If coach Todd RIchards had to encapsulate the experience of the early season in a movie metaphor, he might well choose the Black Knight in Monty Python & the Holy Grail -- bravely contending that "It's only a flesh wound" as key pieces fall to the ground in a gory bit of comic frenzy. There hasn't been any comic relief in Columbus, however, as first tlhe forwards, then the netminder, and finally the blue line have fallen victim to the injury bug. Pessimists will point to the 9 game winless streak, optimists will point to the fact that the Blue Jackets have won two of the past three, and pragmatists will note that there are 64 games left, including this one, and that the Columbus point deficit in the Metro is not materially different from last year at this time.
Enter the Boston Bruins, a formidable opponent, but one who has suffered from the slings and arrows of injury themselves. Chara, McQuaid and Warsofsky are missing from the blue line, Marchand is on the mend, and the club overall is a decent 12-8-0, but a very mortal 4-4 on the road. The Blue Jackets featured a healthy Matt Calvert and Jack Skille, a couple of new line combinations, and the debut of Kevin Connauton on defense, after being plucked off the waiver wire from Dallas earlier in the week. (All those who figured the blue line would consist of Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, David Savard, Dalton Prout, Jordan Leopold, Tim Erixon and Kevin Connaulton after 18 games, raise your hands. . . .thought so.) On the trivia front, per @BlueJacketsNHL, this game was also the first to feature two starting goalies with #72 on their backs (Sergei Bobrovsky, Niklas Svedberg) in over 60 years.
After a somnambulant performance against Detroit on Tuesday, the pressure was on to respond in a big way. Could the Blue Jackets respond?
Period 1 -- Shifting Course
If there has been a common thread early in the season, it has been a tendency for the Blue Jackets to start slowly and put themselves in an early deficit. Tonight, while not stunning, was better. There was more skating than drifting, and the Calvert -- Wennberg -- Skille line created some real energy early. Skille was very strong on the puck, and this group led a series of nice offensive shifts. Svedberg surrendered some rebounds, but the Blue Jackets could not convert. They were hampered a bit by continued struggles in the faceoff circle, losing the first four draws.
At the other end, the Blue Jackets did a better job of exerting pressure in the neutral zone, and were more definitive with their exit passes . . . for the most part. A couple of horrific turnovers led to prime Boston chances. About nine minutes in, one of these found the seam in Sergei Bobrovsky's pads, and trickled to toward the goal line. Fortunately, it was moving slowly enough that Dalton Prout could get to the puck and sweep it away from harm. That bit of good fortune provided the spark.
At the 9:52 mark, Ryan Johansen gathered in an errant puck from the left wing, brought it in on Svedberg, and got just enough on the shot to have it carom through the goalie and into the back of the net. An unassisted tally, giving the home club a crucial early lead. It also impacted all aspects of the play. Faceoffs went from 0 - 4 to 7 - 5 in the span of a few minutes. (For the period, Columbus won the battle 9 - 6). The pace and pressure increased, and it soon paid off.
At the 11:30 mark, the Blue Jackets established possession in the zone, with Johansen getting the puck to Jordan Leopold at the left point. Leopold let one fly at the far post. However, Nick Foligno had positioned himself strategically at the edge of the crease near that post, and his derriere was positioned even more strategically. The puck caromed off his southern hemisphere, and into the net for a 2- 0 lead, with Leopold and Johansen garnering the assists.
The balance of the period was a bit of a track meet. The Blue Jackets exerted good pressure, but Boston had some prime chances, including a 4-on-2 rush and a couple of other prime chances. Bobrovsky was up to the challenge, and no harm arose. Columbus won the shot battle, 11- 9.
This period was preciselly what the doctor ordered. Fast, clean play, with no power plays allowed. Two opportunities converted, and a good energy level. Now, with the dreaded two-goal lead, could they maintain the momentum in the 2nd?
Period 2 -- Stalemate
The early play in the 2nd was uneven, with the Blue Jackets having some moments, but also surrendering some to the Bruins. However, the line of Artem Anisimov, Scott Hartnell and Cam Atkinson provided some good possession time and some opportunities. Anisimov is smooth with the puck and smart away from the puck. He's not scoring right now, but was contributing in a lot of little ways. At the other end, Bob was calm . . . .Buddah calm . . . and that is a bad omen for opponents.
At the halfway mark of the period, the Blue Jackets put on an impressive offensive display, maintaining possession across two shifts. This led to the first penalty of the game, and interference call at the 9:26 mark. This stemmed a slight tilting of the ice toward the Bruins. The Blue Jackets spent most of the extra man time in the Boston zone, with great puck movement, but could not score. Boston came right back with three tenacious possessions, featuring a series of laser point shots that missed just wide. Bobrovsky stood firm, and the blue liners were quick to get to the pucks. Some muddled puck handling complicated matters, but they responded as they needed to. Brian Gibbons in particular seemed intent on proving his demotion to fourth line duty erroneous, as he hustled and created opportunities.
