Columbus played host to the Sharks on Thursday evening -- the back half of a Tuesday(Detroit)/Thursday double that likely had the coaches shuddering when they first saw the schedule. San Jose is a big, fast club that can beat you in many different ways, and entered the contest with 91 points -- just two shy of Pacific-leading Anaheim, and four off the President's Trophy leader -- St. Louis. The Sharks edged the Blue Jackets 3-2 at home, in the final game before the Olympic break, barraging Sergei Bobrovsky with 47 shots. What would this one bring?
Punch and Counterpunch
Heading into this one, some argued that Columbus needed to jump on San Jose early, as they had played a late contest on Tuesday night, followed by a long flight and three hours of time change. Nice theory, but the Sharks had something to say about how this one started. San Jose came out flying, putting pressure on early, forechecking hard below the goal line, and building an early 7 - 1 lead in shots. Then, as has happened so often this season, the Blue Jackets sharpened their edges and started skating forward. Possession time grew, the ice slanted in the opposite direction, and opportunities arose.
The Blue Jackets cashed in on opportunity at the 5:28 mark of the first. In a face-off on the left dot, just outside the San Jose zone, Ryan Johansen just managed to nudge the puck forward into the offensive zone. Nick Foligno -- who is apparently more comfortable playing offense from positions other than standing -- stretched for the puck, lost his balance, fell to his knees and managed to scoop the puck backward. Boone Jenner -- in what was likely the easiest assist of his young career -- gave the puck just the slightest of nudges, as if adjusting a golf ball on a tee. That was all the trailing Johansen needed. He fired a one-timer from between the circles that cleanly beat Alex Stalock to the glove side, and the Blue Jackets had the important early lead.
The Sharks have not earned their lofty point total by succumbing to early deficits, and tonight was no exception. San Jose went back to the pressure game, and slowly grabbed the momentum back. It paid off with 10:53 gone in the first. Faced with a strong San Jose forecheck, Brandon Dubinsky backhanded the puck around the boards toward his own net from the right half wall. Jack Johnson -- also challenged by the San Jose forecheck -- tapped the puck along to David Savard behind the net. Savard had plenty of room to skate the puck out in the opposite direction, but instead reflexively backhanded the puck back around the boards toward Johnson and the Sharks' Logan Couture. Couture got the puck on his stick, and lasered a pass into the crease, where a charging Patrick Marleau had little difficulty tapping it in past a helpless Sergei Bobrovsky. Marleau had been left uncovered by Dubinksy, who had moved toward the wall to help with the puck, and Matt Calvert was slow getting over.
The remainder of the first was a virtual stand-off, with each team having some chances, some in transition, some from a set offense. The Blue Jackets resumed their aggressive forecheck, which helped stem San Jose's transition game, and the Sharks continued to cause problems for Columbus with their own forechecking game. At the end of the period, the Sharks held an 11-9 lead in shots, and all of the 13,851 in the house knew it was going to be a tense, long night.
Roller Coaster Ride
The Blue Jackets came out for the second with ample energy, and seemed prepared to grab hold of the game. That prospect was dimmed just 57 seconds in, when R.J. Umberger was called for a questionable tripping penalty. While San Jose has struggled on the power play of late, when you're facing guys like Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau and Couture, you really don't want to provide extra man opportunities. The Blue Jackets penalty kill has been strong of late, particularly at home, and the unit was performing admirably until Savard was called for high sticking 1:25 into the extra man situation. That gave San Jose a 5-on-3 advantage for 35 seconds, and the prevailing mood changed from anxiety to impending doom.
