The vagaries of the NHL schedule are sometimes difficult to comprehend. The Blue Jackets took the ice on Monday night and put together a terrific effort to beat the Ducks in the first game of the California Trilogy. The schedule makers then gave Columbus two days off to traverse the 27 miles between the Honda Center and the Staples Center. Now, having experienced Southern California traffic, there are times when it feels like two days to make that trek, two days off was really more than generous. Then, after a tense, hard-fought battle against the Los Angeles Kings, the NHL decreed that the Blue Jackets had to traverse the 400 miles north immediately, and face the always-tough San Jose Sharks the next night. Such is life in the NHL.
These are awkward games for many reasons. Some of the players have one eye on the ice in front of them, and the other on Sochi, Russia, where they will be heading to play for a range of countries before the weekend is out. The games are inter-conference, so the edge is a little duller than it would be were these division contests. Certainly, the Blue Jackets have the greater motivation on this trip, being in the thick of an impossibly close race in the East, while the Sharks, Ducks and Kings are relatively comfortable in their playoff berths.
Entering this game in the Shark Tank, the worst Columbus could do was go 1-1-1 for the trip, effectively batting .500. Whatever fortunes came their way in San Jose, they were going to head into the break as legitimate playoff contenders, for the first time in several years. With Ryan Murray banged up, James Wisniewski playing on a broken toe and the gas tanks running near empty, could they put together one more big effort?
Follow the Bouncing Puck
Puck Luck is a funny thing. Like Lady Luck in Guys and Dolls, it is a fickle, ephemeral aspect of the game, very welcome when it falls in your favor, but horrid when it doesn't. The Blue Jackets saw a touch of it in the Staples Center last night, when Fedor Tyutin's blast from the point did bent the inside of the post, but somehow did not go in. That misfortune followed the club north, at least in the first period.
Columbus came out skating well, and grabbed some early momentum with some solid chances on Antti Niemi. Foremost among these was a beautiful stretch pass from Nathan Horton to a streaking Ryan Johansen, who just elevated his shot too much, sailing over the top of the net. While that goal would have given the Blue Jackets a shot in the arm, it seemed instead to wake up the Sharks, who began to show their skill and skating, putting consistent pressure in the offensive zone. Still, Columbus was able to stem the tide, with some timely saves from Sergei Bobrovsky and some good play by the defensive corps.
Ironically, San Jose broke through on a seemingly innocuous play. After the Sharks won a face-off to Bobrovsky's left, James Sheppard circled and let a shot go from a sharp angle. Bobrovsky was in terrific position, but the puck deflected off a charging John McCarthy, into the back of the net. Lady Luck frowns on the Blue Jackets, and it's 1 - 0 Sharks.
Just 4:50 later, San Jose extended the lead to 2- 0. Here, the Blue Jackets were slow to get back on defense, and the Sharks had the manpower advantage. The puck worked to Scott Hannan, who was wide open and fired on Bobrobvsky from point-blank range. Bob was up to the task, and made a tremendous save. However, Nick Foligno was put in the awkward position of having to abandon his intended defensive post to try and get to Hannan. As luck would have it, the puck rebounded right to the area vacated by Foligno, and Patrick Marleau deposited the puck in the net before Bobrovsky had time to recover. A two-goal deficit just 8:13 into the contest, and this was beginning to look like one of "those games."
To the Blue Jackets' credit, they refused to let this one spiral out of control. Slowly, they gained traction, tilted the ice back in their direction, and created some credible chances of their own, highlighted by an apparent Boone Jenner goal that was disallowed. Jack Johnson took the puck hard down the right wing with speed. As he neared the right face-off circle, he centered the puck, where Jenner was streaking toward the net. The puck caromed off the shaft of Jenner's stick, off his chest and into the back of the net. The goal was immediately waved off on the ice, and Toronto ruled that Jenner's stick was above the cross-bar when it made contact with the puck. Replay was equivocal, to be charitable, but the fact that it was a no-goal call on the ice was likely the dispositive factor.
Still, the rush gave the Jackets the needed boost to bring the game back in some semblance of control. They trailed in shots, 13 - 9, but had some prime opportunities and the score was truly not reflective of the quality of play. Yes, Columbus was periodically slow of foot, but they ended the period skating better and seemingly gaining some momentum. However, with a two goal deficit, on the road, in the second half of a back-to-back, and entering their least favorite period, the stars were not aligned in their favor. How would they respond?
Angels & Demons
It took the Blue Jackets precisely 18 seconds to answer the question as to how they would react to the adversity of the first. They won the opening face-off, took the puck aggressively into the offensive zone, and battled hard to maintain possession. An attempted clearing pass from the Sharks instead found the stick of Ryan Johansen in the middle of the ice, above the face-off circles. Without hesitation, he fired on net and saw the puck skitter off Niemi and into the net. A one goal game before most people were seated. Johansen reacted with that angelic smile he wears from time to time, obviously pleased he was able to vindicate his earlier miss on the breakaway. Momentum seemed firmly on the Blue Jackets' side . . . except that it wasn't.