With 1:25 left in the frame, Ryan Johansen was called for holding, providing the PK unit with it's first work of the evening. They responded beautifully, clearing the puck and allowing nary a serious opportunity. It was a period where the foot came off the gas a bit, but the caliber of play remained high. The Bruins won the shot battle in this frame, 12 - 7, but Columbus dominated the faceoffs again, 14 - 5. No harm no foul. Can they kill off the remaining 35 seconds and bring home the victory in the 3rd?
Period 3 & Beyond -- Purgatory and Redemption
The period started off innocuously enough, with the Blue Jackets killing off the remainder of the penalty, resuming the forecheck and exerting pressure in the neutral zone. Then, just 1:28 in, Dennis Seidenberg let a point shot go from the edge of the neutral zone, unscreened, that somehow found a seam in Bobrovsky's pads. A shocking turn of events that made it a one goal game, with the anxiety level ratcheting up a few notches.
Columbus did not panic, however, and continued to exert pressure. That resulted in another power play, which again featured great puck movement and possession . . . but not goals. Eventually, those missed opportunities will bite you, and so it was here. Again, the point shot was the culprit. Matt Bartkowski let a point shot fly from the right, and Matt Fraser deflected it in front. Bobrovsky had no chance. Tie game.
Still, the Blue Jackets would not quit. They created some key chances over the next two shifts, but a pipe and an incredible save by Svedberg maintained the status quo. Still, they were unconverted chances, and again they paid. Daniel Paille took a turnover in the Blue Jackets' zone, spun, and sent a bouncer heading wide to Bobrovsky's right. . . except that it wasn't. The puck struck the heel of James Wisniewski's skate, and bounced back into the right corner of the net. 3 - 2 Bruins, and the assembled 15,030 sat in stunned -- or depressed -- silence.
As Todd Richards said after the game, the club could "feel the air go out of the building", but the bench stayed positive. For good reason. The top line took over, with Foligno, Johansen and Jenner keeping the puck in play. Ultimately, Johansen took the puck below the net and fed it into the crease. Foligno got a stick on it, but it deflected to Svedberg's right, where Jack Johnson was pinching in. The puck found Johnson's stick, and he didn't miss. Tie game once again, and the crowd loudly roared approval for a guy who has had one of the toughest weeks a guy could have.
The crowd was fully engaged, and some good chances arose for the Blue Jackets, but Svedberg was up to the task. They managed the game to the horn, guaranteeing at least a point. On to OT.
Boston dominated the OT, except for a brief interval in the middle of the extra frame. Shots were 7 - 1 in favor of the Bruins, and some tantalizing chances near the end just barely missed or were saved by an acrobatic Bobrovsky. Still, they survived to the shootout.
This was the first shootout for the Blue Jackets this season, and it showed. For the most part, the players looked indecisive in their moves, and Svedberg did a good job of making himself look big in the net. Johansen, Atkinson and Anisimov were stuffed. Jenner missed wide. Foligno hit the goalpost, and Wennberg and Calvert were foiled by Svedberg. At the other end, Bobrobvsky stopped Smith, Griffith missed wide, ditto for Bergeron. Bob stuffed Soderberg, Krug hit the goalpost and Eriksson could not beat Bobrovsky. Finally, at the end of Round 7, Khokhlachev found a gap, and slid the puck home for the 4 - 3 victory.
This one stings a bit, to be sure, given the 2 - 0 lead heading into the third. Puck luck was not with the Blue Jackets on this night, but they did play a much better brand of hockey. The first period was sublime. They lost a bit in the second, and defensive turnovers killed them in the third. More finish up front and less fumbling at the back end will go a long way to curing their ills. Still, they demonstrated the resilience that has become their trademark, and gathered a point when many teams would have folded.
Up front, the line juggling seems to have worked, with the top three lines looking very good at various times. Wennberg gets more impressive each game, and it won't be long before he is rewarded on the scoreboard. Ditto for Anisimov. The defense is a work in progress, with some very sloppy passing that led directly to the goals. WIsniewski looked slow tonight, but after a somewhat reticent start, Jack Johnson picked up his game. Jordan Leopold is quietly solid, which is what they expect.
The mood in the locker room was down, but not despondent. They know they did a lot of good things, and the mistakes are fixable. Columbus is 2-1-1 in its last four, and that's something to build on. The passing was crisper, and if the defense can avoid the turnovers, good things could lie ahead. The Flyers are next, tomorrow night. Stay tuned.