After what seemed like an incredibly long summer, the Jackets finally opened their NHL regular season against San Jose for the first of two games in Stockholm.
With the Sharks bringing three powerful scoring lines against a more conventionally arranged "Top 6 and Bottom 6" Columbus team, it promised to be a serious test of the new system put in place by head coach Scott Arniel.
Though there was a frisson of "Oh, god, not again" when Steve Mason let in a weak wraparound goal by Torrey Mitchell in the opening minutes of the game, the Jackets still played hard against San Jose early, drawing back to back power plays where the team generated a great deal of pressure, including a couple of "How did that not go in?" shots from Antoine Vermette and Anton Stralman, but came up empty. Jared Boll would then be drawn into a fight with Kyle McLaren, and what started as a whiff-fest turned into an old fashioned trade union beat-down as Boll found his angles and unloaded on McLaren.
Less than a minute later, however, things got weird. Derek Dorsett was knocked to the ice by an elbow by Dennis Murray, lost his helmet from the force of the blow, and Murray was tripped by Dorsett's stick as he skated past, so of course the penalty there is to send Dorsett to the box, right?
Despite boos from the Jacket faithful, the Sharks would go to the man advantage and Joe Thornton would evade the PK on a good pass out of San Jose's defensive zone by Pavelski, get to the top of the circles and fire a barn-burner of a shot past Mason. The goaltender his stick on it and attempted to deflect it away, but the heavy shot from the new San Jose captain hardly wavered, almost riding the edge of the stick before finding the back of the net.
As quiet groans began, the Jackets responded by turning the intensity up. Both of the "top 6" lines pushed in on the San Jose net, snapping shots at Antti Niemi, but it would take several more minutes (and a successful PK against a Kristian Huselius tripping call) before the Jackets earned a high-sticking minor from Torrey Mitchell, and third time was a charm. Anton Stralman would send a pass from the point down to Nikita Filatov at the left faceoff dot, who curled down to the bottom of the circle before sending a pass to a waiting Huselius, and the Juice was Loose, hitting quick wrister past Niemi on the glove side as the Finnish netminder moved across his crease.
Almost before the Huselius goal was announced, Ethan Moreau would grab the puck in the Sharks' zone, drove hard to the net and left a beautiful setup on the mouth of the crease for R. J. Umberger, who cashed into tie the game.
Riding the wave of energy from the scoring frenzy, the Jackets attacked the net again, and would take an 11-10 lead on shots, but the period would come to an end with the 2-2 tie.
Heading into the second, both teams came out with energy, and Derek MacKenzie and Scott Nichol got into it a bit, earning each a minor penalty (Nichol for a slash, MacKenzie for a cross check), and the teams went to 4 on 4 hockey until Dany Heatley found himself in the box as well for a 4-3 Jackets power play, but the team could not convert.
Both teams would begin a parade to the box, with the Jackets taking 4 minors and a fighting major (Mike Commodore, who threw down with Ryan Clowe after being slashed), while San Jose took three minors of their own in addition to the aftorementioned Clowe major.
Through it all, both teams penalty killers and goaltenders rebuffed all chances, but San Jose would take a 24-23 lead on the shot clock going into the third...which is where things got a little ugly.
Early in the period, we had another "WTF" reffing moment, as Anton Stralman tapped Niclas Wallin on the shin as they battled for a puck, and Wallin decided it was time to borrow the Italian National Soccer Team playbook, throwing himself to the ground. It appeared for a long moment that the ref had bought the dive, giving Pahlsson a tripping minor, but after a conference with the other officials, the decision was made to send Wallin to the box as well.
The 6-7-8 line was quiet for much of the game, but had one flare of brilliance during the 4-on-4 stretch here, with Brassard and Voracek breaking out on a 2 on 1, but Brass's pass couldn't connect with the waiting Czech.
Both sides would have their chances, but the Jackets would take a power play at the 6 minute mark after Jamie McGinn went to the box for tripping. The power play was unable to convert, but as McGinn left the box, a quick pass out of the zone by the former PK unit drifted past him, leading to a race for the puck between McGinn and Mike Commodore.
McGinn would stumble on his own skates, falling to the ice and sliding head first into the boards. Commodore attempted to pull up, but was unable to stop himself completely in time, and ended up kneeing McGinn in the head.
McGinn went down, and after a scary moment finally returned to the San Jose bench under his own power, and Commodore was called for boarding.
This, I have a problem with. It was a bad and unfortunate situation, but it was clear the defenseman was attempting to stop himself and avoid McGinn, and simply did not have enough ice left in front of him to do so.
The call was argued, but ref Stephane Auger declared the the penalty would stand.
The Jacket PK held for over 1:50, and it seemed like they would kill the penalty successfully when Logan Couture, left uncovered by Rusty Klesla, fired a shot from the top of the circle with Devin Setoguchi screening Mason and put San Jose ahead 3-2 on the power play with less than 4 seconds to go in the penalty.
