Game 80 Recap: Agony and Ecstacy

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For five minutes, it looked like the Blue Jackets had a win in their final home game of the regular season sewn up. Then things changed. Then Ryan Johansen changed it all again.

Ever screamed in a place that was so loud you didn't even hear yourself, you simply felt the vibration of your throat?

The last time I did, it was because Freddy Modin found his backhander against Chris Osgood to tie Game 4 of the 2009 playoffs at 5 all.

Tonight it was when Ryan Johansen took a perfect feed from James Wisniewski right down the ice and hammered a beauty straight through Thomas Greiss.

But I get ahead of myself.

Things began kind of glacially, actually. Neither team looked up to full steam in the first few minutes, and because of the way each club tried to prevent the other from getting any room on the ice to maneuver, it was almost five minutes into the game before anyone registered a shot on goal. (Columbus, for the record, though Phoenix came back and gave Bob a chance to make a few stops a minute or two later.)

With two teams committed to playing defense, the first mistake is going to cost someone - and in this case, it would be a broken play that lead to the first goal of the game. Ryan Johansen was probably trying to put the puck on net when he fired it from the top of the zone, but Michael Stone's attempted block sent it caroming into the middle of the ice.

Nathan Horton grabbed the puck, knew he wasn't lined up for a good shot, but saw Boone Jenner coming in with time and space. One nice little dish pass later, Jenner had his 15th of the season, and Columbus a 1-0 lead.

The Blue Jackets pressed Phoenix for a few shifts after the Jenner goal, but soon seemed to settle back into a "protect" mode - not a good option with more than 40 minutes to go in a game, and the Coyotes made them pay for it.

The team should have gotten a wakeup call when James Wisniewski had to play a bit of goalie to stop a Kyle Chipchurca shot from crossing the line after it slipped past Sergei Bobrovsky, but things wouldn't come to a head until Phoenix had a swarm of bodies around the net, touching off a sequence where the puck slipped under Bob's pads, popped out, got kicked back to him by Wiz, slipped out a second time, and finally APPEARED to be frozen before crossing the goal line.

Unfortunately, after video review, it was determined the puck had fully crossed before being kicked back to Bob on the second go around, and I'm personally convinced the war room awarded the goal to Martin Erat because nobody had any idea who the last Coyote was to touch the puck, but they knew Erat always found some way to score against Columbus, so why not.

The Jackets couldn't find traction after the long video review, and the Coyotes taking a lead off their sudden momentum felt almost inevitable. With plenty of traffic in front of the Columbus net, Shane Doan would find a rebound and put it home just a few minutes before the end of the first period, and the Jackets would go to the locker room badly outshot and outworked.

If you went down to the cannon, you heard a lot of the same thing: "They don't look that good right now."

Apparently someone said the same thing in the locker room, because when they hit the ice for the second period it was like a different team coming out of the dressing room. They started getting physical (with Boone leading the way, though Blake Comeau and Derek MacKenzie also did their fair share), began finding ways to break the gridlock in the neutral zone, and were rewarded by the fruit of another broken play. This time it would be Artem Anisimov stealing the puck away from the Coyotes as they attempted to break out of their defensive zone. His shot back into traffic bounced off Mark Letestu, who corralled it as he crossed the high slot and settled the puck down for a fast wrist shot that would beat Greiss and tie things back up.

Things had already been fairly physical, but from there they got increasingly chippy - a battle between Brandon Dubinsky and Jeff Halpern lead to Phoenix's first man advantage, which the Jackets killed off, and a short time later Martin Erat found himself in the box for hooking Wiz. Neither team converted on their advantages, but Ryan Johansen had one beauty of a chance that went just wide of the far post with Greiss down and out of position - I suspect that if things had gone another way tonight, he'd have seen that shot in his nightmares.

As it was, the physical play continued to set the tone for the rest of the period until things boiled over - Kyle Chipchura delivered a wicked hit to Boone Jenner (on replay, it looked a bit like a knee on knee, but I'm not 100% sure of that), and Corey Tropp demanded that Chipchura answer the bell.

As fights go it was pretty underwhelming, but the refs seemed to accept it as basically inevitable. They sent both guys to the locker room with five minute majors, and the period finished in a tad anticlimactic fashion.

The only real bad news heading into the third was the report that Nathan Horton wouldn't return to the game after leaving the bench relatively early in the second period. So far we've been told it's a lower body injury and that he was being evaluated. I feel for him - he clearly wants to be there for this team and his body is just not letting him do it. I'm wondering if he may join R.J, Foligno, and Nikitin in the "heal up and we'll go from there" crowd.

