If you put the puck on net, good things usually happen. Sometimes bizarre things happen. Such was the case tonight at Nationwide Arena, when the Blue Jackets saw two goals come off their sticks, and three goals off their skates, resulting in a freakish 3 - 2 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche. The numbers don't begin to tell the story of this one, which still netted a vital point for Columbus -- which is never a bad thing at this time of year. So, with apologies to Stephen King for the title, let's take it blow by blow.
Juggling the Dance Card
As this stretch run has developed, trying to guess the line-ups that coach Todd Richards is going to put on the ice has been a perilous enterprise. Today was no different, as news trickled out that Nathan Horton was out with a lower body injury. That was followed with the news that R.J. Umberger was once again a healthy scratch, and that Jared Boll would make his on-ice debut after his lengthy injury absence. No matter what your personal views of the players involved might be, clearly the swap of Boll for Horton and Umberger is not the type of move you would put on the blackboard, given the choice, when facing a talented team like the Avalanche. So, the lines looked like this:
Atkinson - Dubinsky -- Calvert
Foligno - Anisimov -- Troppist
Jenner -- Johansen -- Letestu
Comeau -- MacKenzie -- Boll
As golfer Sam Snead used to say -- "You gotta dance with who you brung . . .", so the Blue Jackets carried a somewhat unconventional lineup onto the dance floor for this one.
The first period was a measured one. Decent pace, but no dramatic dips or twirls, a few physical encounters and just a few true scoring opportunities sprinkled among the total of 13 shots fired on goal during the period (8 for the Avalanche, 5 for Columbus. Ironically, perhaps the best chance came early, as the puck found Jared Boll in the slot, but he could not convert.
From the stands, the Blue Jackets appeared somewhere between lethargic and energized for most of the period. It seemed as if the squad was collectively trying to assess the speed and skill of the Colorado contingent, and react accordingly. At about the midpoint of the period, the character changed, and Columbus began creating some real havoc with the forecheck, without sacrificing responsibility in their own zone. The home team did a good job of keeping the Avalanche to the perimeter, and Sergei Bobrovsky was solid in the blue paint.
One cause for early concern was Colorado's absolute domination of the face-off circle, as they took an early 7 - 1 lead in that category. Of course, the off-ice officials tracking that stat were the same ones who missed at least three Columbus SOG in the first, and had something like 25 hits allocated between the two clubs after five minutes of play. Not sure what they were watching from their perch up above, but its was not the same game I was seeing. Fortunately, the Blue Jackets turned the tables in the face-off circle, and ended up winning the battle for the evening.
Columbus did show a lot of discipline, avoiding the bad penalties that have been periodically plaguing them this season. Of course, the officials called only three penalties all night, aside from the brief bout between Derek MacKenzie and Brad Malone in the first. Malone got the split decision.
So, all in all, it wasn't a bad start for the Blue Jackets, who showed they could keep pace with the talented Avalanche. Could they step it up in the 2nd?
Simply stated, the Blue Jackets dominated the second period of play. They came out skating hard, aggressively forechecking, and displayed the type of possession game that had the 16,550 fans in attendance standing in appreciation. Still, all of that effort went for naught in the early going of the second, due to some missed opportunities and some nice saves by Semyon Varlamov.
With the way the Blue Jackets were buzzing in the offensive zone, there was a sense of anticipation that something would break soon. That anticipation turned to reality at the 10:52 mark, when Brandon Dubinsky made a nice play by hustling to the end boards to win a battle for the puck, then sent the puck out in front. Cam Atkinson pounced on it between the circles and beat Varlamov stick side for his 20th goal of the campaign, and the all-important first goal of the game. Atkinson's time in the press box has borne fruit, as he was visible in the defensive zone all night long, and showed he can play in all three zones without losing his offensive touch.
The Blue Jackets pressure game continued, and directly contributed to the next Columbus tally. Fedor Tyutin cleared the puck from his own zone to the Colorado blue line. Nate Guenin tried to make a play, but was staring at Nick Foligno and Blake Comeau charging at him as he skated backward. He could not get a stick on the bouncing puck under that kind of pressure, and the puck got behind him, where Foligno grabbed it and skated in on Varlamov. Comeau, for his part, got inside position on Guenin, and when Varlamov committed to Foligno, Nick deftly floated the puck across to Comeau, who had a wide open net for his 4th of the season.
One might think that a two goal lead would be enough, but the Blue Jackets continued the pressure all the way to the final horn, with James Wisniewski narrowly missing a prime chance with the final seconds ticking down. As the team filed off to a well-earned standing ovation, the mood was upbeat , with the feeling that any sort of credible effort in the third would bring home the victory. Unfortunately, feelings are not always reliable.
The tango is a dance of drama, with just a tinge of tragedy tied to it. As such, it represents a perfect metaphor for the third period of this one.
At the outset, let's set a few things clear. The Blue Jackets did not collapse into a prevent defense, nor did they commit massive turnovers or commit any of the untimely blunders that have undone some games this season. They continued to skate, and while the forecheck might not have been as dominating as in the second, it was still disruptive, and was as aggressive as prudence would likely dictate, given the Colorado speed and skill. Indeed, the Blue Jackets had the better of the first half of the period, and outshot Colorado 8 - 7 for the frame. A couple of point blank chances went awry for the home team early, which could have been viewed as harbingers of trouble, but in context seemed to be merely reflective of the ongoing pressure Columbus was exerting. Then the Hockey Gods began having their way.
