For those of a certain age bracket, the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album connotes improbable images attributable to hallucinogenic substances that were a hallmark of the era. I mean, have you ever really listened to I am the Walrus? For those who observed the just-concluded road trip for the Blue Jackets, the experiences are similar. Trying to derive sense or reason from either is difficult, if not impossible.
The numbers -- in isolation -- will show a reasonably productive road trip. Six of ten possible points, 14 goals for, 15 goals against. If you had proposed those numbers before the journey, most would have accepted them. However, beneath that superficial, rational view is a tumultuous, maddening reality that defies anything that Paul or John could have envisioned -- even at the peak of their period of pharmaceutical enlightenment. Consider that as they emerged from the tunnel in the Air Canada Centre, the Blue Jackets sported only 11 healthy forwards. Dalton Prout - - yes, that Dalton Prout -- lined up at forward.
What followed was simply the best sixty minutes of hockey that Columbus has played this year. Yes, sixty minutes. In a row. A skilled, persistent and opportunistic effort that combined the best that the Blue Jackets have to offer -- physical play where needed, speed when appropriate and finesse across all three zones. The result was a 6 - 0 shellacking of a highly skilled and successful Toronto team, stunning the 19,241 in attendance and thousands more in front of Columbus televisions.
20 Seconds in the ACC
From the opening face-off, the Blue Jackets showed pace across all 200 feet of ice, were responsible in their own end, and did the little things that add up over the course of three periods. They boxed out in front of Sergei Bobrovsky. They made the little chip passes along the boards that enabled quick exits and created speed through the neutral zone. They drove the middle of the ice, and they kept Toronto at the perimeter, claiming the center of the ice as their own. Still, halfway through the period, the game remained scoreless, and it was difficult to ignore the nagging thought that a single misstep could doom the good work.
It all changed in a hurry. At the 10:18 mark, Cam Atkinson took the puck behind James Reimer and shoveled it to Artem Anisimov below the right circle. From just below the goal line, Anisimov centered the puck to Matt Calvert. Unable to get a shot himself, Calvert instead feathered a deft backhand to Atkinson, who had found room to Reimer's right. Cam cashed in on the opportunity, and the Blue Jackets had the seemingly vital first goal of the game.
If the script from recent games had held, the Blue Jackets would have played the remainder of the period decently, but not aggressively, and would have surrendered the tying goal with something like 21 seconds left in the period. Not this night. Just 10 ticks after Calvert lit the lamp, R.J. Umberger took the lead to 2 - 0. However, this one was a true team effort. It began when Mark Letestu split two Leafs below the goal line to reach the puck, and knifed it back to Ryan Murray on the left wing. Murray kept skating, circling behind Reimer and putting a solid wrap-around attempt on net. Reimer made the save, but Letestu had camped in front of the crease, attracting two defenders, and allowing Umberger to sneak in on the left side of the crease. R.J. found the rebound and deposited the puck in the net, providing a lead that they carried into the locker room.
A Game of Skille
Those of us who write about the club on a regular basis have been running out of ways to describe how incredibly awful the second periods have been for the Blue Jackets this season. Entering this contest, Columbus had been outscored 28 - 14 in the second period for the season, and 6 - 2 on the road trip. As Bill Davidge prophetically said as the first period wound down, "The Jackets have had trouble finding that third goal all season long." They had little trouble finding it this night, courtesy of an unlikely source.
Jack Skille is one of those players who, at age 26, is too young to be a journeyman, too old to be a prospect. Columbus is his third NHL stop since being drafted 7th overall in the 2005 NHL Draft -- one slot after the Blue Jackets took Gilbert Brule, and four picks after Carolina took young blue-liner Jack Johnson. He chews up big minutes in Springfield, and has been pressed into duty due largely to the big club's injury situation at forward. Shuttling between the AHL and 4th line duty in the NHL, he doesn't necessarily get the chance to display the skill that earned him a first round selection. Well, we all got a glimpse of it under the bright Toronto lights.
At the 3:08 mark of the period, Toronto defenseman Mark Fraser got caught pinching in a bit at the left point. Mark Letestu took advantage, stealing the puck and creating an odd man rush with Skille against Morgan Rielly. Letestu found Skille just above the left dot, and he wasted no time in parking the puck above Reimer's stick-side shoulder. 3- 0, and the sighs of relief in Columbus were drowned out only by the groans of despair at the ACC.
Skille was not done, however. Just two minutes later, Skill grabbed the puck and entered the zone with speed against Jake Gardiner. He used his body to shield the puck, angled toward the net, forcing Gardiner to hook Skille to prevent a serious scoring chance. The call was made, and the Jackets had their first extra man opportunity of the night. It took only 65 seconds to convert. Columbus maintained solid possession of the puck, showing more creativity in their passing and movement. Ultimately, Wisniewski got the puck to Johansen on the goal line far to Reimer's right. Johansen looked cross-ice, then found Ryan Murray at the point with a crisp diagonal pass. Murray loosed a cannon past Reimer, and the rout was on.
