With rumors running rampant that Columbus head coach Scott Arniel and GM Scott Howson were both on the verge of being replaced, the Jackets held a players only meeting an hour before the team was to start their pre-game routine. None of the players would discuss the exact message, but in the words of rookie Ryan Johansen, Rick Nash and some of the other team leaders "said some things before the game that got us really motivated."
Tonight, the Jackets weren't just motivated against the Anaheim Ducks, they were furious, and it was marked from their first shift on the ice, but the Ducks were equally fired up in search of a win after their 3-0 loss the previous night to the Nashville Predators.
Wearing the third jerseys that seemed to be nothing but bad luck last season, it seemed like this time the team was hoping they'd be the charm to turn them around.
After a rapid push on Ducks' backup netminder Dan Ellis, the Blue Jackets drew a 5 on 3 powerplay within the first 90 seconds of regulation after Saku Koivu delivered an illegal hit along the boards to Jackets' defenseman Grant Clitsome, and injury added to insult when, in the rush to try and touch up on the puck, Teemu Selanne whacked Clitsome again with a high stick, putting both in the penalty box for a full two minutes.
On the ensuing penalty, the Jackets would make the Ducks pay quickly, with Rick Nash taking a puck from James Wisniewski, sliding into the faceoff circle, and waiting for a long heartbeat before unloading a hard wrist shot past Ellis less than a minute into the two man advantage.
The Ducks, however, did not fold from the early deficit, killing the remaining penalty and withstanding several solid scoring chances for Columbus before Selanne and linemate Bobby Ryan were able to grab the rebound from a Derick Brassard shot and rush up ice, splitting the defense of Kris Russell and Aaron Johnson before Selanne fed his younger teammate with a beautiful pass that he one-timed past Steve Mason, who seemed to have been anticipating a shot from the Finnish sniper.
Even as Columbus fans steeled themselves for another back and forth effort - or worse, an Anaheim eruption - the Jackets took the game directly back to the Ducks, unleashing a torrent of hard checks that quickly began to spark escalation from Anaheim, spilling over into the first of three first period fights - a battle between Derek Dorsett and Sheldon Brookbank, with Dorsett leaving the ice briefly for maintenance on his hand afterwards.
Next, an unlikely battle came between Jackets' blueliner Kris Russell and Anaheim's Andrew Cogliano, triggered by Russell delivering a heavy hit along the boards that Cogliano felt deserved retribution. Much like the matchup between the two teams, however, Russell refused to back down, grappling and jockeying for position before Russell unleashed several punishing blows before the two eventually fell to the ice.
That battle did not seem to slake the need for payback, however, as another battle began shortly after play resumed. This time, it would be Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf who challenged Cody Bass - and found himself slammed to the ice in brisk fashion for his trouble, a trade the Jackets were no doubt happy to make.
The period would come to an end with no further scoring or fisticuffs, but not without incident - shortly after Getzlaf and Bass went to the box, Selanne would challenge Rick Nash in the Anaheim defensive zone, clipping him with a high stick, and the Finn clearly made the decision that if he was going off of the ice, he would attempt to take the Jackets' captain with him. Pushing Nash and taunting him to fight, the Jackets captain seemed game, but referees converged before anything could escalate, sending Selanne to the penalty box.
The insult was clearly not washed over by the on-ice punishment, however - the two frequently could be seen exchanging words after whistles and shadowing each other in play, but never found an opportunity to settle their differences.
Instead it would be Ryan Johansen, playing in the critical 9th game of his rookie campaign, who would make the next impact on the game. Working as part of a line with Antoine Vermette and fellow WHL product Matt Calvert, Calvert would spring Vermette and Johansen on a 2 on 1 of their own against Lubomir Visnovsky and Tony Lydman. Looking off Vermette the entire way, Johansen protected the puck, adjusted, deked in, and seemed to wait almost too long before firing the puck and finding the perfect gap between Ellis' blocker side and the post to give the Jackets an early 2-1 lead.
The Ducks would turn up the pressure after being heavily outhit and outshot in the first period, drawing back to back penalties against Grant Clitsome and then Wisniewski almost immediately after the first successful PK, but Steve Mason formed the iron core of a motivated and effective PK unit, making an incredible series of three saves against two quick whacks at the side of the net by Corey Perry and then launching himself over to knock away a follow up attempt by Saku Koivu.