In the third period, the Blue Jackets didn't just come out swinging - they established authority. Heavy hits, hard checks, aggressive forechecks. They took control of the game and even another stint on the PK wasn't slowing them down - if anything, the successful kill just charged them up.

You had a feeling of "When, not if" for the Jackets to score again, and it ended up coming from a pretty unlikely source.

With a little less than seven minutes left, Blake Comeau got an outlet pass from Artem Anisimov, made his way down the boards into Coyotes territory, and fired a long distance laser that I suspect Thomas Griess really, REALLY wants back.

With a 3-2 lead, the Jackets continued to press, and had a couple of "near misses", including one insane goal mouth stop from Greiss on Johansen, but couldn't find an insurance goal as time ticked down.

They had a boost, though, from the crowd on hand. 16,000 voices were chanting "Let's Go Jackets!" and "C-B-J!" in alternating waves, and it had a synergistic effect. As the crowd got louder, the team seemed to play harder, and in return the crowd rose with them.

As Phoenix pulled Griess for an extra attacker, the entire building was on their feet and shouting on the home team, looking for to end home game #41 with a win, but with just seconds left to play, Oliver Ekman-Larsson managed to find a shooting lane and sent a shot through traffic that Bob never had the chance to stop.

It was a gut punch, pure and simple, and it seemed to drive the wind out of the building for a few seconds as the Coyotes bench celebrated.

But to their credit, it wasn't long before the crowd stepped back in - even before the puck was dropped for the final seconds of regulation the cheers had begun again, and they lasted through the brief break and into the start of OT.

Each side had a couple of chances, but the extra time had ticked more than halfway down when Ryan Johansen was given the game on his stick.

The roar of the crowd was a physical force, and as Greiss slumped to the ice in frustration, the Columbus bench streamed onto the ice, leaping into a joyous pile as they celebrated a massive victory - not only ending the regular season homestand on a high note, but putting themselves firmly into the drivers' seat going down to Dallas and Florida for their final three games.

It was one of the biggest nights in the history of this franchise that I have been blessed to see in person, and one of the best games I've watched at Nationwide in a long, long time.

I can't wait to be back there again in a couple weeks.

Final Score: Jackets 4 - Coyotes 3 (OT)

Standard Bearers:

  • Ryan Johansen - Really, who else? What a game for #19 - not just for his goal, but for the way he battled at the faceoff dot, in the corners, and in scrums after the whistle. He wanted to make something happen tonight, and did everything in his power to make it so.
  • Boone Jenner - Speaking of nice surprises - who expected Jenner to be a 15 goal scorer this year? Boone spent this game frustrating the Coyotes at every turn, battling for the puck, forcing turnovers, and walking the line between effective agitator and distraction perfectly. If he can keep fine tuning his game at the NHL level, I think we're going to see some very big things in the near future.
  • James Wisniewski - Aside from a couple of hard luck bounces, Wiz was pretty much everywhere tonight and taking care of business with aplomb. One of the best games I've seen from him.
  • The 5th Line - Just listen to this.

Bottom of the Barrel:

  • Rough Start - While I'm thrilled at how the Jackets rebounded in this game, they still came out slow and could have been in a very bad position if they hadn't gotten an early goal. With three games in the next four days, they can't afford that. Get your feet moving and keep them there.
  • Injury Bugs - With Horton down, I'm curious if the team will call some more bodies up, or just rotate Frattin / Boll / et al some more. The use of Jack Skille as a "patch in" player, particularly when he moved up with Johansen and Jenner, seemed to work pretty well. I suppose we'll know more tomorrow.
  • The Rat Race - The Jackets pretty much put the Leafs to bed tonight, and another win will knock out the Devils, but the Capitals managed to pull a win out of St. Louis so they're still theoretically alive. Detroit, Philly, and New York all won as well, so the Jackets remain in the WC2 slot. A big push and a little luck could still move them into the M3, but at this point I'd say a matchup against the Bruins is increasingly likely.
  • After all that excitement, the team packed their bags, jumped on the plane, and flew out of Port Columbus, bound for Dallas-Fort Worth. The final stretch of the gauntlet begins tomorrow night against the Stars. The good news is that both teams played extra time tonight, and the Jackets do get to hold their 1-0 lead.  But the Stars want some breathing room between themselves and the Coyotes for the final Western Conference playoff spot. Don't expect them to go down easy.

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