The Blue Jackets went into Tampa yesterday, knowing a few things. First, they had a playoff slot secured, rendering them perfect in Eastern Conference playoff appearances. Secondly, they knew that the same Tampa Bay Lightning they faced tonight beat the Philadelphia Flyers last night, putting the 3rd place playoff slot in the Metro firmly in play. Finally, they knew that they would be soldiering on without forward Nathan Horton for approximately six weeks, as the beleaguered forward had abdominal surgery this morning. Frankly, this news came as somewhat of a relief, as it largely explains the lack of punch in Horton's game over the past weeks. Time for Horton to rehabilitate his injuries fully and completely, and come out next season ready to go full throttle from the outset.
This contest was unveiled as a match-up between backup goal-tenders. Sergei Bobrovsky earned a well-deserved night off for the Blue Jackets, while Tampa Bay selected this evening to debut Kristers Gudlevskis, the Latvian net-minder who wowed observers at the Sochi Olympics. The 21-year old was making his NHL debut, and has the distinction of having played in Russian Juniors, the Olympics, the KHL and the NHL . . .in the same season.
Tampa Bay came out with energy and speed, looking to remove any ideas that they were fatigued from their encounter with Philadelphia last evening. The Bolts put the first three shots on goal, but then Columbus found its legs and began tilting the ice in the other direction. Though no pucks made it into the nets, the Blue Jackets had the better of the chances, with Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson each having close-in chances that Gudlevskis managed to stymie. Predictably, the Tampa Bay defense was collapsing strongly in front of their neophyte goalie, much as a herd of zebra protect the weak and the young. However, Jenner, Johansen and Anisimov were circling like hyenas, waiting for the weakness to be exposed. It wasn't during the first, but forty minutes remained.
The Blue Jackets largely did a nice job of protecting the puck, and challenged the Lightning repeatedly in the neutral zone. That frustrated Tampa, who thrive on the quick transition game. Columbus did surrender one bad turnover in its own zone, but it came to no harm, as Steven Stamkos missed the net. McElhinney was solid, if unspectacular, as he faced only eight shots, contrasted to the 14 the Blue Jackets fired in anger. Columbus earned a single power play, which put four shots on goal and posed a good threat, but did not cash in.
All in all, a good road period that set the stage for more to come.
Right Stage, Wrong Scene
The stage may have been set by the first frame, but not for the Blue Jackets. From virtually the beginning of the period, Columbus was haunted by that old nemesis . . . the needless penalty. Columbus took back-to-back-to-back minor penalties (Johnson for elbowing, Dubinsky for slashing, Jenner for holding), which meant that most of the first 6:42 of the period was spent short-handed. While the PK effectively killed the Johnson & Jenner penalties, they couldn't hold the fort in between. Tampa took the lead at the 3:55 mark, as the Blue Jackets could not keep the puck on their stick, and Ondrej Palat skittered a wobbler along the ice that bounced off McElhinney's right pad and crept across the line. Despite the fact that the PK unit should have cleared the puck, this was a softie that Curtis would likely want to have back.
The next ten minutes featured a lot of the same things that we saw in the first. Up and down skating, some good action, but little in the way of concrete chances. At the 12:52 mark, the Blue Jackets got their second extra man opportunity when Richard Panik was called for hooking against Jack Skille down low. The Jackets took possession and put together an impressive display of passing and puck control, surrendering only a brief foray outside the zone. Less than a minute into the power play, Ryan Johansen took the puck and sent it across to Jack Johnson on the left wing. Johnson, in turn, zipped the puck toward the net, but found Boone Jenner instead. Jenner deflected the puck perfectly, and Gudlevskis never had a chance. Tie game. Briefly.
Just a minute of clock time later, Eric Brewer took the puck down the left side, and sent a point shot on net. Nothing particularly evil about it, just a good, hard shot. No screen. No tip. But it found the far corner, as McElhinney had come out, but inexplicably had his hands and arms pinned to his sides. No glove or blocker attempt, just a shrug of the shoulders, which failed to stop the puck. 2 - 1 Lightning, and keep that name Brewer in your memory.
Fast forward to the 18:06 mark. Brewer again comes down the left wing, and lets loose another shot. A reasonable strategy, given the success on his last shot. This one found McElhinney's right shoulder, bounced in a lazy, high arc over his head, landing just shy of the goal line, then creeping into the net. 3 -1. Enough said.
