As the Blue Jackets prepared to meet the Predators on Saturday evening, they sent Alex Wennberg to Springfield, recalled Kerby Rychel and Michael Chaput, and put Curtis McElhinney in goal. Anything to change the horrific mojo that has plagued the club over the first 22 games. Would the moves work, or is a Witch Doctor the next step?
Period 1: Precarious Standoff
To the Blue Jackets' credit, they came out of the locker room with some attitude and jump. The legs were moving and there was less hesitation in their passing. Still, the lack of chemistry was evident, as passes were too frequently in the skates or behind the advancing skater, negating any speed advantage. Still, some key opportunities were created. Ryan Johansen zinged one off the post early on, then made some evil moves for an opportunity in the slot that was denied. The puck caromed between the circles, where Kerby Rychel pounced on it directly from the bench, wound up a big slapper . . .and just missed wide. Such is life when you're in a negative spiral.
The Blue Jackets committed the first penalty, when Johansen went off for hooking at 9:16. The penalty kill unit looked more aggressive and precise than it has in recent games, and Artem Anisimov almost put the Blue Jackets up while on the PK. Using his typically aggressive forecheck, he forced Pekka Rinne to mishandle the puck behind his own net. Anisimov grabbed the puck and tried to beat the defense to a gaping net for an easy wraparound, but was just barely denied. Still, the penalty was killed with alacrity.
At the 12:00 minute mark, the Blue Jackets got their first power play, when Shea Weber went off for cross-checking. They maintained possession in the zone for a significant majority of the extra man time, but could not beat Rinne. They moved the puck well, but appeared hesitant to shoot. That needs to change, as nothing bad happens when you put the puck on net.
The Predators appeared to gain some momentum from the kill, and began exerting more offensive zone pressure. At the 15:01 mark, Michael Chaput was whistled for tripping, and the Predators went on another power play, which was spent almost entirely in the Columbus zone. Here is where Curtis McElhinney came to the fore, showing better technique and rebound control than at any time this season. He foiled young phenom Filip Forsberg on more than one occasion, including a particularly nasty move that undressed Jack Johnson. Though the penalty was killed, the Blue Jackets spent way too much time in their own zone, and were unable to re-establish possession and control of the ice. Shots ended at 20 - 7 in Nashville's favor, including the last 11 of the period, amassed over the final four minutes or so. While many of them were from the perimeter, it was still 20 shots. Not a recipe for success.
So, a lot to improve on in the second, but better puck handling, good jump and solid play in net. Kerby Rychel played with a lot of energy and speed, as you might expect for his debut NHL contest. Hopefully that energy could be channeled into some scoring in the second.
Period 2: Passes to Nowhere
The Blue Jackets played an entirely defensive game in the second. Nashville exerted pressure, and Columbus responded with credible defensive efforts. However, instead of orchestrated, focused exit passes, the Blue Jackets resorted to the "panic pass to nowhere", under the apparent theory that it's better to blindly try to get the puck out of the zone than to do anything else. While that might be a credible power play strategy, it seldom works at even strength. Instead, it simply guarantees that the other team will have serial possessions in your zone, and inhibits your ability to effectively orchestrate line chances, particularly when the second period "long change"is in effect. Not surprisingly, Nashville once again dominated the shots, 13 - 8. Factor in the 13 shots that Columbus blocked (vs. 6 for Nashville), and the 8 shots the Predators missed (vs. 5 for the Blue Jackets), Nashville ended up with a Corsi of 67.5% in all situations through two, which pretty much matches what the eyes saw that period.
An early Blue Jackets power play again featured good possession, some brief chances, but no results on the scoreboard. The lone Nashville power play likewise went for naught. Through two, the Blue Jackets held a 25-24 edge in the face-off circle.
The Predators broke through at the 12:47 mark when Roman Josi let loose with a shot from the left that caught James Wisniewski's rear-end, caromed off the end boards, and found Mike Ribiero's stick. Ribiero beat McElhinney to the far post with a wrap-around, and Nashville had a 1 - 0 lead. Josi and Shea Weber garnered the assists.
