Entering this contest against the Bruins, the "Jekyll & Hyde" theme that has predominated thus far in the young Blue Jackets season was foremost in the minds of most observers. Having played a solid game against Edmonton at home, would the Jackets be able to avoid the inconsistency that has plagued alternate games of late?
In truth, the answer is more complicated than a simple "Yes"or "No". Sure, the 3 - 1 loss was certainly contributed to by some of the now-familiar demons -- turnovers in the defensive zone, coasting instead of skating and the maddening reluctance to put shots on net. However, the tendency to place the credit/blame for wins and losses solely on the team you are following is an incomplete analysis. Make no mistake, the Boston Bruins are a skilled, physical and coherent club, playing at the top of their game. Clubs like this make other teams look bad, simply through their consistent ability to translate structure into scoring. Such was the case in the TD Garden.
As Go The Legs, So Go The Jackets
In the early stages of this one, the Blue Jackets matched Boston in skating and energy. The lack of whistles made this a game of consistent action, and early chances by Matt Calvert and Jack Skille were frustrated by sound defensive plays. However, after about five minutes of skating, inertia overcame the Blue Jackets, who once again became spectators to the game -- with predictable results.
While Boston has a deserved reputation for the ability to play a physical game, the real key to the Bruins' success is the structure. With tons of experience and an equal measure of familiarity, the Bruins are able to move as a unit through all three zones, maintaining the spacing between forwards and defense, extending opposing defenses. They instinctively know where each player is on the ice, and they leverage that knowledge to considerable advantage. While this is a goal state for Columbus, only time (and some coherence to the lineup) can make this a reality.
At the 9:02 mark of the first, the Bruins put on one of their frequent displays of possession prowess. Dougie Hamilton tapped the puck to Patrice Bergeron at the along the right half-wall. Bergeron sent a relatively harmless looking ice-scooter toward the net, just as Louis Eriksson cruised in front of Curtis McElhinney. McElhinney never saw the puck, and it nestled quietly into the net, between the pad and the post, giving the Bruins the early lead.
The Bruins' structure also contributed to their second tally. After Ryan Johansen went off for hooking at the 14:36 mark, it took Boston all of 22 seconds to convert. They won the face-off, worked the puck around to David Krejci, who levered a nifty diagonal pass to Torey Krug at the point. Krug fired a shot/pass that found the stick of a largely unmolested Milan Lucic at the right post, who deflected the puck into the net, past a defenseless McElhinney. Could Umberger have been tighter on Krug? Could Tyutin have been closer to Lucic? Sure. But it was the speed with which the transition took place that enabled the goal, catching the Blue Jackets' PK unit sliding to respond. That's structure.
At the end of the opening frame, the Blue Jackets trailed 2 - 0, and had mustered only two shots on net. That pretty much tells the story.
The Best of the Rest
The second period was a much better period from the Blue Jackets' perspective -- more skating, more opportunities, and a better overall quality of play. Still, that nagging structure created multiple chances for the Bruins. McElhinney was up to the task, however, making several solid saves throughout the second and third stanzas.
At the 8:34 mark of the second, Dalton Prout took matters into his own hands, throwing the gloves down with Milan Lucic. It was a noble battle, with perhaps a decision to Lucic, but the point was to energize the team. Rimer and Davidge made much of Prout's admonition to the bench of "Let's go!" as he skated to the box.
At the 18:34 mark of the second, more misfortune came the Blue Jackets' way, courtesy of the officiating crew. Nick Foligno became entangled with Dennis Seidenberg along the right wing boards. Seidenberg then proceeded to level a shoulder/elbow combination to Foligno's head - undetected by the officials. Foligno understandably took exception to the hit, and went after Seidenberg with some zeal, requiring some considerable effort by the linesman to restrain him. The result was a two minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a 10 minute misconduct to Foligno -- and nothing to Seidenberg. As Foligno was one of the key contributors throughout the night, this one hurt.
