplexed by this phenomenon.  Exit Bob, enter McElhinney.

The third was more of the same.  Buffalo extended the lead to 4-1 just three minutes in, when Steve Ott was able to jam one past McElhinney on a fortuitous bounce.  Letestu responded just two minutes later, converting a rebound opportunity from Derek MacKenzie.  That appeared to give the squad some life, but a series of missed opportunities took the wind of out of the sails, and the ship ultimately sank after a Cody Hodgson empty netter.

Lessons Learned

The Blue Jackets can be criticized in this one for a slight lack of focus, which neutralized some prime opportunities and created openings for the opposition.  The goal-tending was not good, but that's going to happen from time to time.  From a systemic point of view, the Blue Jackets dominated virtually every aspect of the game, except the scoreboard.  Two shorties is ugly, but truly is  not an independent area of concern.  Rather they were a combination of the lack of focus and some shoddy play in net.

The puck conspired against the Blue Jackets on this night, eluding their sticks in the crease, and finding glass and iron, rather than twine.  In contrast, everything Buffalo shot in the general vicinity of the goal appeared to go in.  Such is life in the NHL, and the important thing is not to over-react, start changing what has worked and put undue pressure on all concerned.  They have a big back-to-back with Carolina and Ottawa on Monday and Tuesday, and need to restore their focus by then.

In his post-game remarks, coach Todd Richards seemed to be keeping things in perspective, expressing pleasure with the level of domination, frustration at the lack of conversion, but no glaring concern.  That's as it should be.

One curious observation on the game:  Boone Jenner was a skating wrecking ball on the ice all night long -- creating disruption and opportunity whenever he was on the ice.  Yet, he had less than 11 minutes of ice time, exceeding only Cory Tropp and Cody Bass.  Not sure what that signifies, but it was a curious statistic.

This one is best put out of mind, and the focus honed for the final eight games before the Olympic break.  Carolina is playing some good hockey, and will remember the 3-0 pasting they took at Nationwide last time the two clubs met.  The Blue Jackets need to be ready to convert their chances on Monday.

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