The penalty kill unit managed to gain possession deep in the zone and cleared the puck to the neutral zone, using up valuable seconds. The Sharks brought it back in, but Dubinsky was able to trap the puck against the half wall to Bobrovsky's right. As time expired on Umberger's penalty Dubinsky backhanded the puck to his forehand, and hit R.J. in stride down the center of the ice. A quick five hole flick beat Stalock, and despair transformed to elation in Nationwide Arena. (After the game, Umberger said that he was thinking about the chance for a breakaway, and thought about a high backhand as the way to beat Stalock. However, when the chance came, he saw a big five hole and went with instinct rather than calculation. Good choice.)
The Blue Jackets fed off the momentum gained from the timely shorthanded tally to quickly kill the rest of Savard's penalty and resume the offensive. They outshot the Sharks 16-7 in the second stanza, won the battles along the boards, and more than once had multi-shift possessions in the San Jose end. Only some nifty work by Stalock, and an agonizing backhand off the right post kept Columbus from extending the lead. Still, any kind of lead against one of the best teams in the league is welcome, particularly heading into the third, the frame in which the Blue Jackets have score the most goals (69) -- sixth in the NHL.
Statistics Lie -- But Effort Doesn't
OK, maybe forget about that third period domination thing . . . San Jose was singularly unimpressed by that statistic, and seemed more interested in the 72 goals the Blue Jackets have surrendered in the third. In this case, it took all of 15 seconds to even the match.
After gaining entry into the zone, the puck worked to Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the left point. He fired a bomb at Bobrovsky, who made the save, but gave up a lengthy rebound along the same line the shot came in. It looked like Logan Couture -- being double-teamed by Jack Johnson and Dalton Prout -- had the best shot at the rebound, and in fact got a stick on it. However, while Bobrovsky was focused on Couture, Matt Nieto swept in and wristed a forehand past Bobrovsky on the short side, and the lead was gone before half the crowd had returned to their seats.
The Blue Jackets looked leg weary at the beginning of the third, and San Jose was quick to exploit it. Brandon Dubinsky was called for slashing at 5:39 of the third, which gave the Sharks another extra man opportunity. (Although Dubinsky protested, it was a clear slash, particularly in a year where the officials have been told to focus on the slashing of sticks.)
Actually, it appeared that lighting might strike twice when R.J. Umberger got possession of the puck high in his zone, and started an odd man rush with Mark Letestu to his right, and only Marleau to contend with. Umberger appeared focused on the shot, and tried to beat Stalock through the five hole again. Stalock was having none of it, however, and the rebound caromed to Dan Boyle. With Umberger and Letestu caught deep, Boyle led a 4-on-2 rush, with only Prout and Johnson available to provide resistance. A quick pass from Boyle to Pavelski on the right wing moved the defense, and Pavelski's equally quick pass to Marleau coming late down the middle set the table for a quick wrister that gave the Sharks the lead. Live by the short-handed opportunity, die by the short-handed opportunity.
This turn of events seemed to awaken the Blue Jackets from their slumber, and as San Jose appeared to be more content with simply getting the puck deep, the Blue Jackets went on the offense. There was a sense of desperation in the building, and the Blue Jackets seemed to feed off of the anxiety and turn it into energy. An apparent Nick Foligno goal had the crowd on its feet, but it was quickly waved off as having been kicked in -- a call that was confirmed by Toronto with equal dispatch. Try that again next season, and it will likely count, but for now it was the dreaded "distinct kicking motion."
Undaunted, the Blue Jackets kept the pressure on, and put the rubber on net. Just as the game clock ticked under the five minute mark, Dubinsky backhanded a beautiful pass to James Wisniewski near the top of the right circle. Stalock came way out of the net to cut down the angle, while Wisniewski was unmolested. As he wound up, the scene was more reminiscent of a western movie gunfight than anything else. Stick hit puck, and the puck zipped over Stalock's right shoulder, off the crossbar and into the net. Tie game, and the reaction by the club and the fans was more befitting a playoff win than a regular season tie. Still, it was a satisfying goal for Wisniewski, as well as a bit of redemption, as he had another night with some absolutely breathtaking turnovers in the defensive zone.