That old penalty demon reared its ugly head and destroyed whatever momentum and flow Columbus hoped to establish. At the 3:28 mark, Jack Johnson was whistled for the exceedingly rare double of slashing and holding the stick on the same play. Was he holding the stick before or after he slashed it? Still it was four consecutive minutes of penalty killing effort, which the Blue Jackets' legs simply did not need. The PK unit, anchored by Bobrovsky, was more than equal to the task, frustrating the Sharks at every turn. A liability not too long ago, the penalty killing unit has recently become a backbone of the club.
That's a good thing, because they had to kill another penalty (cross-checking on Wisniewski) at the 8:57 mark, and yet another (interference on David Savard) at 15:26. The Sharks provided Columbus with two power play opportunities -- one of them abbreviated -- meaning the majority of the period was played by special teams. Columbus moved the puck well on the power play, but could not solve Niemi.
In the rare instances of five-on-five play, Bobrovsky was impressive. Of particular note were consecutive saves on point-blank shots by Martin Havlat and Tommy Wingels. Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner and Johansen were creating some chances in the offensive end, but Niemi was up to the task.
San Jose enjoyed a 15-8 edge in shots for the period, fueled largely by the extra man advantage. Still, the Blue Jackets managed to narrow the gap and hang in with a determined -- and talented -- San Jose squad. But could they do it one more period?
The problem with spending almost half of a period on the penalty kill is that the legs begin to go. That's bad enough with a rested team, but for the Blue Jackets, the impact was lethal. San Jose came out charging in the third, and Columbus simply did not have the fuel to respond. In the first five minutes of the period, the Sharks fired 11 shots on goal, while the Blue Jackets managed only one. On San Jose's 11th shot, they scored, with Tommy Wingels sweeping the puck in after a great Bobrovsky save of a Jason Demers shot. By the halfway point of the period, it was 13 - 1 in shots. You get the idea. Stick a fork in them, they're done. Except they weren't.
At the 11:45 mark, the Johansen/Horton/Jenner combination came to the rescue once more. Johansen sprinted behind the net and made a ridiculous centering pass between his legs. The puck was edged off of Horton's stick to Jenner, who beat Niemi with a solid wrister. A one - goal game when you least expected it.
The next few minutes were a stand-off until the penalty bug bit once again -- an undisciplined offensive zone cross-checking penalty against Brandon Dubinsky at 14:45. That was a tough one to swallow, as it again taxed the legs and used up valuable real estate on the clock. The penalty kill was successful once again -- making the Sharks 0-for-5 on the night -- but time was perilously short. Bobrovsky was pulled with just under two minutes left, and some nice chances were created, but the tank was empty.
The Blue Jackets mustered only 4 shots on goal in the 3rd, compared to 19 for the home team. The final game total was an ugly 47 - 21, which really tell the whole story.
There are those who will find these final two games "unacceptable", but the truth of the matter is that Columbus did not play bad hockey. On this night, they were a very, very tired team, and it showed. Tired teams take bad penalties, and that is what you saw tonight, which only exacerbates the fatigue. Still, but for a couple of bounces and one suspect call, both the L.A. and San Jose games could have been victories. Finding the ability to gain points or keep games close when playing less than your best is a quality that good teams share, and make no mistake, the Blue Jackets are becoming a good team. They are 11-4-1 over the last 16, and that is impressive, under any standard.
The Olympic break provides a chance for guys to heal up the nicks and dings, and to get the tanks reloaded for the final two dozen games. While Columbus will enter the break "below the line", they are in the thick of the race, and there will be plenty of swings in momentum between now and Game 82. Teams that enter the break hot will cool off, and other teams will use the rest to find their games.
While Sergei Bobrovsky was the star of this one for the Blue Jackets, other guys are quietly putting together some really solid efforts that they can build on for the final 24. Matt Calvert and Artem Anisimov are creating chances and doing all of the little things that good players do away from the puck to help the team. Nick Foligno is finding his scoring touch, and looks increasingly dangerous. The defensive corps is playing its best hockey of the year. Nathan Horton is rounding into shape and may benefit the most from the Olympic break.
Two guys that need to re-focus during the break are Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson. Atkinson is great in the offensive zone -- in spurts -- but needs to focus on the little things to be the type of consistent player Columbus needs him to be. He needs to keep his stick on the ice and be ready for the play. He needs to consistently skate, rather than drift, and avoid the tendency to hang around high in the defensive zone, guarding blocks of empty ice. I love his game, but he needs to do some of the things that are not as fun as scoring. Dubinsky, for his part, needs to find some discipline. He leaves it all on the ice, and creates tons of opportunities, but has lapsed into a habit of undisciplined penalties and seems to get distracted by the physical aspects. The club needs his leadership down the stretch, so he needs to take a deep breath, focus and get back to being the player he can be.
Barring an Olympic injury to one of the Russian contingent, the Blue Jackets will enter the home stretch healthy, motivated and confident. They have a dozen home games and a dozen away games left, and will see all of the teams they are battling. They travel no further away than Colorado, and have a lot of the key contests on home ice.
For fans, it's time to turn the attention to the big ice of the Olympics, and await a meaningful stretch run, which in itself is a great thing for the club, the fan base and the community. Before you know it, March hockey will become April hockey. Can the Blue Jackets take the next step and play hockey in May and June? We'll find out soon.