After a forgettable collapse against the St. Louis Blues, the Blue Jackets ventured to Madison Square Garden hoping to find their structure and gain a psychological boost from the return of Sergei Bobrovsky in net. With the Rangers, Flyers, Devils, Hurricanes and Capitals turning up the heat in the Metro, Columbus could not afford an extended losing streak. With tremendous familiarity -- and an appropriately accompanying level of contempt -- between the two clubs, motivation was certainly not lacking.
Perhaps what ensued should have been foreseen, but the Blue Jackets traversed the full spectrum of emotions in grabbing the game, giving it back, and ultimately seizing a 4-3 shootout victory.
Punch & Counterpunch
Both teams came flying out of the box, with the early pace of play both exciting and unnerving. The Rangers had the better of the early play, notching the first five shots of the game, and giving Bobrovsky plenty of opportunity to feel the puck early. He was up to the task, staying square to the shooters, controlling his rebounds, and looking very much like the hard-working Vezina winner from last season.
After surviving the initial flurry, the Blue Jackets calmed down, found their rhythm, and began to create some opportunities. The guy in the Rangers net -- Henrik Lundqvist -- isn't bad himself, and he similarly denied several prime chances that the Blue Jackets sent his way. An early penalty by Blake Comeau gave the home team the extra man, but the Blue Jackets showed good tenacity and discipline on the penalty kill, challenging the puck, shutting down passing lanes, and clearing the puck quickly and decisively.
The first seventeen minutes were characterized by common themes, some good, some not so encouraging. The Blue Jackets, in general, had the better quality scoring chances, but the Rangers dominated possession. Apparently not feeling the need to collapse toward the net, as they frequently did in front of Curtis McElhinney and Mike McKenna, the Blue Jackets allowed the Rangers to dominate the center of the ice, and allowed a number of shots from the point. ( The Rangers held a 16-10 shot advantage for the period) Some were harmless, some dangerous, but Bobrovsky was consistently up to the task. More disturbing was the fact that the Rangers dominated the face-off circle -- which added to their possession advantage.
The meaningful action came in the final three minutes of the first. At the 17:07 mark, James Wisniewski fired a seemingly harmless shot on net. However, Brandon Dubinsky was strategically stationed in the high slot, enabling him to screen Lundqvist and tip the shot past the unsuspecting Swede. The all-important first goal belonged to Columbus.
Unfortunately, a familiar script played out from here. Mark Letestu took a needless tripping penalty just 29 seconds after the goal, putting the Rangers on the power play. The Rangers held possession, and Rick Nash converted with just 53 seconds left in the period. Tie game heading into the first intermission, and the Rangers held the momentum.
Speed over Structure
Unlike the first period, the second featured action from the outset. Just 21 seconds into the period, the Rangers' young speedster, Chris Kreider, made a vicious boarding hit on Fedor Tyutin at the left point. Tyutin remained on the ice for an uncomfortably long period of time, but eventually made it to the bench on his own power. In the meantime, self-appointed enforcer of dignity -- Dubinsky -- manhandled Kreider in disapproval of the hit. When the dust had settled, Kreider had a 5 minute major and a game misconduct, Dubinsky had two for roughing, and the Blue Jackets had 2 minutes of 4-on-4, followed by three minutes of power play.
The power play time proved unnecessary, as just 40 seconds elapsed before Cam Atkinson made a textbook steal at his own blue line, streaked down the ice, and beat Lundqvist through the five hole for a 2-1 Blue Jackets lead. It was a much-needed shot in the arm for Columbus, and some timely showing off for the members of the Atkinson clan in attendance.
Columbus was still outshot 15-10 for the period, and continued to lose the face-off battles. Still, the possession time was better, Bobrovsky was invincible and the pace of play was at a manageable level.
While New York created chances through structured play in the offensive zone, most of the Blue Jackets' opportunities came in transition. A couple of close calls were thwarted by Lundqvist, and Jack Johnson was particularly active in leading the rush -- a surprising fact, considering that Columbus was playing with just five blue liners.
The Blue Jackets withstood two more bad penalties -- by Corey Tropp and Nick Foligno -- and used the momentum to add to their lead. Dubinsky led a rush down the center of the ice, then feathered a beautiful pass to a streaking Wisniewski, who channeled his inner Bobby Orr, burying a beautiful shot high in the far corner. 3 - 1 Columbus, and order appeared restored to the universe, despite a 31-20 shot deficit, and an uncharacteristically bad face-off showing.