Columbus -- who outshot the Sharks 11-8 in the third -- was not satisfied with the tie, and put more pressure on as the period wound down. When Brent Burns went to the box for tripping with 1:29 left in regulation, the stage seemed to be set for one of those storybook endings. In fact, only a couple of magnificent saves by Stalock in a late flurry prevented just such an ending. So, with a point in hand, it was off to extra time.
Columbus had the upper hand through most of the overtime period, but neither team seemed intent on pressing too much, for fear of getting trapped deep and surrendering a potentially lethal extra man situation. San Jose relied on a nice save by Stalock to kill off the remainder of the Burns penalty, and the remainder of the frame was spent in the middle of the ice. So, it would have to be settled in a skills competition.
If it seemed like the Sharks were trying to get the game to the shootout, it is with good reason. Including this one, San Jose has had 15 shootout games, and has won 10 of them. In contrast, Columbus has had only six shootout contests, winning four.
Letestu led off for Columbus, looking to go high on Stalock, who was up to the challenge and made the save. Couture -- the resident shootout specialist -- led off for the Sharks, but Bobrovsky swatted it away with the blocker. Johansen was next, and tried a variation of the multiple backhand-to-forehand moves, followed by a high forehand attempt that Stalock just tipped away. Up came Pavelski, who meandered in leisurely on Bobrovsky, then quickly faked the forehand and moved to the backhand for a roofer. It was an absolutely filthy move. That left things up to Cam Atkinson, who was playing his first game after being a healthy scratch. However, Atkinson lost possession of the puck as he went to make his final move, bringing an end to the evening's festivities.
The Final Word
It was a disappointing result for the Blue Jackets, but it's tough to get too worked up over this one. Yep, there were a couple of bad plays that led to San Jose goals, and some other turnovers that caused some consternation, but overall it was a really well played game. Stalock was not named one of the three stars, but he was as responsible for the win as anyone in a Sharks sweater. The Blue Jackets outshot San Jose 38 - 27, and his heroics at the end of regulation saved the day for San Jose.
For the Blue Jackets, the game was a solid effort. Nick Schultz looked solid on the depleted blue line, but David Savard did not have an auspicious evening. Wisniewski was like the little girl with the curl -- he was either terrific or just horrible -- but that is what you get with Wiz, which is why you need a Ryan Murray to balance him out. Nikitin was sound, and Johnson played better, though had some trouble keeping the puck on his stick.
On offense, Dubinsky looked like he has officially shifted the transmission into Playoff gear. He was fast, relentless and focused. Ditto for Johansen, Foligno and Jenner. Horton did not appear on the scoresheet, but did some nice things away from the puck, despite having a minus-2 for the night. Calvert looked like his is really finding his game. Atkinson showed energy in all three zones, but was really not a factor. The energy line of MacKenzie, Tropp and Frattin fulfilled their role admirably.
While it wasn't a win, it was a point, and every one of those you can get at this time of year is worth its weight in gold. That single point moved the Blue Jackets into 2nd place in the Metro, thanks to the Rangers loss in Minnesota. That in turn ratchets up the pressure on the teams pursuing those playoff slots. Of equal importance is the fact that the team earning two points is in the other conference. Playing without Anisimov (congrats, new daddy!), Tyutin, Murray and Comeau, they went toe to toe with a formidable opponent, and matched them blow for blow.
With 74 points in 66 games, the Blue Jackets reach a threshold of sorts, in that just playing .500 hockey from here in gets them to 90 points. While that isn't necessarily a playoff slot by itself, it's simply an indication that they don't need an other-worldly record to stay in the race. After all, they already have a 1 - 0 lead in one of those 16 remaining contests.
Tonight showed that the Blue Jackets can put the pedal down and produce the playoff-level intensity that is going to be necessary over the next three weeks. That's a nice takeaway from the game, and a good thought to carry into Minnesota on Saturday. Stay tuned.