Perception is a strange thing. If you put together an eight game winning streak, everyone is on board, figuring out where to put their replica Stanley Cups, and all is right with the world. Then, when you lose the next three, despite not playing bad hockey, the alert status goes to Defcon 2 and the next game becomes a MUST win. Now, if you approached virtually any fan and said that the Blue Jackets had gone 8-3 in their last eleven games, would they be pleased? Of course they would. Ultimately, the sequencing is of little consequence, so long as the final numbers lead to a positive balance on the ledger.
So, keeping the perception thing in mind, what if I told you that the Blue Jackets went 0-for-7 on the power play and surrendered seven extra man situations to the Washington Capitals? You'd probably wince and speculate that Columbus lost by three or four goals. On this night, you would be wrong, as the Blue Jackets scored often, walked a bit of a tightrope, and ultimately prevailed 5-2. In the process, they held that Ovechkin guy to a minus-5 for the game. That's right -- MINUS 5. Now, I'm not a big fan of the +/- statistic, but this one sticks out like a sore thumb. However, I digress. On to the action.
Keys? What Keys?
Before this one started, I opined that the Blue Jackets had to do three things to emerge victorious from this one: 1) keep the legs moving; 2) say out of the box, and avoid bad offensive zone penalties and 3) hit the net with the shots. For the first half of period one, they skated just fine, but made a habit of missing the net, and took a bad offensive zone penalty when Boone Jenner plowed down Washington net minder Braden Holtby. However, thanks largely to some suspect play by the Capitals, the Blue Jackets did not pay dearly for their miscues.
The Blue Jackets took two minor penalties in the period, and Nick Foligno incurred an additional 17 minutes himself with a fighting major, an instigating minor and a 10 minute misconduct for his brawl with Washington thug Tom Wilson, who was spoiling for a fight all night long. The precise basis for the misconduct was unclear, but it may have been due to the rather obvious retaliatory intent, as Foligno was seeking to vindicate Nikita Nikitin, who took a cheap shot at Wilson's hand earlier in the frame.
With the fireworks over, the Blue Jackets got down to business. While in the process of killing the Foligno instigation penalty, R.J. Umberger met the Caps at the blue line, and disrupted the possession. MacKenzie took the puck at the blue line on the left and steamed toward Holtby. As he approached, he parlayed his blade open and shut, then made a quick shift to the left side, and parked the puck into a gaping net. A shorthanded goal was just the ticket for the 16,047 in attendance, who were loud and energetic all night long.
Columbus extended the lead to 2-0 just five minutes later, with Ryan Johansen in complete control. He gained control of the puck to the left of the offensive zone, skated it to the point, and fed Jack Johnson, who put a hard shot solidly on net. In the meantime, Johansen had navigated his way to an open spot to Holtby's right, and deposited the deflected puck squarely in the back of the net. Johansen was playing with two new line mates -- Jenner and Horton -- and the change seemed to suit him just fine, thanks.
So, at the first intermission, the Blue Jackets had out-shot the Capitals 7 - 5, and enjoyed a two goal lead. The most dangerous lead in hockey.
Given that the Blue Jackets had been making a habit of surrendering leads of late, nobody in the arena felt entirely comfortable with the two goal advantage, particularly against a club that can make even large leads vanish in no time flat. The boys in blue were apparently tuned in to that sense of discomfort, as it took precisely 24 seconds to alter the equation. Before most of the fans could get back to their seats, Brandon Dubinsky skated the puck into the offensive zone, and let loose with a laser from the point. The shot cleanly beat Holtby, who seemed stunned that the shot had even been taken.
That set the tone for a period in which the Blue Jackets out-shot Washington 17-5, and enjoyed four power plays, while surrendering only one. The biggest concern in the second was that Sergei Bobrovsky would re-injure his groin skating to the bench for the extra man. That was certainly the most action he saw for most of the period.
The Ryan Johansen Show made another appearance at the 12:14 mark, when he took the puck behind the net on a missed shot, emerged to Holtby's left, made a deft little hesitation move, and calmly parked a backhand into the far corner of the net, his 21st goal of the season. It's difficult to come up with enough superlatives for Johansen's play on this night, as he simply looked dominant every time he was in the offensive zone.
