It did not quite have the panache of the recent return to New York City for Brandon Dubinsky & Company. This was, after all, Philadelphia, not The Big Apple, and the numbers of former players from each squad were not close. Still, the intrigue was present, with a resurgent Steve Mason in goal for the Flyers and Jake Voracek prowling the offensive zone. Unfortunately, Sergei Bobrovsky was missing for this one, but R.J. Umberger was returning to his former venue. Add the drama of discovering who was healthy enough to play for Columbus and the tight competition in the Metro playoff race between the two clubs, and the ingredients for an entertaining affair were clearly there.
Sometimes Ugly Works
Some of the personnel drama was appeased early, with the return of Curtis McElhinney between the pipes. Dubinsky remained paired with Matt Calvert & Cam Atkinson, and Ryan Johansen came out first with Boone Jenner and R.J. Umberger, but shortly settled back with Nick Foligno. WIth Dalton Prout down, Tim Erixon finally got a chance, paired with Nikita Nikitin.
Early play was sloppy for the Blue Jackets, particularly in their own end. Repeated turnovers and some bad rebounds gave the Flyers tons of possession time in the offensive zone, and a few choice opportunities. Shots were 7 - 1 Philadelphia by the time the Flyers got the first power play of the night at the 9:14 mark (holding by Dubinksy), and the Flyers added three more during that extra man session, including a near miss that trickled through McElhinney's pads, but was rescued just shy of the line. Columbus was truly fortunate to be in a scoreless tie.
A bizarre twist came at the 12:05 mark , when the entire arena thought a penalty was coming to Zac Rinaldo for a hit to the head of R.J. Umberger. The referee's hand dutifully went in the air, Philadelphia took possession, and . . .nothing. The Flyers came up the ice, believing that they had the power play, Mason left the crease and everyone was stunned. When the Blue Jackets touched up, the officials huddled and realized the folly of their ways. The Blue Jackets had the extra man, setting the stage for another bizarre sequence of events.
The power play was largely impotent from the outset, unable to maintain any pressure or consistent possession WIth 45 seconds left in the extra man situation, Nikitin made an awful turnover in the neutral zone, and grabbed the Flyer in order to prevent an odd man rush the other way. 45 seconds of 4-on-4, then another 1:15 of power play for the Flyers.
The penalty kill did it's job -- keeping the Flyers to the perimeter and challenging the play at the blue line. With just under ten seconds left in the extra man situation, Ryan Murray and Cam Atkinson forced the play at the left point of the defensive zone. The puck bounced over the Flyer's stick, onto Atkinson's, who led a 2-on-1 break down the ice, with R.J. Umberger coming down the right side. Atkinson looked at Umberger, Braydon Coburn properly played the passing lane, and Atkinson properly zipped a laser through Mason's five hole for a short handed beauty. 1- 0 Columbus with 4:44 left in the period, and 4 seconds left in the power play. Murray earned the assist on the play. The Flyers -- players and fans -- were visibly and audibly upset, as they rightfully felt that they had dominated the contest up to that point.
The Blue Jackets surrendered yet another penalty with 2:42 left, when Tim Erixon was whistled for holding. Again, the penalty kill was outstanding, and McElhinney -- looking far more comfortable -- made a series of very nice saves.
At the end of one, the Blue Jackets trailed the Flyers in shots, 14-4 (with 2 of the Columbus shots shorthanded), and had to be thanking the Hockey Gods for their good fortune in holding a lead. Thanks to the PK unit, the efforts of McElhinney in crease, and a solid edge in the face-off circle, Columbus survived the first. -- could they find the rest of their game during the break?
Odd, but Beautiful
The second period started in much improved fashion for Columbus. They created more pressure, and placed five of the first seven shots on goal. Although the Flyers were able to maintain some time of possession, most of that was spent in scrums along the boards, and posed no real danger.
Then came the ultimate deja vu experience. With 4:44 gone in the period, Jack Skille gathered the puck at the right point of the defensive zone, and began an odd-man rush at even strength, with Boone Jenner his wing man on the left. Coburn was again the lone defensman. Again, Coburn played the pass. This time, it was Skille firing the laser, beating Mason for a 2 - 0 lead. Yes, it was high glove. Letestu and Nikitin garnered the assists.
Columbus continued the pressure offensive game, and held an 11 - 5 edge in shots for the period by the halfway mark. Unfortunately, the injury bug appeared to bite them again, as Jack Skille blocked a shot off the right glove, and was in obvious difficulty, as they say. He scurried off to the locker room and the Flyers' X-Ray facility. While the results were there, there was still some suspect play in the defensive zone. Interviewed during the period, assistant coach Dan Hinote noted that the play was "hazy" their own zone, and they were playing with fire.
Fire or not, the Blue Jackets nearly extended the lead to 3 - 0 near the 13:00 minute mark. Nick Foligno led another odd man rush with Umberger, floated a nice saucer pass onto Umberger's tape, but R.J. put it wide. The Flyers then had a flurry of their own in the offensive zone, but McElhinney was up to the task.
The Blue Jackets went back to the power play with 4:04 left in the period (what is it with this "4" thing?) This was a much better session with the extra man, keeping possession in the Flyers' zone for the full first minute, and generating some solid chances, if no goals. It was an exhausted bunch of Philadephia penalty killers that left the ice at the end of that one.
The Flyers seemed willing to coast through the final two minutes, but Columbus was having none of it. Dubinsky was on the ice with Foligno and Johansen, and kept the play alive in the zone. Jack Johnson, who had pinched on the play. gathered the puck below the goal, and fed it to Foligno in the slot, who let the puck go immediately. Mason got a big piece of it, but it trickled across the line with just nine seconds left in the period -- one of those "end-of-period" killers that so frequently victimize the Blue Jackets.