Truly, the Blue Jackets were not as sharp as they might have been, but they also did not play as badly as the score suggests. Despite playing a big chunk of the period short-handed, Columbus outshot the Lightning 13-11 in the period. Through two periods, they led in face-offs, shots and takeaways, and had only one giveaway. They were batting .500 on the power play, and were skating easily with the quick Lightning. Yet, they trailed on the scoreboard. That's hockey, and a big uphill battle was in front of them if they hoped to gain ground on Philadelphia.
Close . . . But No Cigar
The Blue Jackets came out for the third, knowing that they needed to put some heat on the young Latvian . . .and keep the heat off of Curtis McElhinney. They accomplished both, but could not bridge the full deficit.
Officially, the Blue Jackets put 11 shots on net in the third, to only three for the Lightning, but that does not begin to tell the tale. The bulk of Tampa's 19 blocked shots came in the final stanza, as the entire Lightning squad seemed to be within a foot of the blue paint. Accordingly, second chances were few and far between. Still, the Blue Jackets tenaciously persisted with the fundamentals -- getting the puck deep, challenging at the blue line, winning battles in the corners. In short, they were giving themselves a chance.
The officials, who had been inconsistent during the first two frames in terms of the level of transgression required to merit a whistle, apparently left the whistles in the locker room after the second, as nary a penalty was called in the final period, save for mutual roughing calls to Corey Tropp and Richard Panik at the 2:51 mark (Panik's was a double minor). To be sure, there were penalties committed, just not called. To be fair, however, the omissions fell both ways. It made for a lot of flow and action, which is part of what makes playoff hockey so exciting, provided that dangerous fouls earn box time.
Finally, just when hope appeared to have irrevocably faded, the Blue Jackets scored. After another prolonged period of possession in the Tampa zone, Boone Jenner floated a perfect pass to David Savard between the circles. Savard cleanly beat Gudlevskis, and the margin was one. It was somewhat ironic that Savard would notch the goal, as he had been struggling all game to that point -- getting trapped with the puck, making passes to nowhere ----- generally seeming unnerved. His play had been generally good, so the drop-off was perhaps more noticeable than it otherwise might have been.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Columbus pulled McElhinney and kept the puck largely in the Tampa zone. The phalanx of defenders provided no shooting lanes, however, and the Lightning were content to simply engage in serial icing. When the horn sounded, the Blue Jackets had put 38 shots on net (contrasted with 22 for Tampa) and had another 30 that were either blocked or missed. It was simply one of those nights.
It would be easy to write this one off to a post-clinch letdown, except that the Blue Jackets did not play bad hockey . . . at all. They skated, they swarmed and were responsible in all three zones. Sure, there were periodic lapses, but this is a very good team on the other side of the ice, and they will force some bad plays.
Ultimately, I have to lay this one at McElhinney's feet. He looked like a fish out of water most of the night, surrendered some bad rebounds that his defense managed to clear, and allowed three goals that really should not have gone in. That happens, and there was no doubt Bobrovsky needed the rest. I frankly expected McElhinney to start in Dallas, where he would benefit by a one-goal lead, but Richards apparently had other ideas. Given the way Bobrovsky has played, it's tough to second guess that strategy. Go with your best and nail the playoff slot down before the other teams have hope. Hey, it worked.
The two stars of the evening, in my book, were Boone Jenner and Jack Skille. There was no quit in either one of them, and Jenner showed much more finesse and puck handling than he has before. His game is rounding out at an alarmingly fast pace, and it could not be coming at a better time. Skille has impressed me every time he's been up. Keep in mind that he is a first round draft pick, and has plenty of skill. He has demonstrated that he can perform when put in a position to succeed, and tonight was no exception. Richards needs to find a role for him when Foligno and Umberger return, even (especially?) if Mr. Boll has to sit.
Carolina defeated the Red Wings, 2 - 1, so there was no change to the playoff picture. Philadelphia plays Pittsburgh tomorrow afternoon, and if the Penguins can win that one, the Blue Jackets will take the ice with a simple mission -- earn as many points as possible. If Columbus wins, Philadelphia must beat Carolina on Sunday. Again, it all depends on tomorrow's Pittsburgh game. If Philly beats the Penguins, they have the third slot. We'll know the story by the time the puck drops in Miami.
Whatever the situation, this is precisely where we all hoped things would be at this point in the season -- navigating the specific playoff slot, not sitting on the outside looking in. The Blue Jackets are playing well, will hopefully get their walking wounded back soon, and have elite goal-tending. That's a recipe for success, no matter who you play.