This is a story about a team from Ohio with big plans.
It all started on Thursday evening in Buffalo, against the Sabres. We don`t think they`ll have a superb season, but man, for the past few years they've been molding the template on how to properly rebuild. Here`s what we know- they are loaded with young talent, have a goalie who`s been aching for a shot to be a number one, and they`ll work their asses off because they are coached by Ted Nolan.
The Blue Jackets traveled to Buffalo looking to begin the season on the right foot. You see, they've got a few reasons to not do well. Going back to earlier in the offseason, the team`s young superstar-in-the-making Ryan Johansen balked at an initial offer of continued employment. It took until just a few days ago for this matter to get put to bed, with the forward accepting a three year deal. He`s the star of the team, but there would be no way in hell he`d be ready for full minutes in Buffalo.
Then you have the injuries to key members of the team. The heart and soul of the squad, not to mention second line center, Brandon Dubinsky, is out for a while after having abdominal surgery. Fan favorite and top-six forward Boone Jenner is also out. Ditto for Nathan Horton, the prized acquisition from last year, who may never play hockey again.Super Soph Ryan Murray is also dealing with an ailment.
The injuries and the Johansen saga had many fans of the Jackets thinking that a slow start was inevitble. However, the team, as mentioned, was out to prove that they are more than capable of avoiding such a thing. The first thing to do was defeat Buffalo, in their house, on the night they invited their fans out to celebrate the kickoff of a new season.
In a sign of things to come, new(old)comer Jack Skille had the Jackets` first prime scoring chance. The save was made by Buffalo starter Jhonas Enroth, who absolutely stood on his head, slamming the door shut time and time again as the Jackets peppered the net with puck after puck, after puck.
The Sabres, buoyed by the excitement of the crowd, showed a lot of jump early. A Columbus powerplay a few minutes into the game turned the tide, however. The Jackets showed terrific movement on the man advantage, with Artem Anisimov beating Enroth, but not to the post.
The aforementioned Skille hit a Buffalo player with a clean but hard check moments later, with Buffalo rearguard Mike Weber taking exeption. Weber tried to get at Skille, but Jared Boll, sensing an opportunity to harden up the knuckle skin, spun Weber around and dropped the gloves. Weber had one of those `oh, shit...` moments, clearly forgetting that Boll was on the ice. The fight was quickly stopped by the officials, sensing impending manslaughter at the hands of Boll.
A few minutes later, Nick Foligno intercepted a cross-ice pass in the neutral zone, chipping the puck forward, sending himself on a partial break. He was tripped up by Tyler Myers en route to the net, but was only assessed a tripping call. Many, including myself, were waiting for the referee to signal penalty shot.
On the ensuing powerplay, the Jackets again came close to opening the scoring, when Jack Johnson fired the puck toward the net, where it was redirected by Scott Hartnell, who just missed. With ninety seconds left in the opening frame, Matty Calvert, who was otherwise quiet on the night, drew a penalty on Rasmus Ristolainen. The Jackets were unable to score as the period came to a close.
Like him or not, Jared Boll has a job to do, and he nailed it on his first shift of the second period. He crashed and banged, throwing the Buffalo defenders off their game and generally wreaked havoc in the offensive zone. He is a good forechecker. He`s backed off from trying to explode into people when he hits them, with positive results- he still hits hard, but doesn`t take himself wildly out of position in doing so. He brought the kind of energy and grit that can`t be measured with analytics. Fourth line players are exempt from such analysis, as their job is primarily to ensure the opposition`s analytics paint a shitty picture.
Let`s talk about the rookies. Michael Chaput centered the fourth line and performed as we all expected. I even found him to be surprisingly physical. Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano though?
These kids weren't overwhelmed at all. Not only were they making plays with the puck, they were being responsible defensively. Outside of an attempt at a cute move which got him rocked, Dano was dangerous with the puck and to use a Rimer-ism, he was a total bulldog out there. Wennberg looked like a veteran at times out there, including a neutral zone steal, where he gathered the puck and held off defenders as he crashed the net with the puck. Though he couldn't bury it, it was that kind of play that has everybody associated with the CBJ giddy with thoughts of where this kid will be by seasons' end.
Skille squeezed every ounce out of his playing time. He also scored the first goal of the season for the CBJ. Last week this guy was a New York Islander. In a move that both the Jackets and Skille assuredly find serendipitous, he was claimed on waivers and it's like he was never gone. He picked up the puck and in classic Skille form, he kicked on the jets and soared up the right wing, unleashing a laser of a shot, which blew the top off of Enroth's water bottle.
1-0 Jackets: Jack Skille - Jared Boll, Michael Chaput
Who had money on the fourth line would come together for the team's first goal of the year? Yeah, me either.
Just over a minute later the Sabres were able to tie the game, thanks to a bit of a whiff at the defensive blueline by Scott Hartnell. His swing-and-a-miss allowed Zemgus Girgensons to skate in alone on Bobrovsky, putting the puck past him.
1-1: Zemgus Girgensons - Marcus Foligno
The Sabres stepped it up a notch with the fans back in the game after the goal. They more or less carried the momentum until the end of the period.
Let's give credit where it's due- Enroth was amazing for the Sabres in this game. He stoned Cam Atkinson early in the third, one of his 37 saves. The Jackets threw everything but the kitchen sink at him, and he found ways to keep his team in it, even with them only delivering 22 shots against his opponent Bobrovsky.
I'm not discrediting Bob whatsoever, he was terrific when required. On a Buffalo powerplay midway through the third period, he came up huge, with a pair of lightning quick reaction saves to keep the game tied.
The teams traded penalties later in the period, and with the Jackets on an abbreviated powerplay, Atkinson broke the deadlock. He had the puck in the corner, and made his way patiently to the slot, firing the puck past Enroth. After a terrific preseason and a stellar showing tonight, Cam has Jackets fans seeing visions of a 30 goal year.
2-1 Jackets: Cam Atkinson - Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno
The Jackets held off the Sabres for the rest of the game, and were able to pad their lead with an Artem Anisimov goal from just inside the blueline. Scott Hartnell was on the half-wall, and fed the puck to Anisimov, who wired it past Enroth.
3-1 Jackets: Artem Anisimov - Scott Hartnell, Alexander Wennberg.
For Wennberg, the assist was his first NHL point.
FINAL SCORE: 3-1 Jackets
Here's the advanced stats and game chart, courtesy of hockeystats.ca:
- Jhonas Enroth was amazing for the Sabres, despite giving up three goals.
- Jack Skille man. Things have a way of working themselves out, and after a tough start to his pro career he has found a home with the Jackets. In addition to his goal, he led the team in hits. This was all in only 9:58 of icetime, second fewest on the team. Only Boll had fewer minutes.
- The kids are all right. Wennberg, Dano and Chaput were terrific. The future is blindingly bright.
- CamJam continued to show that he's primed for a jump to being a 30 goal man.
- Jody Shelley was great as the new color man in the broadcast booth.
Bottom of the Barrel:
- Matty Calvert wasn't very noticeable, but this me being nitpicky.
The story concludes with the Jackets, despite having many reason to fail, overcoming it all to start the season off on the right foot. It was a total team effort. Just imagine how this team will look when all of the injured players are healthy, and Johansen is at game speed?
See you on Saturday for the home opener.