As word circulated that injured forwards Boone Jenner and Matt Calvert would rejoin the lineup against the Carolina Hurricanes, a fresh sense of optimism emerged among the fan base. At minimum, it was hoped that this would spark some energy and life, and enable the club to earn some needed points while their injured teammates recuperated. That optimism was misplaced however, as the Blue Jackets turned in a shockingly disorganized and apathetic performance in a 4 - 2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Period 1: Rock Bottom?
The Blue Jackets came out of the box with two decent shifts, creating some credible opportunities against Cam Ward. That proved to be the sum and substance of the contributions for the period, as Carolina out-skated, out-possessed and out-hustled Columbus at every turn. The Hurricanes posted 18 shots for the frame, doubling up on the Blue Jackets' nine shots on net. As bad as it was, the Blue Jackets were unable to equal that shot total in the remaining two frames.
The Hurricanes' first goal was a microcosm of the entire evening. Carolina possessed the puck for an extended period of time in the Blue Jackets' zone, working the puck to former Blue Jacket Ron Hainsey. His point shot found its way through to Curtis McElhinney, who surrendered a big rebound. Zach Boychuk out battled Tim Erixon for the puck, and parked it behind McElhinney for the 1 - 0 lead at the 15:33 mark.
It took just 90 seconds for Carolina to extend the lead. Again, the Hurricanes cycled the puck, virtually unmolested by Blue Jackets defenders. Elias Lindholm worked the puck to Andrej Sekera at the left point, while Cam Atkinson made a half-hearted reach for the puck, coming up empty. Atkinson then seemingly attempted to make a standing block of the puck from Sekera's stick, but missed. Instead of shooting, Sekera directed the puck to Riley Nash at the hash marks, who turned and beat McElhinney to the short side. Dalton Prout was inexplicably late getting to Nash, and McElhinney was slow to realize that Sekera was passing, not shooting. 2 - 0 Hurricanes with 2:52 left in the period, and at that point it appeared that Columbus would be fortunate to reach the intermission with just a two goal deficit.
Fortunes appeared to turn when Victor Rask was whistled for hooking with precisely two minutes left in the period. The Blue Jackets put together one of their few organized efforts of the evening. Ryan Johansen, David Savard and Nick Foligno all entered the zone with speed, with the puck ending up on Johansen's stick near the left dot. Johansen made a nice move to the middle, creating a shooting lane, and fired the puck on net. Cam Ward made the save, but it was a classic "angle of incidence = angle of reflection", as the puck caromed directly to Foligno just inside the right dot. Foligno had a big opening . . .and he didn't miss. Johansen and Savard picked up the helpers, and the Blue Jackets went to the locker room in far better shape than they deserved.
Period 2: A Deeper Bottom
To the Blue Jackets' credit, they only allowed the Hurricanes ten shots in the second period. Unfortunately, Columbus managed only three. Yes . . . three. The club was absolutely schooled in the face-off circle -- winning only 37% of the draws for the evening. While there were some notable individual efforts that created opportunities, those chances could not be capitalized upon. Atkinson had a breakaway, but the puck fell off his stick as he moved to the forehand. As the night progressed, more similar chances went astray, due largely to the fact that they were individual creations, not the product of team structure. There was little consistent presence in front of Cam Ward, as even Scott Hartnell seemed to be taken out of his game by the feisty Hurricanes.
The lone goal of the period came at the 6:54 mark, while the Jackets enjoyed a power play after the Hurricanes took a whistle for too many men on the ice. Columbus entered the zone with speed, but Jack Johnson surrendered it to Justin Faulk along the right boards. The Blue Jackets were all heading south, and Faulk was heading north on a breakaway, with Alexander Wennberg and Johansen in pursuit. Wennberg was able to harass Faulk enough to force a weak shot. It was too much for McElhinney, however, as he fumbled the puck off his forearm, and saw it trickle into the net for a 3 - 1 advantage. While he had little help in his own zone, McElhinney fought the puck all night long, and continued a disturbing trend of not seeing the puck well and surrendering big rebounds.
The balance of the period was an uneventful series of flawed offensive entries and defensive indifference. One bright spot was the penalty kill, which had fallen on hard times. Where the even strength game lacked structure, the penalty kill shut Carolina down for six power plays and played extremely well.
