After what seemed like an eternity without a game on the ice, the Blue Jackets ventured into the Shark Tank to battle an old nemesis. To aid in the cause, Todd Richards rolled out the new line of Calvert -- Wennberg -- Atkinson, designed to capitalize on speed and skill, and hopefully create some mismatches. Also debuting for Columbus were Adam Cracknell and Cody Goloubef, while Scott Hartnell moved to the top line.
Period 1: WD-40 Anyone?
Rolling out new pieces is a fine idea, except perhaps when your club is coming off an extended rest period. While the Blue Jackets came out with energy, their execution was . . . well . . . we'll go with "ragged." The first shift for the top line provided a solid opportunity, but San Jose soon leveraged their experience to put on a passing clinic, rendering the Blue Jackets forecheck impotent, and causing the forwards to chase the play back to their own zone. That's not a recipe for success.
At the 5:11 mark, San Jose made the Blue Jackets pay. Adam Burish played bull to Cracknell's matador, and simply skated past him down the left wing. The Sharks filled the center of the ice, as Burish angled toward the circle. His head said "pass", but his wrists said "shot", and he buried a perfect wrister in the far corner. Jason Demers drew the assist, and the Sharks had first blood.
The Blue Jackets continued to largely chase the play, but successfully killed Letestu's holding penalty at the 10:44 mark. However, shortly thereafter, Matt Calvert was called for a borderline high sticking penalty, and the Sharks cashed in. Joe Pavelski set up his shop right in front of Bobrovsky, and deftly deflected Couture's shot from up high, caroming off Bobrovsky's glove and trickling into the net. 2 - 0 San Jose, with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau garnering the helpers.
As the period wound down, the Blue Jackets gained some momentum, and put a modicum of pressure on the Sharks, with Michael Chaput having the best opportunity. Still, the numbers told the story. San Jose held a 2 - 0 score advantage, led in shots 16-5, and dominated possession, as their 67% Corsi figure attests. Not the start Columbus wanted.
Period 2: Identity Theft
The Blue Jackets came out of the gate with better cohesiveness in the second, but appeared to surrender the advantage when James Wisniewski took a holding penalty. Ironically, however, that may have provided the spark that ignited the most memorable period of the young season.
While San Jose pressed the play early with the extra man, the Blue Jackets stopped reacting and started defending. They got in passing lanes and deflected pucks. They cleared the puck, and they skated. Artem Anisimov had a significant short handed chance, and the Blue Jackets actually dominated the puck possession for the last 45 seconds of the PK session. A power play at the 4:08 mark did not bear fruit, but it provided some more chances and further established the possession game, instilling a bit more confidence in the troops.
That confidence bore results 8:22 into the period. Ryan Johansen came down the left wing, appeared to slow, then kicked it into high gear, executing a power drive toward Antti Niemi's right post. En route, Johansen delivered a crafty little backhand that gracefully found its way over the net minder's right shoulder, off the crossbar, and into the net. As Bill Davidge would say -- "a goal scorer's goal." Scott Hartnell and Nick Foligno earned the assists, and the lead was cut in half.
Fortune seemed to take another evil turn when Jack Skille went off for interference with 9:00 left in the frame. Again, however, the Blue Jackets found a way to turn adversity into opportunity. With about 50 seconds left in the power play, Fedor Tyutin got the puck deep in his zone, and launched a perfect outlet pass to Anisimov high in the neutral zone. Anisimov created some room to the right, while Mark Letestu drove the middle against two defenders. Anisimov found the seam, putting the puck squarely on Letestu's stick. A quick forehand-backhand deke, and it was a tie game. Tyutin and Anismov had the well earned assists.
Before the assembled crowd could get comfortable in their seats, the Blue Jackets struck again. Ryan Johansen took a feed down the left, and appeared to overstate the puck, creating a turnover opportunity for San Jose. Not so fast, however. Hartnell contested the play, and Johansen corralled it with his long stick. Now unmarked, Johansen spun and fired a laser past Niemi for another tally, providing a 3 - 2 lead. Originally, marked as an unassisted goal, Hartnell later got credit for the helper. The Shark Tank was as quiet as I've ever heard it. It was a stunning reversal of fortune, and made you wonder who those impostors in Columbus sweaters were during the first period.
The Blue Jackets had another golden opportunity when Brent Burns was whistled for a 4:00 high sticking penalty at the 15:04 mark. Although the Blue Jackets couldn't convert, they had some prime chances, and it allowed them to dominate the remainder of the period. Shots were 12-9 for the period in favor of the Blue Jackets, but the level of domination appeared much greater to the eye. It left you asking -- "Who are these guys?"
Period 3 -- So You Thought You'd Seen Everything?
With one awful period, and one amazing period, Jackets fans could be forgiven if they approached the third with some trepidation. However, I'm not sure that anyone was prepared for the 20 minute roller coaster ride that was about to begin.
Columbus came out with energy, skating hard, but San Jose is a very, very good hockey club, who was likely a bit embarrassed in the 2nd period. Just 2:05 in, the Sharks showed they don't take kindly to being shown up on its home ice. While Matt Nieto and Jack Johnson battled in front of Sergei Bobrovsy, Joe Pavelski calmly collected the puck, took advantage of the double screen, and fired the puck into the back of the net. Bobrovsky never had a chance to see it, and the game was tied. Jumbo Joe Thornton notched the only assist on the play.
