In their third pre-season game, the second at home, it was time for the remaining Jackets' roster to get on the ice and show their stuff, while integrating several of the players who participated in the first two games, facing a Penguins squad built more for toughness than a high powered offense.
So, of course, we ended up with a back and forth, high flying game that would see multi-point nights for players on both teams, including a hat trick.
Things looked bad early for the Jackets, with Mathieu Garon giving up a soft goal less than a minute into the game on an Arron Asham slapper from the point. Garon had plenty of room to see the shot, and no obstruction - it simply breezed past even as Garon started to react.
Judging by his body language after the goal, he knew it was one he should have been able to stop, and he was kicking himself a bit. For the next few minutes, he looked a bit jumpy - almost over-reacting, but seemed to settle down.
Unfortunately, that's about the same time that Klesla got into a back-and forth battle for the puck with Matt Cooke that ended with the Penguin Pest getting a mouthful of Bauer. Whistled down for a double-minor, things got even worse when Mike Commodore was sent off on a "hooking" call that looked more to me like the big d-man was clearing Mike Comrie out of the crease.
The Jackets were able to kill almost a minute and a half of the 5-on-3 penalty before Mike Rupp was able to take advantage of a scramble at the goal mouth, shoving the puck along Garon's leg pad and then into the net, putting the CBJ into a 2-0 hole.
Oddly enough, though, that almost seemed to spark the team. Despite being forced into their zone and outshot 10-1, the Jackets roared back to life after killing the remainder of the Klesla penalty, becoming more aggressive, with Sammy Pahlsson and Ethan Moreau working together to steal the puck and force the Pens back into their own zone.
A few minutes later, as the Jackets began to trigger several rushes up the ice, Kristian Huselius would make a nice entry pass to Antoine Vermette as he came down the near boards, then connected to a waiting Tomas Kubalik, who would bang the goal past Pittsburgh goalie Brent Johnson to bring the game to 2-1 before the end of the first.
Coming into the second, the team truly seemed to have a jump on the Pens. Forechecking aggressively and pushing the puck up the ice almost as soon as it was dropped, the Jackets did flirt with another trip to the box when R.J. Umberger got called for a trip on Mike Rupp, but an aggressive PK quickly earned an equalizing tripping call on Steve Wagner, going 4-on-4.
In the early 4-on-4, Alex Goligosky would be whistled for goalie interference after taking a run at Garon, and Kubalik made the Pens pay with a power play goal set up by 'Twan and Juice again after the power play's cycle opened up an opportunity for a wrist shot from the slot.
The tie, however, was short lived, as Kyle Wilson and Ethan Moreau lead a breakout less than a minute later, with Moreau doing a fantastic job of splitting the Pens' D and letting Wilson go one on one with the goalie before burying his opportunity to give the Jackets a 3-2 lead.
After the Jackets overtook the Pittsburgh lead, things got chippy very quickly. Both the Jackets and Pens began a near-constant parade to the box in the second period, including a lengthy 5-on-3 for the Jackets that generated quite a few chances, but couldn't convert, while Pittsburgh would tie things up on a power play goal by Chris Kunitz late in the period after a strange bouncer that caromed off Rusty Klesla's skate and Marc Methot's chest before finding its' way into the net. There were no "formal" fights, but several players had to be separated and warned on various occasions, and gloves flew more than once before a linesman zipped in to shut the players down.
(I actually found it curious just how quickly the linesmen and ref seemed to be stepping in to prevent a fight. Were they under some kind of no-fighting instructions tonight?)
Into the third, the Pens would switch goalies to John Curry, while the Jackets left Garon in net. As the period went on, the energy the Jackets had used to take over the second period seemed to ebb somewhat, and several players began to show signs of tired legs. Chris Clark, Mike Blunden, and Klesla seemed particularly guilty of this, often looking a bit gassed as they tried to chase the puck or get back up ice. With that fatigue came a greater risk of lazy penalties, and Klesla would find himself in the box for a lazy hook about a third of the way through the period, and the Pens would score on another point shot - this one from Nick Johnson, and Garon didn't seem to know how to handle. The PK unit had done a fairly good job of keep the the Pens away from the crease and giving the goalie room to work, and Garon was square to the shooter when he fired the puck, but for whatever reason he was unable to make the save and the Jackets were once again under the gun.
After being unable to convert on their fourth power play of the night, the Jackets would be forced back into the zone by a rejuvenated Pens attack, and
Mr. Hilary Duff Mike Comrie got a tap in goal after Garon was caught out of position off a 1-2-3 passing play.
Despite being down two goals, the Jackets continued to attack the net aggressively, and several "Almost" plays left a puck dangling in the slot or at the edge of the crease, waiting for a stick to send it into the net, but the Jackets weren't able to click. However, at about 5 minutes to go in the game, things began to get...interesting.
After Matt Cooke had been chirping Rusty Klesla for most of the evening (including a nasty hit along the boards in the second period which the Czech defender had some difficulty shaking off), he finally goaded Rusty into dropping his gloves along the benches, but when Klesla attempted to extract some frontier justice, Cooke turtled and Deryk Engelland would rush to his rescue, once again showing the world that Matt Cooke is incapable of fighting his own battles.