Collapse -- Then Redemption
There have been a few times this season when the Blue Jackets have suffered inexplicable meltdowns, with the most recent iteration coming in St. Louis. The sequel came at the very beginning of the third. You've seen it before, so the gruesome description is unnecessary. The Rangers had perpetual possession in the offensive zone, and the results seemed inevitable. Brian Boyle buried a wrister at the 4:53 mark, narrowing the gap to one. Three seconds later, Blake Comeau took a slashing penalty, adding insult to injury. The penalty kill effort was strong, but Rick Nash buried a point shot, aided by a Ryan Callahan screen, with just a single tick left in the extra man situation.
Unlike prior instances, the Blue Jackets found their composure and their game, and actually dominated possession and chances for the remainder of the period. They actually ended up outshooting the Rangers in the third, 13-11, and by the time the horn sounded to signal the end of regulation, the horrific showing of the first 10 minutes of the third was almost a distant memory.
The Columbus domination extended to the overtime farme, where the Blue Jackets outshot the Rangers 6 -1, and maintained possession in the Rangers zone for the final 1:05, while enjoying a 4-on-3 power play. At the end of the night, the Rangers held only a four shot advantage, 43 - 39. Columbus had also narrowed the face-off deficit to 33-27.
The Blue Jackets rode the momentum into the shootout. The Rangers elected to lead off, and Mats Zuccarello chose to test Bobrovsky's glove. Bad idea. Sergei snatched the puck in his glove with an ease that bordered on alarming. Mark Letestu led off for Columbus, and just simply beat Lundqvist with a zinger. Rick Nash was next, and apparently felt that his two goals for the evening enabled him to test Bobrovsky's glove as well. Bad idea. Nash got Bobrovsky down on the ice, but he kept his head up and nabbed Nash's low attempt squarely in the glove. Enter Ryan Johansen, who crept in on Lundqvist down the middle, barely adhering to the requirement of forward motion, while moving the puck rapidly from forehand to backhand. After what seemed to be a dozen such motions, he elected backhand and parked the puck past the mesmerized Lundqvist. Game to Columbus, and the MSG crowd that had been insanely boisterous just 16 minutes earlier was deathly silent as they filed out. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets filed out with two enormous points.
This one tested the cardiac status of every Blue Jackets fan. In a critical game, they survived an early onslaught, made opportunistic plays to grab control the inexplicably surrendered it . . . again. In his post-game remarks, coach Todd Richards was uncharacteristically understated by noting that "We got away from our game a little bit [in the third]". The script was different this time, however, as somehow, somewhere, the club found the resolve and mental toughness to climb back into the game, control the action, and grab a victory where many would have bet large sums against it.
Certainly, the two points earned are both necessary and timely, and the .500 road trip is a credible effort. However, neither of those are the biggest takeaway from this one. The ability of the club to overcome what was potentially a devastating psychological collapse at the beginning of the third is potentially a transformational moment for this young team. That it came on the road, against a divisional opponent, simply adds to the integrity of the moment.
Of almost equal importance was the play of Jack Johnson, Sergei Bobrovsky and Cam Atkinson. While there really were no passengers in this one, the effort that these three put forth had special significance. Bobrovsky, of course, was coming off a month-long injury hiatus, and was largely responsible for enabling the Blue Jackets to gain their two goal advantage. A 40-save win is something special in goal-tending circles, and this one should be framed. Atkinson was certainly boosted by the presence of his family and friends, but he showed that he can be a factor in all three zones. Cam has been either a star or invisible this season, and the latter has been the case too often of late. Being a key part of this win will hopefully sear the message into his brain that similar effort is required every night. As Todd Richards acknowledged, Johnson simply played his best game this season, and likely for a long time prior to that. He rose to fill the gap left by Tyutin's injury, and was dynamic in the offensive zone. Whether his rejection by the Olympic team was the motivating factor or not, an engaged and responsible Jack Johnson will be a big boost for this club in the back half of the season.
Now comes three days of rest, with another key divisional match-up coming Friday at home against Carolina. This may have only been two points, but you might want to circle the date on the calendar. It just might be that pivotal moment we have all been waiting for.