Fate seemed to take another adverse twist six minutes later. Cody Goloubef -- who generally played a very solid game -- gathered the puck along the boards to Bobrovsky's right, checked his right shoulder, saw Fedor Tyutin, and sent a backhand across to avoid pressure. Unfortunately, he didn't see Logan Couture, who was cruising down the slot toward the crease. The puck found his stick at point blank range, and again Bobrovsky had no chance. 4 - 3 after the unassisted tally, and the steam seemed to have escaped from the engine. Perhaps prophetically, however, Ryan Johansen quickly consoled Goloubef, seemingly saying "We'll get it back."
As anyone who watched last year's playoff series vs. the Penguins will attest, this Blue Jackets team simply does not know when to quit. They may not click on all cylinders all the time, but there is no lack of effort, and no hanging of heads. That admirable quality came to the fore during the final ten minutes of this one.
Undaunted by the deficit, the Blue Jackets continued to exert pressure in the offensive zone. That pressure forced Brent Burns to take another penalty -- this one for hooking -- at the 11:04 mark of the 3rd. The ensuing power play was a picture of possession. Sharp passing, good movement, presence in front. Ultimately, James Wisniewski crept in a bit from the right point and let a shot fly. Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell were pressing the play in the blue paint, and Hartnell channeled his inner Maradona, nudging the puck with his skate across the crease to Foligno, who calmly deposited in the back of the net for the equalizer. It was a goal produced by equal measures of skill and hard work, and the Silicon Valley crowd was left to once again silently contemplate their situation.
The clubs traded opportunities for the remainder of the period. An apparent 2-on-1 offensive opportunity was negated when Nick Foligno was called for a retaliatory high stick away from the play. The Blue Jackets responded with an aggressive penalty kill, and did not lose a step in pressing the play in the offensive zone. However, the game seemed destined for OT or a shootout. And then . . .
With just under a minute to play, Ryan Johansen came low to Niemi's left, and fired a laser that found the far side of the net, for what everyone assumed was his first NHL hat trick and the game winner. But no. The referee immediately waved the goal off, claiming "incidental contact in the crease" by Foligno. The only problem was that Foligno was on the other side of the crease, being pinned to the right post by Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Niemi was on the other side of the crease,hugging the left post, as the puck flew past his right shoulder. A simply horrible call.
In other times and places, this would have been the death knell for the club, an omen signifying a vast, malevolent NHL conspiracy against the Blue Jackets. Heads would have been hung, and -- more often than not -- the vanquishing goal would have followed shortly. Not here. Not now. Though Todd Richards appeared to visibly mock the call, the players went back to work. They won the face-off outside the zone, and immediately reasserted possession. With 21 seconds left, David Savard let a point shot fly, directly on net. The puck ticked ever so slightly off Scott Hartnell's stick, deflecting to the blade of Mark Letestu, stationed by the left post. Niemi never had a chance, as the puck was directed squarely behind him. Game, set and match to the Blue Jackets. Somehow calling it a "thriller" just doesn't do it justice.
Highs & Lows
While the efforts of Johansen, Letestu and Foligno are obvious, the guy you have to really tip your hat to tonight is Scott Hartnell. All night long, he was in the middle of the play, doing all of the little things that make him so respected around the league. He was instrumental in the tying goal, and when the dust had settled at the end of the evening, Hartnell had four assists, giving him eight for the season in six games. Not a bad pace for someone the Flyers put to pasture. Only Johansen and Foligno -- with 9 points each -- have more points on the club.
The biggest positive was the tenacity the club showed in overcoming their own poor start, coming back from two deficits, and not getting rattled by a really bad call. When the Blue Jackets play with speed and without hesitation, they are beautiful to watch. Throughout the second, and for most of the third, they maintained their spacing, played as a unit, and looked like a very dangerous club.
Todd Richards apparently abandoned the Atkinson--Wennberg--Calvert experiment in the middle of the game. Calvert was a warrior, as usual, and Atkinson showed speed, but no finish. As noted above, this may not have been the night to debut that combination, but it has potential as time progresses.
On the negative side, the Blue Jackets still need to turn possession into shots more effectively. Although the Corsi numbers improved to 47% for the game in all situations, they put themselves behind the eight ball, and you can't rely on comebacks every night. However, the Sharks are an experienced, talented and cohesive club, so I have to give a bit of a break on this score.
Of slightly greater concern is some of the defensive play. Jack Johnson is the prime offender here, and I find it amazing that he can have such a poor start to the season after being stellar in the playoffs and having a solid pre-season. He appears slow, indifferent and uncertain out there, and the trickle down effect is significant. The Blue Jackets also allowed far too much traffic in front, and too much time and space across the middle. Bobrovsky made some unbelievable saves through traffic, and the Anaheim Ducks squad they will face tomorrow night will present an even more formidable challenge out front.
However, in the final analysis, this one is one for the scrapbook. Demonstrating the ability to shake off the cobwebs, find their game, and be resilient enough to come back against a really good hockey club on its home turf is just flat out impressive. It provides the perfect start for the trip, and guarantees that they will come home no worse than .500 for the season. That's a good spot to be in after what is just about the toughest road trip of the season. Nice work.