Sometimes, the most frustrating part of a loss is seeing strong efforts from the team going to waste.
If you had looked at the first two periods of this game, you'd have been praising the Blue Jackets for their hard work and dedicated play - so much so, in fact, that I'd argue they had outplayed the Penguins, particularly in the second.
Unfortunately, when the game hit the third period, it became an entirely different contest, and that same relentless pursuit began to bite them.
In the first period, the Jackets got off to a great start thanks to Brandon Dubinsky. After Fedor Tyutin was stood up bringing the puck into the offensive zone, Dubi took the loose puck off of the wall, made his way through the defense after a nifty dangle, and outmaneuvered Jeff Zatkoff, sliding his shot through his five hole for the opening goal.
Unfortunately, almost as soon as the goal song was finished, Corey Tropp was being called for a trip on Matt Niskanen. The #1 power play unit in the NHL didn't need much time to convert, with Niskanen setting up James Neal, who kicked the puck to his stick and fired a quick shot through Fedor Tyutin to beat Curtis McElhinney, who was screened out by his own defenseman.
The Jackets came back, however, and actually had a pair of nice shorthanded chances from Dubinsky, but both goaltenders tightened up, and we'd have a 1-1 tie going into the second period.
Columbus pressured Zatkoff early, forcing him to make some tough early saves, and spent much of the second period on the attack, but Pittsburgh would break the tie thanks to a Columbus turnover.
After Ryan Johansen won a defensive zone faceoff, Jack Johnson would take the puck behind the net and attempt an outlet pass. Unfortunately, he sent a tape to tape pass straight to Sidney Crosby, who slipped the puck through the collapsing Columbus forwards over to Neal, who hammered in his second goal of the night.
Despite the frustrating turn, the Jackets didn't break down, and the fourth line would end up making a big contribution just a few minutes after the Neal goal.
Nikita Nikitin took the puck away from the Pens in the neutral zone, and fed it up to Boone Jenner for a breakout into Pittsburgh territory. Jenner would get pushed to the wall, but managed to slide it to Corey Tropp, who made an absolutely beautiful move around Olli Maata before dekeing out Zatkoff and popping the puck under a gap in his outstretched leg pad.
With the tie restored, Columbus stepped up their pressure, and finally drew their first power play of the game with just over two minutes to play in the period, but could not find an answer before time ran out, leaving the teams once again tied after 40.
The Jackets would earn another power play opportunity early, but failed once again to find an answer. Their momentum would be sapped when Blake Comeau would be called for a tripping call, but Artem Anisimov came heartbreakingly close to putting the game into a new gear when he broke away on a shorthanded rush with Dubinsky, but couldn't connect in front of the Penguins net.
The stalemate finally snapped in favor of Pittsburgh when James Neal broke Chris Kunitz through the neutral zone with a pass that put him past the Columbus forecheck, then Kunitz handed off the puck to Crosby, who split the defense like a blade before driving to the net.
McElhinney appeared to make the initial save, but the puck crossed the goal line when Fedor Tyutin collided with him, knocking him into the net, and after video review the war room would rule it a good goal because there was not enough evidence to overturn the goal call on ice.
Bad went to worse for the home crowd when Derek MacKenzie was called for a high stick on Craig Adams, particularly when the in-arena replay showed that MacKenzie never made contact with the Pittsburgh forward. Insult was added to the lack of injury
James Neal would draw the penalty kill down towards the net before passing back to Crosby, and #87 would find an opening to set up Chris Kunitz for a one timer. That gave Pittsburgh their insurance goal, and sent a number of Columbus fans heading for the exits.
It looked briefly like Kunitz had a second goal a few shifts later, but the puck struck the crossbar and rebounded out, giving Columbus a brief opportunity thanks to the Penguins who started to celebrate, but unfortunately the backchecking defense kept the Blue Jackets from capitalizing.
Pittsburgh would get another power play out of a press of bodies in front of their own net, and Neal would complete his hat trick, though this would also receive video review to confirm that he did not kick the puck in.
Nikita Nikitin managed to tee up a shot that would bring the game back to a two goal gap, but this game was already over.
Final Score: Jackets 3 - Penguins 5
- Brandon Dubinsky - What a beauty of a goal, and Dubi had three other shorthanded chances in this game that nearly came home. Matched up against Neal and Crosby for much of the night, he tried hard to put this game on his back, but couldn't quite make it work.
- Corey Tropp - I've been giving Tropp a lot of shit over the past few games, but he was having a pretty decent game even without a highlight reel score.
- Derek MacKenzie - Getting whistled down for a phantom call wasn't his fault. D-Mac spent this game working like madman, fighting for pucks, delivering hits, and unloading a couple of shots that made Zatkoff jump after hearing the puck crack against the post or boards.
Bottom of the Barrel:
- Special Teams - The Jackets had two solid opportunities to put this game into their pocket on the power play, and failed to capitalize. They handed a man advantage to Pittsburgh six times, and while I will agree that some of those penalties were fairly good embellishment jobs by the Pens, you can't give a team like Pittsburgh that many cracks at you. It was like playing Russian Roulette each time someone went to the box, and the hammer finally fell.
- RJ / Johan / Foligno - Todd Richards attempted to match his "top" line against Crosby's unit, and they got badly burned. Unable to make headway offensively, they had a few good cycle opportunities, but couldn't get control of the puck when it really mattered in this game.
- Jack Johnson - Tape to tape pass right to #87. What the hell were you thinking?
After three solid wins and some progress in the division, the Jackets find themselves leaving their last game of 2013 with a game that encapsulated so much of this season to date - strong individual efforts, weak special teams, and great starts that petered out late.
Four meetings with Pittsburgh so far. Four painful losses. If this team misses the cut for third place in the division, you're probably going to be able to point right at this series.
There's an opportunity coming up to make some headway against the Western Conference. There will be opportunities to face the Capitals, Rangers, Flyers, Devils, and Hurricanes. There are still 43 games to play.
But we've seen how heartbreakingly close this team can come, only to fall a point short, in no small part because of games like this.