Despite the improved effort, the Blue Jackets still managed only seven shots in the second, and followed that with a paltry five shots in the third. While that's a symptom of what has been plaguing Columbus in their bad games, it's also an attribute of what Boston does very, very well. The Bruins allowed the Rangers just 19 shots on Friday, so this is not an uncommon experience for their opponents.
The Bruins' final tally came on a bit of a fluke play at the 2:15 mark of the final frame. Milan Lucic let a point shot loose, which struck either the stick or skate of a retreating Jack Johnson. The puck arced through the air, over the head of an unsuspecting McElhinney, and into the net. 3 - 0, and the fat lady was in good voice.
The bright spot for the Blue Jackets continues to be special teams. After killing six of seven extra man chances against Edmonton, the PK unit squashed five of six against the Bruins. Meanwhile, the power play unit has now converted on three of its last seven chances, including the only goal of this night. After Dougie Hamilton went off the ice for tripping against Johansen, the Blue Jackets put together a coherent power play effort. After a clear by Boston, Tyutin led the charge up ice, with Umberger to his right and Johansen trailing. The entry with speed created space, and the puck ended up on the stick of Johansen across the middle. Johansen fired a wicked wrister past Johnson for his tenth of the season, finally putting the Jackets on the board. However, the Blue Jackets would pull no closer.
Putting It All Together
Again, this one is tough to categorize. While certainly not the Blue Jackets' best effort, Boston has been making a habit of neutralizing the opposition this season. They are 7-2-1 in their last 10, and a gaudy 12-3-2 at home. So, give credit to a good team, playing well.
Still, the Blue Jackets need to find a way to dictate the pace, rather than react to what is happening around them. Getting players like Nathan Horton and Brandon Dubinsky healthy will be a big help, without question. However, there is a fundamental lack of confidence -- particularly in the offensive end -- which needs to be overcome. Columbus has not put 30 shots on goal in ten games (ironically, the last time was against Boston), and fails to get the message that putting the puck on net is always a good thing.
There is perhaps something to be said for the leadership issue as well. No, I'm not advocating bringing Prospal back, as many would urge. While Prospal is unquestionably a great leader, this club needs organic leadership that will be here for the long haul. At Prospal's age, he would be a very temporary insertion, and at this point would likely be more disruptive than beneficial. He was able to thrive in an abbreviated season last year, but even then was noticeably lagging in third periods of games. There are some solid potential leaders in the locker room -- Dubinsky and Foligno probably foremost among these. While I adhere to my belief that the fans have no role in who a captain should be, I think the fact of the need for a captain is a subject of legitimate debate.
The Blue Jackets are suffering from a lack of structure on the ice -- in direct opposition to the type of game that Boston displayed. There seems to be little understanding of where given players will be at any particular moment -- in all zones. This breeds hesitation, which results in lost opportunities. Certain players completely disappear in games such as this, where the opponent is able to exert consistent, structure pressure. Atkinson is a prime example here. Others panic, dumping the puck into No Man's Land, rather than being patient and making a play. Prout and Johnson are key culprits in this regard. I think it's time for somebody to get the "C". Sure, it's not the panacea that will solve all issues, but it's an important step to that end. It provides some needed off-ice structure to the club, and would undoubtedly also provide a needed emotional lift.
Of course, the lack of structure and consistency on the ice has to inevitably call into question the quality of the leadership behind the bench as well. That's a debate for a different day, once the roster is healthy and some games as a complete unit are under their belts.
In the meantime, the club needs to focus on composure, puck possession and shooting. They also need to avoid the minor penalties that have afflicted them for the past few games. While the PK is performing admirably, there is an exhaustion factor to being shorthanded so often, and the rash of penalties late in the Edmonton game undoubtedly impacted the energy we saw in Boston.
Tampa Bay comes to Nationwide on Tuesday, and the next chapter in the adventure begins.