The Jackets would attempt to get the goal back, including a couple of ridiculous chances at the net with Niemi down or out of position, but nothing seemed to want to go, including one shot that caromed off the pipe from a Stralman point shot that clearly had Niemi beat.
Steve Mason would leave his net for the extra attacker with a little over a minute and a half to play, but the Jackets would be unable to convert with the extra attacker - with one final "Might have been..." moment when a bang-bang passing play left Rick Nash with the puck and a wide open net, but he was unable to get the backhand to go for the tying goal, sending the puck just wide.
The Sharks would win the opening game, 3-2, with Couture's power play tally the game winning goal.
Having said that, though, there were some very good things in this game.
- Faceoffs - despite losing some big offensive zone faceoffs, particularly on the power play, the Jackets actually out-drew San Jose today, with the Jackets winning 32 of 56 faceoffs. Derick Brassard won 5 of 6 draws, including several draws against Joe Pavelski, and Antoine Vermette took 12 of the 20 draws he lined up for. Given the issues the team had in the faceoff dot in the pre-season, that's an encouraging stat.
- Battle - Last year, if the Jackets had gone down 2-0 to a hungry San Jose team, the game would have been over in the first period. Instead, we saw the Jackets skate right back and get the game back, keeping themselves right in there against the Sharks for the entire game - and this was a Shark team that looked just as dangerous as the edition that fought their way to the Western Conference Final last year. That's a very encouraging sign.
- Power Play - Even though it only went 1 for 7 tonight, the Jacket PP was moving the puck well and generally did a good job of generating shots, though they did have some issues with keeping the pressure in the offensive zone. If they can develop more sustained pressure, we have something very good.
- Defense - For all the complaints about this defense, consider that they held Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley completely off the score sheet. Consider that San Jose was limited to four shots in the third period. (Admittedly, one was the game winner, but still.) Consider that no Shark had more than four shots on goal. There were problems, yes, and some breakdowns, but for the first full on NHL game, I'd call that a promising start.
There were also some very bad things, namely penalties, penalties, and penalties.
On the one hand, I will admit the reffing in this game was TERRIBLE. When people are asking if it's an NHL crew or an SEL crew handling the game, the refs are clearly making a lot of bad calls, but the Jackets earned more than a few of those trips to the sin bin, and most were the "lazy" penalties that the coaching staff has been trying to eliminate. When you give a team like San Jose 10 chances with the man advantage, you probably should lose the game.
Ethan Moreau - Though R. J. Umberger would score the (then) tying goal in the first period, Moreau pretty much did all the work, wrapped a bow on it, and handed it to his linemate. The new assistant captain was a force all night, generating chances for the third line, skating hard against whomever San Jose threw over the boards while he was on the ice, and managed four shots in fourteen minutes of ice time.
Rick Nash - Though he was denied on his attempts (though one of his scoring chances might have gone through if he'd committed to it rather than attempting to dish off to Huselius early in the game), Nash was out there for 26 minutes of hard skating, including 2 minutes of PK time and 8 minutes on the power play. He forced San Jose to react to him and was a consistent threat all night. This seemed more like the Rick Nash we saw in the playoffs, or at the Olympics, than the player some called into question last year.
Derek MacKenzie - DMac only played 5 minutes tonight, but they were impactful minutes. Part of the penalty kill during the chain of penalties in the second period, he found himself having to help contain Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, and performed well. He wasn't going to set the world on fire, but his motor was noticable. Andrew Murray is going to have problems getting his spot back when he comes off the IR if MacKenzie keeps this up.
Bottom of the Barrel:
6-7-8 Line: Sorry, guys. I loved this line in preseason, and I still think they're going to be a big impact, but outside of Brass' solid performance in the faceoff circles, and Filatov's PP assist, they didn't really affect this game. San Jose did a good job of shutting the kids down, and we need them to step up if this year is going to be successful.
Rusty Klesla - Rusty's failure to cover Couture (or, alternatively, to get Setoguchi out of the crease, take your pick) was a direct factor in the game winning goal, and I didn't feel like he had a very solid game tonight. Coach Arniel has said that if Kris Russell is OK to go tomorrow, he was considering taking Commodore or Methot out to swap him in, but I think Klesla's more deserving of a night in the press box.
Jared Boll - Outside of his fight tonight (in which the Dispatch is reporting Boll tweaked his back again), #40 didn't really show up. So much so that the NHL's official box score doesn't even show him on the Blue Jackets lineup.
Steve Mason - On the one hand, Mason rebounded really well after letting in a terrible opening goal. On the other hand, he let in a terrible opening goal.
All things considered, take pride that your team skated with the best team in the West, and gave as good as they got in a very exciting hockey game. Here's hoping they can come back and do it again tomorrow, with a better ending this time.
The Jackets are right back at it against the Sharks at the Ericsson Globe tomorrow in Stockholm, but they will be the road team for the matchup, giving San Jose last change.
The game starts at 3pm and will be aired nationally on the NHL Network.