The "hazy" play in the defensive zone aside, this was a truly solid period for the Blue Jackets, who found their speed and pressure, and dictated the pace. They avoided the penalty box The gentle, friendly Philadelphia fans were booing vociferously as the teams left the ice -- which was music to Blue Jackets' ears.
Really Odd . . . and Unspeakably Ugly
Remember that "hazy" play that Hinote referenced? That looseness in the Blue Jackets' own zone to which I alluded? Well, that came back to roost in the third, with a vengeance, resulting in one of the more infamous collapses in recent memory. Think Mr. Hyde on steroids.
Ominous signs were there from the face-off opening the third. The Blue Jackets were spectators once again, moving their eyes instead of their skates. McElhinney somehow lost his swagger in the locker room, and looked shaky from the outset. By the time Jake Voracek got the Flyers on the board with a wrister from the high slot just 4:20 into the final stanza, the shots stood 5-1 Philadelphia.
Just 1:02 later, Braydon Coburn extracted revenge for being the lone blue liner on the two Columbus odd-man goals. He retrieved the puck at the right point, after both Mark Letestu and Corey Tropp failed to secure the puck along the half wall. Coburn skated the puck along the blue line, with Tropp close at hand, and let a harmless little wrister go toward the net. Except that it wasn't so harmless. The puck bounced on the ice, about six feet in front of McElhinney, positioned at the top of the crease. The puck took a bit of a crazy bounce back to the stick side, and past the bewildered netminder. While it certainly was an odd bounce, McElhinney appeared to nonchalant the play, unnecessarily going down in place instead of moving to the puck. It was a bad goal, and brought the Flyers back to life.
At this point, Artem Anisimov had seen enough. Although not rewarded with goals as frequently as he would like this season, he has been doing a lot of good things away from the puck in all three zones, and this was just another example. Anisimov took the puck in the neutral zone, crossed the blue line with speed, and got the puck deep. On night of weird bounces, one actually went the Blue Jackets' way, when the puck caromed hard near the half-wall on the right, with Scott Hartnell thinking that the puck had gone out of play into the netting. He let up, but there was no call. In the meantime, Anisimov hustled below the line to retrieve the puck, put a swift pass on the stick of Comeau, who deposited it past Mason with equal speed for his third goal of the season. Seemingly, the momentum had turned, with the margin doubled and just over half a period of hockey left.
Unfortunately, Mr. Hyde had other ideas. The Columbus lethargy returned, and delayed penalty to the Blue Jackets gave Philadelphia an extra attacker. When Foligno and Umberger both got caught heading the wrong direction on the forecheck, the Flyers had numbers entering the zone. Claude Giroux made a nifty move around Ryan Johansen, then let a wrist shot fly. The shot bounced off Wayne Simmonds, landing directly on the stick of Erik Gustafsson, who easily netted the goal, narrowing the lead to one.
The remaining lead would last less than a minute. Voracek took the puck into the offensive zone at the right point, then cut to the center. He sent another off-speed pitch toward the goal, which McElhinney dutifully watched as it skittered off a leg and off the left goal post, where Claude GIroux obligingly finished the job. Tie game. Another strange bounce, to be sure, but McElhinney was again caught rooted in position at the top of the crease, and seemed either unwilling or unable to make the necessary lateral move to impact the play.
The final ignominy came a scant 2:08 later, when Giroux took the puck near the goal line to McElhinney's left. David Savard was in full contact with Giroux, and was in the process of riding the Flyer into the ice. Before he reached the ice, however, Giroux let loose a Hail Mary backhand, with his back to the goal and the rest of the players, which amazingly and improbably beat McElhinney high to the short side. 5 - 4, and while the stunned Blue Jackets manged a couple of decent chances with the net empty, there was no coming back from this one.
This one was a microcosm of the entire season to date, with the quality of the Blue Jackets' play ranging from sublime to ridiculous, all within a 60 minute span. While the 7 - 0 loss in Edmonton was humiliating, it was simply an overall bad outing -- with no redeeming features. The fact that the Blue Jackets played some of their best hockey in the second - - - and their worst hockey in the third -- made this one tough to take. While the shaky play in the defensive end was a constant across the three periods, the Columbus contingent had the game solidly in control at the second intermission. Except that they didn't.
Make no mistake, this was an abject failure in the defensive zone, from the crease out. McElhinney's play did an abrupt about face from the first two periods, when he plugged the defensive holes. He simply seemed detached and passive for the entire third period -- at a time when the club could least afford it. They guys in front of him were no help, allowing Philadelphia ridiculously easy entries, making bad decisions on angles and passes, and overall looking like a club that was mailing it in. Columbus was out-shot 16-7 in the final period, and two of those shots came after the deciding goal was scored. Only the Comeau, Anisimov, Jenner line showed any spark in the third.
This was not a physical collapse, it was a mental one, and that is concerning. With five games against division opponents at hand, Columbus has a great chance to reach the mid-point of the season at or above the .500 mark, and even after this nightmare, the club is just 4 points out of a playoff slot. While youth is undoubtedly a part of it, this kind of retreat is hard to fathom. Rumbles about leadership were once again heard in the locker room, and you have to wonder whether that captain decision needs to come sooner than later.
Fortunately, the Blue Jackets get a return match at home on Sunday, though reports suggest that Mason will not be in goal. Regardless, this next game will be a test more of the club's internal resolve than external skills. They desperately need to pas that test.