After each was given 2 minutes for roughing, R.J. Umberger would be sent to the box on a "tripping" penalty that seemed...questionable, for lack of a better term. (Note: The officiating in this game very much had "It's their pre-season, too" moments - including a phantom hooking call on Chris Clark that pissed off Mike Commodore to the point that he was emphatically showing the Ref what Clark had been doing, vs. what a hooking call should have been, while gesturing and explaining the situation eloquently at center ice. Still didn't HELP, but it was fun to watch Deuces go to work on the hapless official.)
With the Pens going to the man advantage, the situation seemed in dire straits, but the Jackets got an unexpected assist from Chris Kunitz. After driving to the net on the PP, Garon made a save on the veteran winger, who expressed his apparent desire to miss the rest of the hockey game by slashing Garon in the chest / shoulders with his stick.
After Kunitz was extracted from the glass after getting mobbed by Commodore, Goldbeef, Moreau, and Pahlsson, the Jackets pulled Garon for the faceoff back in the Penguin zone, and Kubalik would complete his hat trick with less than a minute left in the game after cashing in a rebound from a Klesla shot off the cycle. Huselius would also be credited with a secondary assist, giving him his third assist of the night. (A hat rack, perhaps?)
Disappointingly, not many fans were in the mood to recognize the achievement by tossing their hats, but once the few that made it to the ice were collected, play resumed. The Jackets continued to keep up the pressure with an extra skater on the ice, but could not convert in time to send things to OT.
The team lost 5-4 to the Pens, but it was an entertaining game to watch, with one hell of an ending, and there's more than a few signs that the team is settling into life under coach Arniel.
Despite the penalty trouble, the team continued to work at attacking the puck and getting traffic at the net. As one of the guys I went to the game deemed it, this was a night for "Spaghetti Offense", where they threw just about everything they could at the Penguin goal to see what would stick.
I also saw a great deal of hustle from players like Vermette, Huselius, Moreau, Pahlsson, Stralman, and Commodore. Juice had a fantastic game, 3 point night aside, constantly moving the puck around, forcing turnovers, and to my surprise, getting physical. I don't think I've ever seen Huselius throw his body around so much, and he was quite effective doing so.
Who is this guy wearing #20, and can we keep him?
I was also pleased to see the way the team kept battling, even after going down to 2 goal deficits twice during the game. How many times, last year, did this team seem to deflate when down early? Much better.
The biggest problem I saw tonight for the team as a whole was the penalties. The Jackets simply spent way too much time in the box, and that plus inconsistent goaltending allowed the Pens to keep themselves in the game.
On to a look at a few players tonight:
Tomas Kubalik: How can we not mention this kid? His first NHL hat trick, even if in pre-season, is fantastic. He played a solid game on tonight's top line, making good passes and working to get to the front of the net to take advantage of the skill of his linemates. Kubalik has been on the radar as a promising prospect for me since his first prospect camp, and tonight only helped his stock.
Chad Kolarik: Despite only playing 10 minutes of ice time, Kolarik was flying up and down the rink all night. Unable to convert on several chances, he still helped create opportunities for himself and his line mates, and seemed to be right in the thick of things every time I saw him on the ice.
Mike Commodore: Anyone worried about how #22 would adjust to playing for Scott Arniel should be asked to watch a tape of his game. Commodore played just shy of 24 minutes tonight, over 6 of them on the PK, and frankly looked fantastic. He was physical, he took opponents out of the play, he was able to make good decisions with the puck, he did a great job of keeping offense alive in the zone by grabbing loose pucks or errant passes and sending them back at the net, and he stood out to me as the best defenseman on the ice tonight for Columbus.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
Marc Methot: Sorry, Marc. I just got done telling someone today that you're one of the guys who ought to do well under Arniel and Berry, but tonight wasn't really encouraging. Methot made quite a few passes that I can only describe as "to whom it may concern" that often set up counterattacks for Pittsburgh, had difficulty keeping the puck in the offensive zone, and was ineffective on the power play. Thanks to the vagaries of the +/- stat, people will see Methot's +1 and Commodore's -1 and think that Methot must have played a better game than Commie, but anyone who actually watched the game would disagree.
Rostislav Klesla: Rusty looked...well...just that. Frequently he seemed to have difficulty keeping up, particularly later in the game, and there was a sense of hesitation in a lot of his passing and checking. It's been mentioned that part of why he did so well under Hitch was that he "simplified" his game. I wonder if he's currently over thinking things as he attempts to get back into game action after his long rehab, and his game is suffering as a result.
Mathieu Garon: I could talk about some of the struggles from tonight's "fourth line", too, but 3 soft goals out of five allowed really demand that Garon be the focus here. After an excellent partial game in Atlanta, it seemed like Garon couldn't consistently keep himself at the cutting edge of his game, and tonight was the result. (Note: Several reports on Twitter said that Garon swapped with LeNeveu during the game. That is incorrect. Only the Pens swapped goaltenders.)
It also appears that Grant Clitsome suffered some form of "lower body injury" tonight - he played about half of the game before being shut down in the second period. Hopefully he'll recover quickly. His play wasn't earthshaking tonight, but it was generally sound and he was one of the players doing a good job of using his body to help take opponents off the puck.
I realize that i'm not going into insane depth here, but if I did, this would turn into a book, not a recap, so we'll wrap things up. If you have questions about specific players, please feel free to ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer!
Finally, one special note of the little things done right: At one point in the second period, play was stopped when a puck was cleared into the Jackets' bench. I happened to be looking at the right moment, and noticed coach Berry take the puck, turn to the seats behind him, reach up over the glass, and drop the puck into the lap of a little girl sitting in the first row.
Bravo, sir. Bravo.