Just before the halfway mark of the period, Marc-Andre Cliche brought the puck across the blue line down the middle, then dumped the puck to the left corner when challenged. The Blue Jackets were in good shape defensively, putting pressure on the puck, and having a solid presence in the middle. Brad Malone got to the puck in the corner, and chose to keep the puck in play by firing a hard centering pass across the crease. There were no Avalanche in the middle, but the pass found Nick Foligno's skate, and deflected past a helpless Bobrovsky to narrow the gap to a single goal. It was one of those "faultless"plays, where Foligno was watching for Av's forwards filling the middle and Bobrovsky was favoring the puck side of the net. Everybody doing what they were supposed to, and still the puck ended up in the net. That's hockey, right? Just a bad break, but nothing serious.
Five minutes later, the Avalanche had a more credible offensive threat in progress, with Nathan MacKinnon buzzing around the zone with the puck, and Gabriel Landeskog trying to screen Bobrovsky down low. Still, there were four Blue Jackets in the vicinity, and nothing suggested any untoward degree of danger. Having no direct shooting angle, MacKinnon chose to simply fire the puck at the mass of humanity in front of the goal. While Landeskog was unquestionably the closest Avalanche player to the puck, it's a close call to determine whether his stick actually touched the puck or not. What is clear is that the puck went from his vicinity, off the skate of Brandon Dubinsky, off the skate of Dalton Prout, and into the net. Again, Bobrovsky had no shot. Once more, everyone being right where they were supposed to be . . and the puck ends up in the net. At this point, Todd Richards might have been contemplating a ritual sacrifice to change the luck. Still, the Blue Jackets managed a few solid chances in the final few minutes, and got the game to overtime, for a guaranteed point.
It was tough to come up with a dance that adequately portrays the overtime period. Ultimately, the polka seemed the closest, as it is frenetic . . .and just a bit absurd. So was it with the overtime period, which featured speed and skill on both sides for the first half of the frame, although it translated into few real chances. Then, just past the halfway point of the frame, the officials who had been unable to find their whistles for any number of ritual muggings in regulation, suddenly found the urge to call a penalty. In this case, the referee positioned in a different zip code from the play whistled Artem Anisimov for holding, giving the Avalanche a pivotal 4-on-3 advantage for all but the final 21 seconds of OT. While Anisimov was more than likely guilty of the infraction, the point is that far more severe transgressions had been routinely ignored all night, and to change the view of the rule book in the middle of overtime was a bush league move.
As hockey observers are well-aware, the 4-on-3 power play is a much more lethal opportunity than the standard 5-on-4, and this is particularly true with a club as skilled as Colorado. Still, rather than relying on the collapsing triangle on the PK, the Blue Jackets attacked, strategically picking their opportunities, then denying time and space to the puck handler. It was wildly successful, disrupting the flow and repeatedly putting Colorado back in its own zone. Finally, as the power play entered the last 20 seconds or so, Colorado was finally able to gain possession in the zone. Landeskog took the puck low to Bobrovsky's left, while MacKinnon crept down low to the right. In between the two was Jack Johnson, who properly went down to prevent the cross-crease back door pass. However, the puck found Johnson's skate, and once again deflected past the helpless Bobrovsky for the game winner.
Early reactions to this one ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, as is typical. Some see this as losing a needed point, and a devastating emotional blow. Others see it as gaining a point against one of the top teams in the West, with 100 points to their name coming into this one. People who did not see the game will look at the box score and conclude . . . incorrectly . . . that this was a third period collapse.
From my seat, this was a really well played game from the Blue Jackets against a very tough opponent. Sure, Matt Duchene was on the shelf. So were Nathan Horton and Ryan Murray. Columbus perhaps gripped the stick a bit too tightly on a few chances, but what team doesn't at this time of year. By the numbers, Sergei Bobrovsky allowed three goals in 28 shots. In reality, he should have had a shutout.
I can quibble with Todd Richards' roster choices, but there was no guarantee that it would have changed the horrific luck that victimized the club this night. As would be expected, Jared Boll had lots of early energy, but faded quickly. That limited the ice time of Richards' coveted fourth line, which increased the burden on the other lines. That can't happen with the upcoming schedule.
While everyone played a good, solid game, special kudos go out to Blake Comeau, Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson. Comeau was everywhere, as was Dubinsky. Johnson made some key plays, kept possession in the offensive zone, and showed the kind of speed and skill that brought him to Columbus. If he can maintain that level of play for the next 12 days, things will look bright for the Blue Jackets.
You could watch every NHL game for 15 years and never see three "own-goals" in one game. This was truly a game of bad bounces, which unfortunately took away from a fundamentally sound effort. If that kind of effort is repeated for then final seven, the club will be playing post-season hockey. Period.
Speaking of post-season, Dallas provided assistance with a 5 - 0 pasting of Washington. New Jersey lost in a shootout to Buffalo, and Philadelphia lost in a shootout to St. Louis. Toronto gained a point with their win, but the Blue Jackets have two games in hand on the Maple Leafs. It's going to be a battle all the way to the wire, but just as we have been discouraged in past years by how tough it is to move from below the line to a playoff berth at this time of year, that same principle comes to the Blue Jackets' aid this year. The Blue Jackets don't need to catch anybody (thought they would love to). They have games in hand, the edge in ROW -- or both -- against all of their pursuers. More importantly, none of those pursuers play the Blue Jackets again. So, it's not good enough for those clubs to tie Columbus -- they must equal and surpass the Blue Jackets to earn a spot in the dance.
So, don't despair. A point is a valuable asset about now. Oh, and Ryan Murray is making the trip to Philadelphia. Just saying'. . .