LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT!!! --- Well, OK, it's Buffalo, not New York City, but it's still New York and it is a frigid Saturday night. The SNL analogy seems particularly appropriate tonight, as just over 19,000 souls, including several dozen Blue Jackets fans bussed in for the occasion, witnessed a hockey game that reached comic proportions in turnovers, miscues and trashed opportunities. Think Abbott & Costello Meet Slap Shot, and you'll get the general idea. Still, when the laughing stopped, the Blue Jackets had a shootout victory, a six-pack of consecutive wins (the longest current streak in the NHL) and fllew back to Columbus as the holders of the 2nd wild card slot in the Eastern Conference. It wasn't easy.
Entering this contest, you could sense some trepidation among the fan base. Things just seemed set up for a fall -- 5 consecutive wins, including the mauling of the Capitals last night -- a back-to-back game on the road against a club with a Herculean grasp on the cellar in the Eastern Conference . . . you get the idea. At the beginning, the Blue Jackets did everything in their power to validate those fears.
Columbus won the opening face-off, promptly surrendered the puck in the offensive zone, and allowed Buffalo to set up camp in the Blue Jackets' zone, Aided by several defensive turnovers and an overall preference for reaching, rather than skating. While the Blue Jackets fumbled the puck along the boards, Tyler Myers glided down the right edge of the slot unmolested, received the puck on the tape, and beat Sergei Bobrovsky to the far side from point-blank range just 59 seconds into the game. That energized an otherwise tepid home crowd, and raised more than a few eyebrows among the Jacket Backers faithful.
To avoid repetition, the Blue Jackets' play throughout the contest was characterized by a few consistent themes. First, as noted above, they appeared to be wearing concrete skates in their own zone, providing alarming degrees of time and space to Buffalo. When they did get their sticks on the puck, they made ill-conceived passes or simply turned the puck over. Fortunately Buffalo was so intent on creating offensive pressure with speed and pinching defense, it created opportunities in the other direction. While Columbus showed a greater ability to skate in the offensive zone, the passing was still ragged and some prime chances were wasted.
At the 6:19 mark of the first, the Blue Jackets were able to convert one of those granted opportunities. Nikita Nikitin took the puck at his own blue line, and made a nice stretch pass to Mark Letestu on the left wing, enabling Letestu to enter the zone with speed. Letestu dropped the puck to Derek MacKenzie, who fired a shot/pass wide of Ryan Miller. It caromed twice off the boards before finding the stick of David Savard, who fired the puck on net in one motion, beating Miller to the stick side. Tie game, and some sighs of relief in the rafters.
It didn't last long. After receiving a pass behind his own goal from Ryan Murray, James Wisniewski made an ill-conceived effort to find Brandon Dubinsky in the center of the ice, just in front of his own crease. The pass misfired, finding Tyler Ennis instead. Ennis shoveled the puck to Drew Stafford, who easily beat a helpless Bobrovsky. See the theme here?
Fortunately, the Blue Jackets tightened up their defensive play as the period wore on, and actually created a number of odd man rushes. However, these all were for naught, stymied by over passing, missed shots, posts and one terrific save by Miller on what seemed to be a sure goal by R.J. Umberger. Finally, Columbus did convert one of those chances at the 12:44 mark, when Nikitin fired a shot from the point on net, which created havoc in the crease. The puck bounced to Dubinsky, then to Matt Calvert, who roofed the puck over Miller to even the score once again. This time the tie held until the end of the period.
On the one hand, the Blue Jackets were lucky to come out of the first with a tie, given the caliber of their play. On the other hand, the game could easily have been 4-1 in their favor, but for some shoddy play with the puck and some glaringly missed chances,. Columbus out-shot the Sabres 14-6 in the period, which shows just how much miscues dictated the results.
