Once upon a time, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a bit of a punching bag. Languishing in the bottom of the Southeast Division, it allowed them to stockpile some solid talent, but also left them an easy two points for nearly every club they faced.
Those days are over.
Even without Steven Stamkos, who is still recovering from the broken leg he suffered early in the season, the Lightning have kept pace in the Atlantic division, just two points behind the Canadiens for second place. For a Jackets team that is still struggling with consistency, this was a significant test.
Things started off with the Lightning pushing hard against the Jackets' defense and Sergei Bobrovsky, who was forced to stop shot after shot in the first five minutes of play. Things did not improve when recently acquired Corey Tropp was called for a high stick on Sami Salo, but the Jackets PK locked in hard on the Tampa offense, and pushed them out of the defensive zone with authority.
The successful kill sparked a brief flurry of offense, but by the time the horn sounded, the Jackets had just four shots on Bishop in the period, while Bob had stopped ten from the Lightning.
The scoreless tie would be broken early in the second, and to the relief of a number of fans (and likely the Jackets' bench), it would go in favor of the home team. Ryan Johansen would chase down the puck in the Tampa zone, then set a beauty pass over to Nick Foligno, who instantly jumped to the top of this year's highlight reel by taking control of the puck, sliding it back between his own legs, then backhanding the puck past Bishop on the stick side.
I'm honestly not sure what's more amazing - the goal itself, or the fact that he didn't give himself a vasectomy with his own stick making it happen.
The Jackets turned up the heat after the goal, both in terms of getting the puck to the net, and a marked increase in physical play lead by Blake Comeau and the returned Brandon Dubinsky, but couldn't find another goal before the end of the period.
Protecting their lead, the Jackets started out cautious, but a miscue between Ryan Murray and James Wisniewski would change the entire game.
Wiz would lay a big hit at the blue line, not realizing that Nikita Kucherov was leading a breakout through the middle of the ice. Murray got back to defend as best as he could, but Kucherov was able to send a crisp pass through him to J.T. Brown, who charged down one on one against Bob.
In perfect Vezina form, Bob made an amazing glove save on Brown's shot, but collapsed to the ice a moment later, clearly in pain.
Trainers would escort Bobrovsky to the dressing room, and a suddenly silent crowd watched as Curtis McElhinney took to the ice.
In the first few minutes after the goalie swap, the Jackets did their best to take some pressure off by pushing into the offensive zone and forcing Bishop to make several stops, but the Lightning would get their opportunities, where C-Mac showed he was up to the challenge, withstanding both long distance attempts from the blue line and several up close and personal attacks from around the crease.
The game plan through the remainder of the game was brutally simple: Take the body, punish the puck carriers, and deny Tampa space to work. Comeau, Dubinsky, and Matt Calvert led the way with furious aplomb, and Comeau's relentless performance actually set a Blue Jackets team record with 11 hits in a single game.
There would be a few more nerve wracking moments, particularly a point blank try for Martin St. Louis in the final minutes, but the Foligno goal would hold up as a game winner, moving the Jackets to within two points of New Jersey, and just three points behind the Rangers for 3rd place in the Metro.
Final Score: Jackets 1 - Lightning 0
- Curtis McElhinney - The only thing worse than coming into a game cold is coming in and being asked to protect a 1-0 lead, but C-Mac was up to the challenge tonight. That's a huge confidence booster for this club until we find out what's going on with Bob.
- Nick Foligno - Seriously, just watch this. I can't wait to see it show up in a Skraut video.
- Blake Comeau - Comeau was pretty much everywhere on the ice, and really lead the physical attack tonight. It takes a team effort to shut down an offense like Tampa Bay's, and he lead the way.
- Sergei Bobrovsky - Until cruel fate had other plans, Bob was dialed in and appeared well on his way to another shutout. Выздоравливай скорее, Сергей Андреевич!
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- Insurance - Winning 1-0 was still winning, and certainly reminded me of more than a few heart-stopper games from last season, but god another goal would have been a nice cushion.
- Faceoffs - On paper, the Jackets look great - Dubi, Johan, Anisimov, and Letestu were all hanging around or above 50% on draws. In practice, we lost a LOT of defensive zone draws, and that easily could have cost us. I realize I'm nitpicking a bit, but when you're doing a lot of other things right, the small stuff becomes more noticable.
- Injuries - Some day, we may actually see the theoretical "NHL" roster of this club on the ice, from Nathan Horton all the way down to Bob. Some day.
The good news is that the players appear to be in a pretty relaxed mood tonight, which likely wouldn't be the case if Bob was significantly injured. In the post game press conference, coach Richards said that Bob's going to have an MRI tomorrow, and wouldn't discuss the injury beyond that.
Oddly enough, I think that's actually a positive sign - if they were afraid of something major, Bob would be heading to Riverside or Grant for evaluation tonight. Hopefully this is a relatively minor injury, and since the club doesn't play again until Friday at home against the Wild, there's plenty of time to see the MRI results and decide if Mike McKenna will need called up from Springfield.
(There are also a lot worse positions to be in than handing the crease over to a proven NHL veteran coming off a record setting season and the AHL's top goaltender.)
The Jackets bent, but didn't break tonight, and just about everyone had a moment of being clutch when it mattered. Steps in the right direction. Just keep putting one game in front of the other.