With Rick Nash out of the lineup, fans could be forgiven for thinking that the Blue Jackets would be fodder for a hungry Washington Capitals team, and for the first 20 minutes of the game, they certainly did little to change that impression.
But in the second period and onwards, the Jackets dug their heels in and began to counterattack...
The Capitals got off to exactly the kind of start they wanted, attacking hard from the drop of the puck, and at first Steve Mason appeared up to the challenge, particularly when he made a nice double leg save on Alexander Semin, but the Capitals would respond, breaking into the zone just past the 1:40 mark of the first period. Brooks Laich unloaded a bomb that would bounce from Steve Mason's leg pads to John Carlson as he drove to the net, and Sami Lepisto was turned with his back to the play and unable to react before Carlson was able to fire the puck into the wide open net.
After that goal, however, Steve Mason seemed to recover himself, and though the Jackets were woeful in attempting to get the puck to the net (Columbus would only register 4 shots on goal in the entire first period), Steve Mason would turn away another 14 shots to keep his team in the game.
The other event of note in the first period would be Jared Boll dropping the gloves with Capitals' tough guy John Erskine, and though both combatants got some solid licks in, it would be Boll who dropped the much larger Erskine to the ice, wrestling him down after a couple of powerful swings.
Boll would return to the ice in the second period, but Erskine was done for the night, taking one shift after the fight before heading to the dressing room - a footnote, but potentially a big loss for the Capitals. They'll miss Erskine's toughness in the post-season if this is any kind of a long term injury.
In the second period, the Jackets began to slowly turn the momentum, and were beginning to get pucks to the net before the newly forged line of Matt Calvert, Antoine Vermette, and Tomas Kubalik bore fruit midway through the frame. Kubalik would dig the puck loose from the far boards and send it behind the net to Calvert, who reversed it back to the net, hit the side of the cage with his first attempt, then slid the rebound through traffic past Michal Neuvirth to a waiting Vermette at the opposite side of the crease, and he fired the shot with so much intensity that it banged into the net, off the crossbar, off the opposite side post, and back out.
Unfortunately, the emphatic statement would be blunted just over a minute later when the Capitals answered, with Alexander Ovechkin breaking into the zone and faking both Anton Stralman and Derek Dorsett into following him down the boards before dropping a pass back to Nicklas Backstrom, who took a shot from the top the the zone which rebounded off Steve Mason's shoulder, and a waiting Mike Knuble was able to sweep it into the net thanks to the defense concentrating on Ovechkin rather than looking at the rest of his line.
Despite that, the Jackets again answered, and again the Calvert/Vermette/Kubalik line would factor in, with Calvert getting the puck up the ice before Kubalik broke into the zone and curled around the faceoff dot looking for options, and found Fedor Tyutin coming into the zone. A quick pass up to the blue line, and Tyutin opened fire in full flight, sending a blast over Neuvirth's shoulder before he could react.
Just as the Jackets' fanbase began to celebrate, however, the Capitals would respond again, this time with Steve Mason hoisting himself on his own petard, attempting to play the puck from behind the net and up the boards to Samuel Pahlsson, but Jason Arnott would intercept the pass and charged in, beating Mason at close range to put the Capitals up 3-2.
The Jackets would get their lone power play shortly before the end of the period, and though they did not score, they looked much improved, keeping good pressure and generating several chances before a late gaffe between Kris Russell and Sami Lepisto allowed a Washington breakout attempt, but Mason was able to turn it aside, leaving the Jackets down by one going into the third period.
If the team had started to improve in the second period, they were on fire in the third, denying the Capitals' shooting opportunities (they limited the Capitals to all of 4 shots, while delivering 6 of their own), winning the physical battles, and outhitting their opponents for the first time all evening. Finally, with just under 5 minutes to go, Derek MacKenzie got the puck loose at the far boards and threw a pass to Scottie Upshall, who unleashed another one of his laser beam shots, beating Neuvirth for a third time on 21 shots.
The Jackets would continue to pressure, including a last second chance by Derek Dorsett that just squirted past the open net, but the clock would run out with the teams tied in regulation, leading to the third time in their last six meetings that the teams would require OT to decide the game.
The Jackets had two early chances, but it would end up being the former Jacket, Jason Chimera, who got the game winner, driving to the net with Brooks Laich and John Carlson. Carlson would pass to Laich as they entered the zone, and Laich's shot from the boards hit Sami Lepisto and hopped past Steve Mason, giving Chimera a wide open net to shoot at...and in a sign that things have indeed changed since he played for the Blue Jackets, the speedy winger was able to put the puck into it, clinching a playoff berth for his new team even as he finally extinguished the guttering flame of post-season chances for his former squad.
Final Score: Jackets 3 - Capitals 4 (OT)
- Tomas Kubalik - Not a bad showing at all for his first NHL regular season game, with two assists and just under 15 minutes of ice time. He looked a little shaky early, but once he adjusted to the speed (and, I'm sure, his nerves), he clicked well with Calvert and Vermette.
- Scottie Upshall - Goals in back to back games, and his tying marker tonight was his 6th goal in 15 games as a Blue Jacket. I understand the concerns of people who say Upshall is having a career year, but I still believe he's exactly what the team needs more of. Unless he's dead set on leaving Columbus, Scott Howson needs to make his best effort to keep him in the fold.
- Jared Boll - In addition to playing 9 minutes tonight, his fight was a huge momentum swing for the Jackets, and he had more shots on goal (3) than some of the team's top scorers.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- "Justin Voracek" - I'm not sure what's going on, but I sure know it ain't working. Jake had 20 minutes of ice time tonight, including a temporary reassignment to the fourth line to cover while Jared Boll was in the penalty box, but nothing seemed to get him going. 0 shots on goal, a clean plus / minus, and no apparent signs of life...I can't help but wonder, if Nash is able to go tomorrow, might we see Jake in the penalty box while Kubalik gets another game or two?
- Derek Dorsett - Despite having some good chances and generally playing a decent game, Dorsett made some awful turnovers, and his defensive gaffe lead directly to the Mike Knuble goal.
- "Ron Hainsey" - Anton Stralman also had his share of defensive miscues in his return to the lineup, and finished the night a -2. He did make an effort to shoot the puck, and kept his feet moving, but the bottom line is he needs to be scoring to make up for his deficiencies when he isn't carrying the puck.
- Versus / CSN - Guys, I know you don't see the Jackets very often, but getting the names right, especially for the in-studio commentators like Ed Olczyk who can look up the guys' names before putting clips on the telestrator, is kind of important. (Hell, Olczyk, you work for the Blackhawks for 70% of the season. You'd think you'd know the names of guys from your divisional opponents...)
All in all, it was a solid comeback effort on a night where most people probably wrote the team off - and probably would have forgiven them for rolling over. The loss officially eliminated the team from playoff contention, but tied them for the second best points total in Franchise history. If that's not bittersweet, I don't know what is.
For tonight, though, the Jackets have to put the gear away, get back into their traveling clothes, and head back to Columbus, with another tough matchup awaiting them against Chicago.