More of the Same
The second period was notable only for the fact that the Blue Jackets continued the same themes. They again generated 14 shots in the offensive zone, but apparently felt that their first period generosity was insufficiently accommodating. Buffalo notched 13 shots in the second, and provided the hosts with three power plays, including back-to-back extra man opportunities courtesy of Nathan Horton, who appeared to be feeling the effects of the back-to-back demands. Having missed half a season, at least Horton had an excuse. Fortunately, the penalty kill was solid, and Bobrovsky was equal to the challenge, depriving the Sabres on several solid chances.
The Blue Jackets, for their part, cashed in on the one power play they were provided, when Zenon Konopka was called for goaltender interference. The Blue Jackets did a nice job of keeping possession on the power play -- something that they did all night. The puck was forced to the crease, and Columbus held a team meeting in the blue paint. The puck was finally ejected to a waiting Dubinsky, who obligingly put it home to give the Blue Jackets the lead and restore order entering the final period.
If You Snooze . . . You Don't Always Lose
After watching the Blue Jackets play effectively a half-court game most of the night, the Sabres decided to conserve their energy in the third as well. The two teams combined for a total of 12 shots in the final period, resulting in a mass exodus of local fans with about 3 minutes left. Buffalo pulled Ryan Miller, and as the clock ticked down, it seemed that the rest was mere formality. Except that it wasn't.
With just 37 seconds left in the game, David Savard took an awful tripping penalty behind his own net, granting Buffalo a two man advantage. It took the Sabres precisely 12 seconds to win the face-off, get the puck to an unmolested Tyler Myers, and register the tying goal. Reaching instead of skating again haunted the Blue Jackets.
The overtime period was characterized by some stunning misplays on both sides, with open ice turnovers that literally had fans of both clubs gasping. However, as the comedy extended to both clubs, neither side was able to take advantage of the gift-wrapped opportunities. Hence, off to the shootout, where two Olympic goalies could show their stuff.
Lest you think that the foolishness was over, Matt Moulson started the shootout by placing a stunning move on Bobrovsky, putting him down . . . then missed the net. Cam Atkinson obligingly let the puck fall off his stick to negate the Columbus first round chance. Bob stuffed Tyler Ennis, and Miller stifled Letestu. Bobrovsky made another nice save on Cody Hodgson, which set the stage for Ryan Johansen. Johansen crept in at a glacial pace, barely keeping with the forward movement rule, and then deftly beat Miller to the glove side. Game over and two points in the books, sending the assembled Blue Jackets fans out into the cold night more relieved than ecstatic.
While the Blue Jackets were facing the second half of a back to back, they had two weeks with three days of rest each week. They won't have that luxury for the rest of the season, so it was disappointing to see such a ragged effort against a team that they should dispatch. Still, one of the hallmarks of a good club is the ability to win ugly, and the Blue Jackets did that in spades on this night.
The Blue Jackets fans who made the sojourn added a spice of local color to the proceedings, and were a noticeably vocal force, despite being banished to the third deck, where the banners honoring Tim Horton and Danny Gare were much closer to eye level than the ice. The "Let's Go Jackets" chants actually droned out the "Let's Go Buf-fa-lo" voices on several occasions, which hopefully translated well on the broadcast.
Columbus now owns the longest current winning streak in the NHL, and also holds the final wild card playoff slot in the Eastern Conference, by virtue of holding the tie-breaker edge over both Detroit and Washington. While this accomplishment can be minimized, due to the fact that it is only January, I would not discount it too much. The Blue Jackets learned the painful tiebreaker lesson last year, and you can never hold a playoff slot early enough. Better to be pursued than be chasing, particularly heading into the long Olympic break.
A couple of interesting side-lights to the proceedings. It wasn't long ago that the Metro was being discounted, with the assumption being that the only playoff clubs from that division would be the three automatic qualifiers. The Blue Jackets have changed that calculus, and the play of Columbus and Philadelphia has rapidly changed that dynamic.
Finally, Columbus now holds a goal differential of +3, the only club in the Metro other than Pittsburgh with that distinction. Only Boston, Tampa Bay and Montreal can claim that stat in the Atlantic. That's progress.
It was ugly, but a win is a win. Let's take it and move on to the next one.