Somehow it's fitting that the final game of the pre-season came down to the Bob & Nick Show. They are famous for their post-win celebratory hug, have consecutive sweater numbers, and have both had outstanding training camps. Last night in Nationwide Arena, most of their teammates decided to take much of the night off and watch the two strut their stuff. They did just that.
For the Blue Jackets, this was a ragged affair from the start. Pucks bounced off sticks, guys whiffed on passes, and pucks drifted into empty ice for no apparent reason. There were bursts of concentrated effort, such as the initial Columbus power play, where some sharp execution led to prolonged possession and some solid chances, which Pekka Rinne managed to deflect. However, at even strength, Columbus was mired in their own zone for much of the time, and had only brief forays into offensive territory. The shot total for the period, 13-9 in favor of Nashville, was as close as the squad would get all night.
Ironically, it was the next power play that put the Jackets behind the eight-ball. David Savard -- treating the puck like a poisonous snake -- whiffed on a pass attempt, and Eric Nystrom gladly accepted the gift. He was off to the races unabated, faked forehand, and made a nice shift to the backhand to tuck it behind Bobrovsky's outstretched stick, for an unassisted shorthanded tally. However, Bobrovsky was almost the sole reason that the club was not facing a more significant deficit. He was masterful in his positioning and rebound control throughout the frame, which was a precursor of things to come.
On the positive side, the Jackets' PK unit made a good showing when Jared Boll and Foligno went off for consecutive boarding calls late in the period. The kill was both well structured and efficient, which was good to see in this final tune-up contest. However, the ragged play elsewhere was cause for concern.
The Blue Jackets took their first shot of the period just shy of eight minutes into the second period. That should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the effort for most of the second. To be fair -- and as I'll point out below -- there were some decent individual efforts, but the Blue Jackets simply could not bring themselves together to present a cohesive picture on the ice. Shots were 17 - 7 for the Predators in the period, and on the defensive side of the ice it was the Sergei Bobrovsky Show. He consistently made solid saves, and came up with a miraculous three-shot sequence from point blank range -- snaring the final effort almost defiantly with his glove. He was literally the last line of defense, as Predators were allowed to roam rather freely in the crease.
Enter Nick Foligno, who continued the high caliber play he has shown this pre-season. Even in this one, he was persistent on the puck, and helped create the few good offensive chances the club managed. At the 14:43 mark, he capitalized, sending a wicked wrister past Rinne for the tying marker. Assists went to Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell. Hartnell played perhaps his best game on this night, and Dubinsky had a credible effort in shaking off the rust of his recent injury. Matt Calvert also showed flashes of solid play in the frame, and Cam Atkinson was seen making plays in the defensive zone . . . a rarity in past seasons. He has been much better at turning in 200 foot efforts this camp, and the results have shown.
So, despite everything, the Blue Jackets found themselves tied at the end of two, and there was a feeling that the third might just provide a bit more excitement.
As this club has done so often, the best was saved for last. The squad showed considerably more energy at the beginning of the period, and execution was crisper. Enter Nick Foligno, stage right. At the 6:08 mark, Foligno took a cross ice feed from Jack Johnson, which was ever so slightly redirected on its way by David Savard, and reprised his goal from the second period -- a laser of a wrist shot by the goalie's right ear. 2 - 1 Blue Jackets, and the smell of blood was in the water. When Mike Ribiero went off for a high sticking double minor just a minute later, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Columbus would extend the lead. Not so, however, as the Blue Jackets put forth a rather fumbling effort on the extended power play -- unable to solve Nashville's neutral zone trap and gain solid entrance to the zone. Only once during the four minutes did they have any extended offensive zone time, and they were unable to capitalize on it.
Things appeared to turn for the worse a few minutes later, when Ribiero sought to atone for his sins by stealing the puck and skating on a breakaway against Bobrovsky. The save was made, but Jared Boll was called for slashing on the breakaway, resulting in a penalty shot. Ribiero tried a sequence of moves, but Bob stood his ground and easily negated the penalty shot, preserving the lead.
Following an extended period of play where the Blue Jackets maintained control, without exerting any real offensive pressure, the Blue Jackets received another power play opportunity when Calle Jarnkrok went off for boarding Tim Erixon. It took only 18 seconds for Columbus to cash in on this chance, as they won the face-off, worked the puck to the points, and fired the puck low, where Cam Atkinson grabbed it and zinged one along the ice into the back of the net. It was an example of simple lethal efficiency, and a good way to cap the Columbus scoring.
The final five minutes was a bit of a scramble, due to penalty trouble. Foligno lost his skates while trying to clear the puck from the zone, and the puck flew over the glass for a delay of game call. 45 seconds later, Dubinsky went to bat an arcing puck down and out of the zone, but the puck lodged in his glove. 2 minutes for closing his hand on the puck, and the Predators had a 5-on-3 advantage. They pulled the goaltender to make it 6-on-3, and despite some solid killing work, James Neal converted at the 18:27 mark, with assists from Ribiero and Ryan Ellis. They could not even it up, however, and the final horn -- and the ensuing Bobrovsky/Foligno hug sent the squad into the regular season on a positive note.
Wrapping It Up
This was an uneven effort, to put it charitably, but the boys found a way to win, as they seemingly do with regularity. The youngsters -- Dano, Wennberg and Rychel -- acquitted themselves well, even though they did not appear on the scoresheet. Rychel was invisible early, due in part to his pairing with Boll, but got progressively better. Dano and Wennberg were in the thick of things all game, and seem like locks to start with the big club. Wennberg won all four face-offs he took. Michael Chaput seemed to struggle more in this one, particularly in the defensive end.
While Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin were solid, not so for the remaining defenders. David Savard had an uncharacteristic spotty game, and Tim Erixon was similarly inconsistent. James Wisniewski had some scary moments with the puck, and Dalton Prout looked lost for extended periods. Artem Anisimov continued his good play as well, winning two-thirds of his face-offs, and helping maintain possessions. Mark Letestu struggled in the circle, winning only 30% of his draws.
In the end, they won a game they probably shouldn't have. Good teams do that. Write it off to some veterans looking ahead to the real deal, and some lack of chemistry across the lines. There are a couple of roster decision yet to make, and we will likely know about those today or tomorrow. It all starts in earnest on Thursday in Buffalo. Enough practice, let's drop the puck!