It almost seemed strange to see the puck drop after an Olympic break that lasted just about three weeks -- though it seemed much longer. Having lost Fedor Tyutin to Olympic injury, but regaining Marian Gaborik in the lineup, could Columbus skate their way through the rust and extend their record vs. the Devils this season to 4-0?
Portrait of Horrors
If you used the first period as a gauge, you might have guessed that the Olympic break had lasted three years, rather than three months. The Blue Jackets came out with intensity, but that energy could not compensate for an inability to put or keep the puck on their sticks, complete passes or make even the most rudimentary plays in the defensive zone. Once the Devils found their legs, they were able to dominate the time of possession in their offensive end. For their part, the Blue Jackets looked as if they had just landed on an alien planet -- and their own teammates were the aliens. There were white clad bodies standing in the defensive zone, with no apparent connection to a matching New Jersey player, astutely defending empty ice.
When the carnage came, it was quick and definitive. At the 6:09 mark, the Devils capitalized on what seemed like an eternity of possession, when Ryan Clowe cashed in on a deflection to make it 1 - 0 for the home team. Just 45 seconds later, James Wisniewski took a bad interference penalty, and 34 seconds after that Jaromir Jagr used his albatross wingspan to carom the puck off Sergei Bobrovsky's skate and into the net. Just 37 seconds elapsed before Ryan Johansen committed an awful hooking penalty in the offensive zone, and another 46 seconds before Adam Henrique converted another nasty deflection for a 3 - 0 New Jersey lead. A bemused Todd Richards called a needed time out at this point, though his expression suggested he didn't quite know what to say. Don't worry Todd, the fans felt precisely the same way . . .
Whatever was said seemed to stabilize the squad, as passes started finding tape and some time of possession started to accumulate. In a delicious bit of irony, Artem Anisimov got Columbus on the board with a Hail Mary backhander from the side boards that found a tiny hole in Cory Schneider's pads. The overhead camera was little use, but the side camera appeared to show the puck across the line. The call on the ice was a goal, which made Toronto's job a bit easier on the review. Not sure a call the other way would have been overturned, either.
The rest of the period assumed a more sane pace, and something resembling professional hockey emerged. Still, the Blue Jackets were out-manned in shots (13-8) and embarrassed in the face-off circle. Columbus had more giveaways and fewer takeaways, which always spells trouble, particularly on the road.
Despite allowing three goals, Bobrovsky was not the culprit here. While he seemed to be having difficulty seeing the puck through the traffic on the smaller ice, he moved well. He simply had no help in front of him. Only Jenner and Anisimov had credible periods, and that's not the way to start a playoff run.
Better Effort . . .More Mistakes
The second period has not been the Blue Jackets' friend this season, but Columbus actually played one of the better middle stanzas of the season. They started with a two minute penalty kill, thanks to a double minor for roughing taken by Derek MacKenzie at the 20:00 mark of the 1st. Unlike the previous two extra man situations, Columbus killed that one off and started to exert some pressure. They began winning face-offs, being smart with the puck, and acted like they had played together at least once or twice before. While the defense was far from stifling, the own zone play was more credible, though turnovers remained a problem.
Despite the pressure advantage, the Blue Jackets placed few shots on net. Boone Jenner came agonizingly close to converting a chance right in front, and a few other scoring chances went awry. Still, it was improvement, and effort was rewarded at the 11:42 mark, when Columbus brought the puck into the offensive zone with speed, and held a team meeting at the crease. Nick Foligno put the puck at the net, followed by a dangerous chance from Anisimov. Gaborik was camped by the right post, knocked the puck out of the air and off a defender with his stick, then parked the resulting carom into the back of the net out of thin air. A one goal game, and anything could happen.
The final third of the second was more of the same, with Columbus exerting pressure, but not generating shots on goal. (They would be 13-8 in favor of the Devils again in the 2nd). Still, the Devils were on their heels, and Travis Zajac was forced into a hooking penalty with just 34 seconds left in the period. Looking for a combination of late period and tying goals, the Blue Jackets instead reverted to the mistake plagued squad of the 1st. Jack Johnson tried to skate the puck along the blue line, but whiffed badly on a pass/shot attempt. While he was wondering where the puck was, Elias grabbed the puck and lofted it to a streaking Adam Henrique, who went in unabated on Bobrovsky, notching a five-hole goal that restored the two goal advantage and deflated the momentum Columbus had worked so hard to achieve.
Nothing to See Here
One would have hoped that the third period would have been a time of sustained pressure and urgency by the Columbus squad. One would have been wrong. While the third period was not awful, it was not the type of effort one would expect with a two goal deficit against a division rival. Yes, Cory Schneider made a couple of signature saves, but the Blue Jackets managed only three shots on goal for the entire period. Yes, three. Sounds bad, doesn't it? It sounds even worse when you realize that they played almost the entire final three minutes of the game with an empty net -- during which time they recorded zero shots. The Devils managed just 9, including the empty-netter from Patrick Elias that accounted for the final 5-2 margin of victory for the home team.
Passengers Step to the Rear
This was one of those game where all of the Blue Jackets' failings bit them in the rear. The key difference between Columbus and New Jersey on this night was that the Devils skated all the way to the puck, while the Blue Jackets drifted in the vicinity of the puck. There was little structure, and even less execution. On the positive side, guys like Foligno, Anisimov, Horton and Jenner hustled and made some plays, but had little help. On the negative side, everybody had some awful moments in the defensive zone, which is where much of the game was lost. Overall, there were far too many passengers, which is inexplicable with only 24 games left.
I have to lay a bit of blame on the coaching staff for this one as well. While Tyutin's absence was unfortunate, I would not have broken up the Wisniewski- Ryan Murray combination, and would have had Cody Goloubef in the lineup over Dalton Prout. Goloubef has the speed and puck handling to beat the Devils' forecheck. Prout just doesn't. Jack Johnson and Wisniewski were brutal, in a word, and it showed what happens when Wiz lacks the responsible, reliable mate that enables Wiz to take some chances.
Gaborik looked very good, at least in the offensive end. More importantly, he looked like he cared. Jeff Rimer suggested that Gaborik wants to stay in Columbus, so this may or may not be a four-game exhibition season for him prior to the trade deadline.
The numbers verify the quality of the effort. Outshot 35 - 16. They had eight giveaways and surrendered nine takeaways (and really more than that). While they came back to lead the face-off numbers, 26-22, they managed only 4 blocked shots, to 14 for New Jersey. Viewed another way, the Devils almost blocked more shots than the Jackets put on goal.
No time to stew on this one, as Florida comes back to Nationwide on Saturday afternoon. Columbus beat the Panthers 4-1 in the last home game prior to the break, and hopes to repeat that effort to create some momentum. There have been worse losses this season, and this is a resilient squad. Still, the legs need to move all the way to the puck, and the puck has to get on net more than 16 times in 60 minutes of hockey. Sure, the Rangers won, but the Flyers lost. The club cannot put its fortunes in the hands of other teams -- they have to execute their game and start piling up the wins again. It all starts again on Saturday.