So, while the Blue Jackets game lacked the turnovers and blatant mistakes that have characterized recent games, it also lacked the precision and focus necessary to create sustained pressure. When will Columbus score again?
Period 3: Best for Last . . .But Not Enough
Undoubtedly with visions of Friday night's game dancing in their heads, the Blue Jackets came out stronger in the third than they did in either of the prior periods. They chose to push the play, create the chances, and put the Predators on their heels. As often happens when you do that, the Predators took a penalty just 1:43 in, when Taylor Beck was whistled for hooking. The pressure continued throughout the power play, and Roman Josi took another penalty for high sticking with just eight seconds left in the original power play. David Savard intelligently surrendered the puck, which provided a brief 5-on-3. While they could not capitalize during the initial eight seconds, the Blue Jackets did find the back of the net.
Just five seconds after Beck returned to the ice, Nick Foligno took the puck low to Pekka Rinne's left. Meanwhile, Ryan Johansen crept down to a similar location to Rinne's right. These two have some major chemistry, and tonight was no different. Foligno threaded a laser pass through a crowd, right onto Johansen's stick, and Johansen immediately cashed the chance. Another power play goal, the game was tied and the Blue Jackets had the momentum. It was some period of time before Nashville managed a shot on goal, and that came during their lone power play of the period, which the Blue Jackets again killed. However, the Blue Jackets could not maintain the pace. Artem Anisimov, who had performed uncharacteristically poorly in the face-off circle in the first two periods, could not answer the bell for the third. Official word was an upper body injury, with no time frame provided. That forced Jenner, Johansen and Chaput to platoon, which is the last thing the club needed, particularly in the back half of a back-to-back. Nashville began evening out the possession, and put more pressure in the offensive end. (The Predators had a 9 - 7 edge in shots for the period). Still, the Blue Jackets were creating havoc in the offensive end as well, but were foiled by the typically stingy Predator defensive corps.
The killing blow came with just 2:12 left in regulation. Scott Hartnell was battling for possession along the half wall to McElhinney's left. The puck popped out to Calle Jarnkrok, who spied Craig Smith at the far circle, uncovered. The pass found Smith, and he fired a hard shot directly into McElhinney's chest. A big rebound ensued, with David Savard whiffing on his attempt to clear the puck. Smith managed to get a stick on the puck, and sent it bouncing into the middle. As misfortune would dictate, Colin Wilson was parked at the edge of the crease where the puck landed, and backhanded it home before McElhinney could recover. And that, as they say, was the game.
If your focus is solely on the outcome -- and it's hard not to be that way at this point -- there are no moral victories in this one. However, if you take the bigger picture, there were several positives to be gleaned. They played hard for 60 minutes, and surrendered two goals that were more the result of bounces than any defensive lapses. They skated with Nashville, and joined a very non-exclusive club of opponents who were thwarted largely due to the skill of Pekka Rinne in net.
The primary negatives from this one were the failure to win battles in their own zone, and the reliance on the "panic pass to nowhere." They still have a reluctance to shoot the puck, which has reared its head before, and needs to be overcome. In my view, it's simply a variation of the fear of making a mistake that leads to the panic pass. They need to get past that and just try to make plays. Guys like Johansen and Foligno are doing that every night, and, to a lesser extent, Jenner, Atkinson & Anisimov.
The chief standard bearers in this one was Curtis McElhinney, who showed by far his best performance of the season. He stopped cowering in the net, and positioned himself high in the crease, cutting down the angle and disturbing traffic flow in the slot. Though the game winner came off a juicy rebound, he was much better in rebound control overall. Honorable mention to Johansen, Foligno and Rychel, who played some responsible minutes, showed good instincts, and seemed fairly comfortable in the environment.
In the meantime, the club needs to see how severe the Anisimov injury is. Dubinsky made the trip to Nashville, so his return seems imminent. Jordan Leopold went down late in this one, but I couldn't tell if it was an actual injury. Something to keep an eye on.
This too will pass, though it seems like the ugliness has gone on forever. The guys are playing hard, and need just one or two positives to grab and hold. They'll get another chance on Monday night against the Florida Panthers and former Blue Jackets coach Gerard Gallant. Be there.