Period 3: Glimmers of Hope
The third period started with the Blue Jackets trying hard to exert themselves, but not finding the structure or organization to exert consistent pressure. An early power play provided chances, but no goals. What ensued was a series of penalties that kept the PK on the ice, depleting precious minutes of clock. To be fair, the Blue Jackets were perhaps victimized by inconsistent officiating, particularly in the area of interference. Brian Gibbons was called on a close one where his initial hit was unquestionably legal, but his second one was more questionable. However, similar hits by the Hurricanes went uncalled. There were also some calls missed the other way, that should likely have been called. More problematic for the Blue Jackets was Jack Johnson's hit on Jiri Tlusty at the 7:31 mark of the third. JJ got two minutes for an illegal check to the head, and is fortunate it was not a major and game misconduct. From the replay, it looked like he passed up the opportunity for a clean, open ice body check, and launched his shoulder into Tlusty's head. Don't be shocked if he has a phone call with the Department of Player Safety over that one.
After surviving three consecutive penalties in the period, the Blue Jackets were finally able to exert some sustained offensive pressure. With 5:23 left in the game, Foligno (who else?) made a nice spin move from Ward's left, and took the puck hard to the net. Ward made the initial save, but Foligno stuck with it and put the puck in the net to make it a one goal game. Dalton Prout earned the helper, and the fuse was finally burning. The Blue Jackets buzzed and skated for the remainder of the game, creating some tantalizingly close chances. There would be no comeback this night, however, as Eric Staal buried an empty netter with 12 seconds left to account for the final margin of victory.
Making Sense of It All
The Blue Jackets locker room was an empty and somber place after this one, as you might expect. To his credit, Curtis McElhinney spoke with the assembled media, as did Foligno and Johnson. Their message was the same: the caliber of play was unacceptable. Richards characterized the effort as ". . . a huge step back, disappointing on a lot of levels." He noted " . . .it seemed to me that they wanted it more than we did."
Those are disturbing words, as the hallmark of this club has been effort, even if the results were not there. However, from my vantage point, it was not so much a lack of effort as it was the lack of a structured effort. There was lots of individual hard play -- at least in the offensive zone and on the forecheck -- but there was little support or cohesion. Atkinson buzzed like a wild man in the offensive zone and on the forecheck, but was invisible elsewhere. Foligno, Johansen, Wennberg, Jenner, Skille and Gibbons all had good efforts, but could not enlist the consistent support to be dangerous. The remaining forwards were largely invisible -- in all zones. Similarly, the defensive play was ragged and disjointed, as it tends to be in front of McElhinney. The club was tentative with the puck, rarely gaining clean exits or solid clears, and compounding the sins with poor passing. Only Fedor Tyutin was consistently reliable in this one.
McElhinney was better than he has been, at least statistically, but simply cannot come up with THE save when the club needs it. He has to make the save on Faulk . . . and he didn't. You could almost see the collective shoulders slump after that one.
Some role is played by the ice time allocation as well. Johansen had over 20 minutes again, and may be showing some of the effects of perhaps not coming into the season in top shape. Jack Johnson inexplicably had almost 28 minutes of ice time, despite the fact that his play has been bordering on abysmal since the season started. He had the turnover that led to the third goal, and was slow to react to situations for the entire game. Conversely, Tim Erixon had just over 13 minutes. Brian Gibbons, who was all over the ice and created havoc with his speed, had just 12:31 of ice time, and Jack Skille, who actually showed how to skate the puck into the zone and put the puck on net, had just 10:54 on the ice.
Last year's playoff series vs. Pittsburgh showed that you need speed to combat speed, and the Blue Jackets underutilized their speed tonight. Motion tends to breed motion, and they showed that they can play that game at the end of the third. Until they are back at full strength, creativity is called for, as the current solution is clearly not working. The best effort during the recent drought came with Anton Forsberg in net. Try that again on Friday in Carolina, put a boot firmly in the behinds of tonight's passengers, and move on. Everyone is frustrated, but you can't let the frustration win. Easier said than done, but it does need to be done. Now.