Everyone knows the numbers by this point. Eight wins in a row. Three losses in a row. Two wins in a row. Overall, ten out of thirteen on the plus side of the ledger. Still, heading to The Golden State to face the top three teams in the Pacific -including the top team in hockey -- is a stern test. Entering the trip opener in Anaheim, the Blue Jackets had posted a couple of wins without playing their "A"game, so some trepidation was warranted facing a club that boasts a 22-3-2 home record. However, the game is played on the ice, not by the numbers, so let's run down the action.
Round 1 -- Sparring
It may be a cliche, but this contest began much like a prize fight. The two clubs relied on their respective skills, yet showed appropriate respect for the ability of their opponent to score with a quick shot to the chin.
In the early going, Anaheim had the bulk of the possession and momentum. They used their home confidence, their chemistry and size to dominate possession in the offensive end, forcing some serial icing by Columbus, and eventually building a 6 - 2 shot advantage, but having little to show for it. The Blue Jackets were careful to maintain positioning, and not allow the wingers to gain leverage on the outside and create turmoil in the middle. Sure, there were a couple of defensive lapses, but Sergei Bobrovsky was there to stop those. Otherwise, the Ducks were held to the perimeter, where the danger level was relatively low.
For their part, the Blue Jackets relied on their skill, their speed and their positioning to minimize turnovers, gain proper positioning and slowly turn the possession tide to neutral, then in their favor. A huge factor here was a 15-5 dominance in the face-off circle, including a 6-0 performance by Ryan Johansen. Slowly, the charge of the Ducks seemed to have less enthusiasm, and the Jackets attack posed greater danger.
The breakthrough came at the 11:10 mark. Boone Jenner was tenacious and skilled in maintaining possession beneath the goal line, and eventually worked the puck over to Nathan Horton below the line on the Andersen's right. Horton patiently waited for the play to develop, while Jenner drove the middle, taking a defenseman with him and screening Frederik Andersen. Horton fed Johansen in the free spot vacated by Jenner, and Johansen buried his 23rd of the year.
The balance of the period was another series of jabs between the club, with the Blue Jackets having the better of the battle. They intelligently avoided any penalties, and had a credible power play of their own, with a few solid chances. At the end, they held a 10-8 advantage in shots and an all important lead.
Round 2 --- Punch . . .and Counterpunch
Any good fighter knows when he had a bad round, and more times than not comes out for the next round with a flurry. The Ducks were no exception on that score. After the Blue Jackets took the opening face-off and maintained good possession in the zone, the Ducks assumed control, skated with speed, and built a 7 - 2 shot advantage by the midpoint of the period. Even the face-off circle could not provide sanctuary for the Blue Jackets during this spell, as Anaheim turned the tables on Columbus in the 2nd, 11 - 5.
As has been the case of late, Sergei Bobrovsky came to the rescue, stopping everything coming his way, including a terrific left-to-right move to foil Andrew Cogliano on the odd man rush. The penalty kill was effective when Matt Calvert was called for hooking at the 11:37 mark, challenging the Ducks at the blue line and preventing any serious challenges.
With just under five minutes left in the period, Mark Letestu won the face-off in the neutral zone, and deflected the puck to a charging R.J. Umberger, who was stymied by a trip from Bryan Allen. The ensuing power play had plenty of drama, as the Ducks played three forwards high, and came perilously close to creating some short handed opportunities. The Blue Jackets maintained possession however, and soon turned the Ducks' aggression against them.
With the puck along the right wall, the Ducks overloaded that side strongly, then challenged Letestu in the middle as he received the puck. Undaunted, Letestu swung a cross-ice backhand pass to Wisniewski, who had wide open ice in front of him. His laser skimmed the toe of Umberger's boot as he skated in front of Anderson, deflecting into the far corner. No distinct kicking motion, but a 2 - 0 lead for the Boys in Blue. It was an ironic goal, in that R.J. had not distinguished himself with his stick in the early going, so scoring with his skate was perhaps the only option available.