Energizing the team with his saves, Mason would see his play rewarded when Fedor Tyutin extended the Jackets lead to 3-1 with a blistering shot from just above the left faceoff circle after the Jackets broke out and trapped the Ducks in their own zone, feeding off the energy from the PK and taking advantage of tired legs after an icing call.
Now down two goals on four shots, the Ducks looked to go back to the well of truculence. Perry would start whacking at Steve Mason after a whistle, drawing the ire of Fedor Tyutin, and the two tangled into something too brief to truly call a fight, but seemingly worth a better label than "roughing".
Both teams would find chances in the ensuing 4 on 4 sequence, but no satisfaction, so once again it would be time for Brookbank and Dorsett to face off, with Brookbank taking exception to a hard hit along the boards and retaliating, knocking Dorsett down from behind, and the gloves came right back off.
After such fireworks in the first 40 minutes, the final period was almost anticlimactic, with no goals or further physical confrontations, but an air of strong tension as neither side backed down from their willingness to hit and Anaheim put major pressure on the Columbus defense - and Mason in particular - but the 2010 Calder Trophy winner seemed to have captured some of his old form after having the previous day off, stopping every attempt even after the Ducks pulled Dan Ellis in the final 90 seconds of the game in an attempt to push themselves back into the game. The Ducks had a few final chances, including one puck that skipped around the crease yet somehow bounced away and did not go in even though it was clear that Mason, the defense, and even the Anaheim attackers all had lost sight of it - but perhaps, after such a strong effort from the goaltender and the team before him, he had made a little bit of his own luck.
Final Score: Jackets 3 - Ducks 1
- Rick Nash - Not only did Nash open the scoring, he was much more engaged and physical on the ice throughout the game, dictating the pace of play at several points. This was the game we needed to see from Nash, particularly after several games of his effort being called into question, and it's clear that he's also been speaking out both to his teammates and the media.
- Ryan Johansen - Scott Arniel said that Johansen will know "soon enough" about if he will stick in the NHL this season. After 9 games, we've seen Johansen step into the top six and make a real impact, while still playing responsibly in his own zone and improving more and more in each game. If I was Scott Howson and Scott Arniel, it would be a big decision...but I think it would be a very short meeting.
- Steve Mason - Admittedly, he guessed wrong on the Selanne / Ryan 2 on 1 rush, but beyond that, Mason was incredibly solid, including some of the most impressive saves under pressure that we've seen from him since his rookie season - and that leg save / post hug he made against Perry might have one of the best saves we've seen from him, period.
- John Moore - While the rookie d-man did not hit the score sheet, he had a great defensive game and was rewarded with over 22 minutes of ice time.
- The Crowd - Honestly, I don't care if the 16,022 in the arena were there because of a giveaway by Nationwide, season tickets, or because they found tickets under a rock. They got loud, they backed the team, and I watched them stand, cheer, and shout as they helped to push the club to victory in the final minutes. My only question - what are you guys doing Thursday?
- Stand And Fight - The team matched every physical challenge, every hit, every demand for retaliation from the Ducks, and in the words of Scott Arniel, "I don't know what was said - I don't care what was said. I just liked that they got together and took control of what they have to take control over. They competed tonight and played for each other, sacrified for each other." Nash also felt the physical tone was a major part of the victory, particularly the early fights, and how their performance shaped the flow of the game: "It was huge. When you're struggling, you expect guys to step up and maybe do some things that are out of their element...We have to earn our respect, and the way we played tonight we definitely did that."
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- Alexandre Giroux - Giroux had a couple good attempts, but he spent most of the game on the bench, ending the night with less than 6 minutes of ice time and a -1.
- Aaron Johnson / Kris Russell - In addition to being beaten by the Perry / Ryan line, neither player was given a great deal of playing time.
- Derick Brassard - This is relative, as I felt Brass had an OK game, but he was part of the group beaten on Anaheim's scoring play, and he also saw less than 10 minutes of ice time.
The Jackets will take tomorrow as an off day, then practice Tuesday morning. It seems very possible that the decision on Ryan Johansen could very well come that day, giving everyone time to adjust, no matter what the decision, before the next game against Toronto on Thursday.
As for the coach himself, he seemed much more relaxed and quietly relieved in the post game presser. Was his job truly at risk? Depending how the team responds over these next four home games, we may never know. But victory certainly agreed with him tonight - and with luck, we'll see more and more as the team looks to find the way up the mountain.
The Wiz, who had two more assists in tonight's win, has a personal goal of seeing the club hit .500 by Christmas. With more efforts like tonight? It seems like a real possibility.