While the offensive fireworks commanded the lion's share of attention, full marks have to be given to the defensive effort. As the Blue Jackets scored their fourth goal, Toronto had managed only seven shots. Bobrovsky was solid, and when the brief flurries of offensive threat arose, the Jackets were quick to respond. Rather than reacting passively, the Blue Jackets did a nice job of anticipating passes, getting in passing lanes, and generally disrupting the Maple Leafs' offensive flow.
Having a four goal lead entering the third period on the road is a luxury rarely enjoyed by any club, let alone the Blue Jackets this season. Although they perhaps loosened the defensive shackles a bit by allowing the shot total to tighten, they did not truly let up on the gas. They continued to skate and exert pressure, kept possession, and in general maintained control over the game.
At the 9:05 mark of the final frame, the Blue Jackets reprised the odd man rush that earned Skille his goal in the second. This time, it was Nick Foligno bringing the puck down the right wing, Ryan Johansen coming down the left, and Carl Gunnarsson the unfortunate defender in between. Again, Foligno found Johansen, who zipped the puck confidently past Reimer, making it 5- 0.
This was the last straw for the Maple Leafs, who had been seething all night -- particularly Dion Phaneuf, Nazem Kadri and Mark Fraser. The unheralded star -- and primary antagonist -- was Boone Jenner, who was all over the ice all night long, registering six hits and a blocked shot. He had Phaneuf & Co. taking cheap shots at him -- and others -- all night, and has somehow managed to vent his offensive frustration (he fired another off the post in Toronto) by being a forechecking nightmare for the opposition.
Fraser was the first one to boil over, cross-checking Michael Chaput, then dancing with Dalton Prout, who came in to assist the young center. Then, 1:22 into the ensuing power play, Phaneuf laid a vicious open-ice elbow hit on Artem Anisimov, who skated off under his own power, but went directly to the locker room, clutching his shoulder. (In post-game comments, Todd Richards said that Anisimov seemed to be okay.) Phaneuf was sent off for a hit to the head -- a minor penalty only -- and the Blue Jackets had a 5-on-3 advantage. (Video was a bit ambiguous as to whether the contact was with the head or shoulder). With time winding down on the two man advantage, James Wisniewski gathered the puck with speed, dished to Nick Foligno in stride on the left wing. Foligno crossed to the center of the ice, found Johansen on the right, and the result was almost a foregone conclusion. Six-zip Columbus, with just four seconds left in the 5-on-3. At this point, Phaneuf muttered something in the penalty box. Might have been "At least I'm married to Elisha Cuthbert . . ."
In what is a prime candidate for the futile hockey move of the year, Toronto replaced Reimer with Jonathan Bernier. Yawn. The only true drama left was the preservation of Bobrovsky's shutout, and that never was seriously in doubt. The comic theatre came at the 15:50 mark , when Matt Calvert squared off with Nazem Kadri . . . and won. It was a brief but spirited contest, and provided a fitting punctuation mark to a truly memorably evening in Blue Jackets hockey.
This roller coaster road trip has been an object lesson in both perception and perspective. Over the course of an 82 game season, some crazy things are going to happen, and we've seen many of them over the course of the past five games in Canada. Things are never as bad . . .nor as good . . .as they seem at the moment, and the manic reactions -- in either direction -- are seldom warranted.
Does the Toronto victory mean that all of the issues are fixed? Of course not. The Blue Jackets are still a young team. They are an injured team. But they can learn, and they can heal. They scored six goals on only 22 shots -- not something you can count on in the NHL. They still need to get more shots on net, but when framed against the backdrop of the 7-0 "game that shall not be mentioned" in Edmonton, or the 6-2 stinker in Vancouver, it's tough to reconcile that the same team was involved.
The important takeaway from this one is that it was a sixty minute effort, and that everyone was on board. The power play was stunning at times, the defense solid to the point of being almost unnoticeable, and the goaltending sublime. It shows that, despite grumblings to the contrary, the Blue Jackets do have the talent to play a very high calibre of hockey. Make no mistake -- this was very good hockey tonight, not just an opponent not playing up to snuff. After the prior 5-2 loss at NWA, it is difficult to believe that Toronto would be disregarding the Blue Jackets at home.
The win tonight set a new club record for consecutive goals scored in a game, and tied the largest road margin of victory with the 2009 8-2 thrashing of the Detroit Red Wings at The Joe.
The search for consistency will continue Wednesday vs. Nashville. But with rumors that Horton is just a few weeks away, maybe at the same time as Gaborik, and the prospect for Dubinsky to return, there is plenty of reason for optimism. The club stands just three points out of the 3rd place playoff slot in the Metro and just five points behind second place Washington. Most of all, remember: I am the walrus. Goo goo goo joob.