Some questionable puck handling in the Blue Jackets own zone gave Anaheim more energy than they deserved as the period wound down, but no harm resulted. However, with just ten seconds left in the farm, Artem Anisimov was called for a very, very questionable tripping penalty -- one that smacked more of anticipation on the part of the referee than anything else, meaning that the Blue Jackets would start the 3rd on the PK.
Stil, the Blue Jackets survived some body blows by Anaheim during the evil second period -- a frame in which the Ducks have a +30 goal advantage. Entering the third with a 2 - 0 advantage on the best club in the NHL was everything Columbus could expect. Would the third treat them equally well?
Round 3 -- TKO
The penalty kill started off the third with the same tenacity shown in the Ducks' first power play. They challenged the puck, maintained position and cleared the puck confidently. That took care of the first 1:50 of the period, but 18:10 remained, and this was the final round.
As fighters are prone to do in the final round, with the result in the balance, the intensity of the battle escalated and the figurative punches flew in earnest. 28 of the combined 69 shots for the evening came in the final period, with Anaheim holding a 15 - 13 edge. In this case, numbers don't lie -- it was a terrific period of dynamic hockey.
You're just not going to emerge from a championship bout without a mark, and such was the case for the Blue Jackets tonight. At the 5:45 mark of the period, Anaheim got a beautiful cycle going with Teemu Selanne finding Patrick Maroon, who made a perfect pass to Mathieu Perrault charging the crease. He tipped the puck past a helpless Bobrovsky, beating Nick Foligno in the process, and the lead was trimmed to one. A standing eight count for the Blue Jackets, but they remained ahead on points.
At this point, Columbus did what it has done so often of late -- responded in kind. Just three minutes later, Artem Anisimov won the face-off in the offensive zone, then maneuvered back to the right point to keep the puck in after a possession change. He found R.J. Umberger at the right half-wall. R.J. directed the puck at the crease, where Foligno was waiting unmolested. He poked the puck past Andersen, and the two goal lead was restored. But there was more.
Just 12 seconds later, Columbus pressed the attack once again. In rapid succession, Foligno took a high stick from Saku Koivu, and Brandon Dubinsky was cross-checked by Hampus Lindholm (one of my favorite hockey names). That provided a full two minutes of 5-on-3 hockey. Insult was added to injury just three seconds later, when former Jacket Francois Beauchemin parked the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty. It took 1:40 of work, but the Blue Jackets cashed in. They worked the puck to Cam Atkinson low to Andersen's right. Atkinson crept in, one eye on the net, one on passing options. He put the puck on Andersen, and the puck deflected to Foligno at the left post. Foligno obligingly reached out and tapped the puck home, creating a three goal margin with 5:53 left. It was a knockdown, but far from a knockout.
Anaheim kept coming, and created some butterflies in the stomach of Columbus fans when R.J. Umberger got caught trailing the play, and Ryan Getzlaf beat Bobrovsky to narrow the margin to two. Columbus stiffened, however, and even with the Anaheim pulling Andersen for the extra attacker, Columbus was able to stymie any serious threats. Two points in the bag, and two nights of rest before taking on the Kings at the Staples Center.
There are almost too many superlatives to cover in a single article. Bobrovsky was stellar, stopping 34 of 36, including an absolutely ridiculous pair of stops on Daniel Winnik. The blue liners were good across all three pairs, with Fedor Tyutin and David Savard really standing out. On the front line, Horton and Boone Jenner were beasts, and Brandon Dubinsky was all over the ice. Matt Calvert played a more disciplined and structured game than he has in recent memory, particularly in the defensive zone.
On a side note, the official attendance in Anaheim was 14,044 -- with many of them apparently disguised as empty seats. This for a team that lost just it's fourth home game in regulation. That's Orange County for you -- a Mickey Mouse fan base, as it were. (Sorry, couldn't resist)
This impact of this one is tough to over-state. Of the three games on the California slate, this was clearly the toughest challenge on paper. However, with San Jose and Los Angeles each losing at home tonight, you can bet that they will be ready for some revenge with the Blue Jackets come to visit. For now, however, this is a win to savor. A complete effort in a pressure situation. Nicely done boys.