They're getting the band back together, and that should be music to every Columbus Blue Jacket fan's ears. Sergei Bobrovsky and Artem Anisimov returned to the ice after what seemed like an eternal absence, and Jordan Leopold made his Columbus debut. They all played key roles in a tight, hard fought contest that brought the Blue Jackets their second consecutive victory.
Period One -- Setting the Tone
The Blue Jackets came out hard in this one, featuring slight line adjustments. Speedy Brian Gibbons joined Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno on the presumptive first line, while Boone Jenner centered Scott Hartnell and Cam Atkinson. Artem Anisimov filled the center slot between Alexander Wennberg and Adam Cracknell, with Corey Tropp, Michael Chaput and Jared Boll. While there was some predictable raggedness from the shifting roles, what emerged was an intriguing blend of speed, skill and tenacity, and each of those traits came into play as the night wore on.
As was true all night, the first period featured a considerable amount of time fought in the neutral zone and within a few paces of the clubs' respective blue lines. There were occasional flurries of activity in each offensive zone, but both Antti Niemi and Sergei Bobrovsky were more than up to the task. For the most part, there was little time or space in which to operate, and the 15,950 assembled at Nationwide Arena settled in for what promised to be a low scoring affair from the outset.
Three themes quickly emerged for the Blue Jackets. First, Sergei Bobrovsky is truly something special. He was always in position, managed his rebounds and provided the calm, secure backdrop that this team has so desperately needed over the course of the recent unpleasantness. Second, Artem Anisimov came in and did all of those little things -- and big things -- that make him far more valuable than the scoresheet will often reflect. He won 64% of his face-offs, spurring similar performances by Ryan Johansen (63%) and Boone Jenner (62%). Michael Chaput trailed with "only"50% in the circle. This was a massive reversal of recent trends, and served the club well all night. Finally, Jordan Leopold did precisely what the club bargained for -- and more -- when they sent a 2016 5th round pick to St. Louis earlier in the day for the veteran defenseman. Despite hurriedly catching a plane to Columbus and stepping on the ice in unfamiliar surroundings, Leopold provided the quietly competent defensive play the Blue Jackets needed, efficiently dispatching threats with little ceremony. The collective impact was to provide an obvious sense of confidence that built as the game progressed.
It was not surprising, then, that Columbus was first on the board. Anisimov took the puck between the circles in his own zone, and confidently skated it up the ice, ultimately surrendering it to Adam Cracknell at the top of the face-off circle in the offensive zone. Cracknell made a nice spin move and centered the puck, causing turmoil in front of Niemi. He then nudged the puck out to David Savard at the top of the right circle, who slammed the puck home through traffic for his fourth of the campaign. 1 - 0 Blue Jackets, with Cracknell and Anisimov picking up well-deserved assists.
The first period ended with the Blue Jackets on the power play (which they would not convert), and a virtually even shot distribution, with the Sharks holding an 11 - 10 edge.
Period 2 -- Punch & Counterpunch
The second period proved tighter than the first. San Jose managed a 10 - 8 shot advantage for the period, but much of the first half of the period was again fought at center ice. Both netminders managed the crease, the defensemen kept the shooting lanes clear, and the forwards were, for the most part, frustrated.
The two teams swapped power play chances in the middle of the frame, with neither able to convert. However, at the 15:14 mark, Ryan Johansen drew an interference penalty through old fashioned hard work, and the Blue Jackets would find the back of the net again. David Savard brought the puck up the ice with speed, and Boone Jenner continued the momentum once the zone was entered, and centered the puck to a crowd in front. Jack Johnson wasn't able to steer it in the net, but managed to deflect it across the crease, where a hustling Cam Atkinson found it and beat Niemi for a 2 - 0 lead. Johnson and Jenner collected the assists, and the home crowd was humming.
Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets then experienced their one true stretch of bad play on this evening. After gaining the two goal lead, they started playing as if they just wanted to get back to the locker room for a rest. The Sharks were not biting however, and stepped up the pressure. Suddenly, there was too much time and space for the San Jose attackers, and Joe Pavelski found the puck on his stick deep in the Columbus zone. He channeled his inner Nick Foligno as he patiently drifted at the left side of the right circle. Eventually, he launched a high wrister past the helpless Bobrovsky, with just 55 seconds left in the period. The dreaded "goal in the last minute of a period", and the sense of trepidation that crept through the crowd was palpable.
Period 3 -- Escalating Drama
Of course, as the final period began, nobody knew that the final outcome had already been determined. However, the lack of scoring in the third does not mean there was a lack of drama. Quite the contrary.
The Blue Jackets learned from their end-of-period lapse in the 2nd, and came out strong, seemingly drawing more and more confidence from the play of Bobrovsky, Anisimov and others. The fact that the final shot total for the period was 16 - 10 in favor of the Sharks does not reflect the realities of the period. Again, the play was tight, and the Blue Jackets created several solid opportunities. Johansen and Atkinson each had breakaways, denied by Niemi. Johansen's created some significant consternation, when he appeared to catch a skate on Niemi's equipment, and crashed hard into the boards. Nobody breathed as he slowly gathered himself. However, he seemed no worse for the wear, and finished the game on a normal shift schedule.
What was already a tense affair became excruciating at the 15:00 mark. Alexander Wennberg took a four minute high sticking penalty against Scott Hannan, and Columbus was suddenly faced with the daunting task of a major penalty kill with the game on the line. A week ago, the team would have found a way to lose this one. But not on this night. The Blue Jackets were relentless on the penalty kill, clearing the pucks, blocking shots, and denying San Jose any easy chances. What opportunities did arise were snuffed with alacrity by Sergei Bobrovsky, including a particularly delicious save on a prime chance from Tommy WIngels.
San Jose pulled Niemi with 1:30 left in regulation, and the crowd was on its feet. With half a minute of 6-on-4 advantage, the Sharks could not convert. The Blue Jackets reversed their recent tendency to collapse toward the net, seemingly understanding that Bobrovsky had their collective backs. They challenged the puck and got it out of the zone quickly. After a face-off outside the zone with just eight seconds left, San Jose simply ran out of time. All that remained was the much-missed Foligno/Bobrovsky hug, and the Blue Jackets had the season sweep of the team in aqua. The fans stayed put through the three stars announcements, and to say it was a transformed environment would be a massive understatement.
You could not watch this one without concluding that this team simply plays better with Sergei Bobrovsky in net. They have confidence, challenge the puck and play with much more speed and decisiveness. Bobrovsky was amazing in this one, and the comparisons with Curtis McElhinney could not be avoided. Where McElhinney is reactive and jerky, Bobrovsky is smooth and anticipatory. He has an almost surreal ability to see the play and be where the play is going to be before it gets there.
Having the calming presence of Jordan Leopold and Artem Anisimov also seemed to help the rest of the roster. Johansen and Foligno buzzed all night. Atkinson had a great effort. Weinberg was solid, and Adam Cracknell seemed to respond to his elevation in the lineup.
On a night when every other Metropolitan Division lost -- except for Pittsburgh (who beat the Rangers) -- the Blue Jackets could rightly enjoy the two points, and wins in both halves of the back to back. The Red Wings and Bruins come calling this week, and the club makes a repeat visit to Philadelphia. Big challenges, but big opportunities as well. Tonight, for the first time in quite a while, the club looked like it is more than ready to grasp those opportunities.