Give the Blue Jackets organization credit - they knew how much it meant to put a good foot forward for this game. Even with the inclement weather, they brought music, food, and pageantry to the pre-game party on the plaza, and put together an impressive opening ceremony to introduce the 2013-2014 team to a sellout crowd who wanted to see the excitement of last season continue.
Now, if they had just let the players in on that.
Give Calgary credit - they got their feet going last night against the Capitals and jumped out hard against the Jackets, dictating the pace of the game. That paid off early when Sven Baertschi grabbed the puck in his own zone and lead a breakout with Lee Stempniak and Sean Monahan. Stempniak would get the first shot in on Sergei Bobrovsky, who made the save, but James Wisniewski tried to tie up Monahan at the top of the crease without actually engaging his stick, allowing the rookie to pop his first NHL goal off the rebound.
Things continued to get sticky when Boone Jenner was given a bone-rattling "Welcome to the NHL" hit by Shane O'Brien, and though the perennial tough guy was assessed a boarding minor, Jenner would a miss solid chunk of the period following the hit.
Momentum looked to improve, however, when a relatively sparse power play suddenly clicked in the final 30 seconds of the man advantage, culminating in Marian Gaborik working off the wall and threading a pass down to a pinching Jack Johnson, who tied the game back up.
The Jackets pressed hard following the goal, and nearly had the first lead of the night when a puck bounced around the crease following a hard shot from Ryan Murray, but Comeau and Dubinsky couldn't get into position in time to capitalize.
The puck slid back up the boards to Murray, who attempted to send a cross-ice pass back to Wisniewski, but instead T.J. Galliardi would intercept it and blow past both defenders, going one on one with Bobrovsky and forcing him to commit low before backhanding it under the crossbar.
The Jackets seemed shell-shocked after the second painful turnover, and a short time later Todd Richards began to shuffle his lines, keeping Comeau up on the top line and moving Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert to Artem Anisimov's wings, while the old Umby / Johansen / Foligno line made several reappearances.
The switch seemed to bear early fruit when Comeau teed up a hard shot off MacDonald's pad that Dubinsky corralled and sent over to Gaborik at the side of the net for a tap-in, but unfortunately the overall effect was to make a fairly ragged looking offense that much more un-coordinated.
The 2-2 tie would hold through 40 minutes, but the Blue Jackets never seemed to get comfortable on the ice, constantly over-thinking passes, underplaying shots, and telegraphing their plays. Despite dominating in the faceoff circle (Ryan Johansen was the only pivot to win less than half of his draws), the puck was surrendered or taken away on an alarmingly regular basis.
That would cost them dearly midway through the third period, when Blake Comeau would have the puck chipped off his stick by Mikael Backlund at the red line, and T.J. Galliardi was able to get to the loose puck without any threat of a blue jersey nearby. A quick pass to Jiri Hudler, who was equally free of defensive pressure, led to a hard slapper past Bobrovsky, and the Flames had their lead back.
Worse, on the ensuing faceoff, the Flames would hammer in again, and despite three defenders around the crease, somehow no-one was able to watch the puck or notice that Curtis Glencross was standing at the side of the Columbus net with absolutely no coverage. Cam Atkinson would try to deflect the puck out of danger, and instead sent it right to the former Blue Jacket, who did his best to nail the coffin down on this game.
The Jackets made things interesting in the final few minutes thanks to Artem Anisimov going hard to the net and grabbing a rebound from a David Savard shot that he flipped into the net. Bob would be called to the bench for an extra attacker, but once again a turnover lead to disaster, with the puck sailing back towards the empty cage. Somehow T.J. Galliardi failed to deposit it, but Jack Johnson would be whistled for interference as he attempted to get his stick on the puck, killing off what momentum the team had managed to generate.
On the one hand, the Flames certainly won. But on the other, you'd also be fair to say the Jackets lost this game. Too many players didn't seem to have their heads on straight, and the club tried far too much passing and "fancy" plays rather than the brutally simple, straight at the net offense that was so successful last year. They got away from helped make them winners, and let themselves be badly outworked.
Final Score - Flames 4, Jackets 3
- Marian Gaborik - Damn good pass to set up JMFJ on the power play, and while his goal wasn't the prettiest in the world, it was still putting the puck in the back of the net.
- David Savard - I'll be honest, based on the preseason I thought Tim Erixon was the incumbent #6 D-man, but Savard had some good work tonight, including a couple of big keep-ins and the booming shot that helped create the Anisimov goal.
- Power Play - 1/3 is a hell of a lot better than we got most of last season. Here's hoping that continues to improve.
- Game Ops - A great job was done by the game ops team to make tonight a special experience for the fans. The laser show, the Vezina trophy display, new tricks and treats on the scoreboard, they made for a really fun experience attending the game. I just wish that it had gone with a better result.
Bottom of the Barrel:
- James Wisniewski - Jeeeeeeeeesus, Wiz. Lots of turnovers, lots of bad defensive positioning, lots of just plain DUMB mistakes. I'm not sure if Wisniewski was trying too hard to compensate for some of Ryan Murray's jitters of if he simply let his emotion get the better of him, but this may have been his worst outing since he signed in Columbus.
- Ryan Johansen - On paper, Johansen appeared to have an OK night, but every time I noticed him in this game it was because he committed a turnover, lost a puck battle, or just plain seemed to give up on a play. Has anyone mentioned to him that it's a contract year?
- Coaching Calls - Todd Richards talked all week about how this was going to be a challenging game, and that they'd need to control their emotion. He talked about how the Flames would be coming in at game speed, and that the Jackets needed to be ready for that. So why did they seem completely unprepared? To say nothing of the line-o-rama. I think at one point I saw an Atkinson - MacKenzie - Umberger line sent out for an offensive zone draw, and I almost blacked out from the sheer confusion. (Also, I get that Comeau was moved up to fill out the top line after Jenner started to struggle, but it should have been clear fairly quickly that he didn't have the hands to take care of the setups Gaborik and Dubi attempted to offer him.)
This team can be better. They SHOULD be better. We've seen what they're capable of. From comments on the radio and to the Dispatch, I think the team recognizes it, and they're going to make changes. But at the same time, hearing some platitudes about how you can't miss the playoffs on the first day of the season rings a little hollow from the team that got so badly burned last season because they needed just one more point.
Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow is a second chance. Tomorrow is a divisional opponent who just got done taking care of their business against another Metropolitan team, and we're going into their barn.
Tomorrow demands a better effort. I hope we see it.