At this point, Columbus had a four goal lead. Was that twice as dangerous as a two goal lead? It seemed that way at the 18:19 mark, when Joel Ward led an odd man rush on the penalty kill, and cleanly beat Bobrovsky to the far upper corner for a shorthanded goal that narrowed the lead to three entering the final stanza.
Notwithstanding the late blemish, it was a solid period for the Blue Jackets. After all, they had a three goal lead entering the final period. They couldn't blow that one, could they?
Dragging It Home
I'd love to say that the Blue Jackets simply brought the victory home with no problems in the third, but that would be a lie. Columbus once again seemed intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, committing four minor penalties in the third -- including a brief 5-on-3 advantage -- and allowed a blistering 20 shots to Washington, while mustering only seven of their own.
The anxiety level ratcheted up a bit just 3:18 into the period, when Eric Fehr snuck a backhand past Bobrovsky, after carrying the play for the entire period up to that point. It was now 4 - 2, and that uneasy feeling was sneaking back into the collective stomachs of the Jackets faithful.
A quality that emerged with this Columbus squad last season -- and has carried over to this one -- is resilience. It was demonstrated again tonight, when the Blue Jackets retaliated for the Fehr insult just 1:04 later. It was a nifty play that saw Atkinson lay a big check on Connor Carrick against the end boards, which allowed Matt Calvert to gain possession. Calvert approached the net along the goal line from Holtby's left, while Atkinson quietly disengaged and skulked around the back of the net to the right post. Calvert tried to jam the puck past Holtby, but found only pad. However, Atkinson was unmolested, and calmly deposited the rebound into the net, restoring the three goal advantage and allowing the crowd to breathe again.
From that point on, the Blue Jackets turned things over to Bobrovsky and the penalty kill unit -- which was superlative all night long. Bobrovsky was solid in his positioning, and controlled his rebounds extremely well, directing them to the corners. In the rare instances where an errant puck found it's way into a danger area, a guy in blue was there to sweep it out of harm's way. All that was left was the cannon blast, the big hug from Foligno, and the MUST win was in hand.
This was a cathartic effort for a club that probably had suffered a worse fate than it deserved over the past three. Still, that's hockey, and sometimes the puck bounces your way -- helping you win eight straight -- and sometimes it doesn't -- and you lose a few. Putting together a solid game, with robust offensive production, in front of a large, noisy home crowd was just what the doctor ordered.
Special mention to Brandon Dubinksy, who played like he sat on a hornet's nest all night long. Ditto to Cody Goloubef, who has leap-frogged Dalton Prout and Tim Erixon in David Savard's absence to put in some quality minutes. Artem Anisimov and Foligno are also doing some great things on the ice. Ryan Murray? Well, he's just ridiculous. In short, there were few passengers tonight.
There are some annoyances, which need to be addressed before they are exploited by clubs with more brutal efficiency than Washington. The rash of penalties is disturbing, though this was a chippy affair from the drop of the buck , and the officials (to their credit) were not going to let this one get out of control. They missed the hit on Nikitin early, and seemed intent on not missing anything else. They missed little from that point forward, and erred on the side of over-calling things -- most notably the holding penalty on Tyutin. Still, the goalie interference by Jenner and a few others were simply undisciplined moments that cannot happen, especially with a big lead.
The power play was anemic in terms of production, but several produced some real chances that Holtby just managed to stop. However, too many times --both on the power play and at even strength -- prime chances vaporized with whiffed shots, missed shots and over-passing. Umberger was a prime culprit here.
Still, these can be quickly dealt with, and the Blue Jackets once again punished the Capitals on home ice, when they needed to do it. Pending the results of the Philadelphia - Anaheim contest, the Blue Jackets will either hold third place in the Metro or the final playoff spot -- which they will probably get to enjoy for all of 22 hours or so, given that they have an off-day tomorrow. Still, they are in the thick of things with four games left before the Olympic break. Florida comes in on Saturday to close out the pre-Olympic home games, followed by a big three games against the California teams. A tough schedule, to be sure, but thanks to their recent success, it seems a lot less daunting than just a few weeks ago. Another bonus -- they will not have to face that West Coast jaunt when they are coming down the stretch in March and April.
Full marks for a great effort, with just a few anxious moments. This is fun folks -- don't miss it.