The Blue Jackets brought their four game winning streak and the #5 power play in the NHL to Washington, where the Capitals were prepared to defend their own three-game streak and #2 power play rank. Something had to give. Who would it be?
Period One: Contrarian Play
You don't have to be a hockey genius to understand what needs to be done against the Washington Capitals: stay out of the box, skate hard and score early. That's the easy way to beat Washington. The hard way is to do what Columbus did on this night -- ignore conventional wisdom, take three penalties in the first 4:27 of the game, deplete your energy on the PK and mount no sustained offensive pressure. That this frame ended in a tie was nothing less than a miracle.
Final shots were 13 - 6 for the period, but it wasn't that close. After a couple of indifferent shifts to open the game, Brandon Dubinsky took a silly holding penalty at the 1:13 mark. Just 54 seconds later, the Blue Jackets were whistled for too many men on the ice, as the puck was played to their bench as a change was in process. Washington had 1:06 of two-man advantage, and I'm surprised they didn't have to clean the drool off the ice. Columbus, however, put up a solid PK effort -- led by Sergei Bobrovsky -- and killed off the full 5-on-3. However, just before Dubinsky could get his stick into the play, John Carlson teed up a shot from the point, with heavy traffic in front of Bobrovsky. Eric Fehr tipped the puck, which caromed off Bobrovsky's stick and into the upper corner. Evgeny Kuznetsov garnered the second assist, and the three keys to the game were torn up and trashed.
The Blue Jackets are no real enigma these days, either. Teams know that the likes of Prout, Wisniewski and Savard are not dynamite puck handlers, so the key is to maximize pressure in the defensive zone, creating turnovers and opportunities. Such was the case for the majority of the period, with the Blue Jackets apparently having no plan to beat the pressure. The fourth line was . . .forgettable. Fortunately, Bobrovsky was up to the task every time. (Stop me if you've heard this one before). Why not get guys like Skille and Gibbons involved in the middle of the ice to skate the puck out?
Finally, with 4:24 left in the period, the Jackets won a face-off at center ice. Brian Gibbons grabbed the puck, and worked it to Nick Foligno, with Scott Hartnell causing havoc in front of Braden Holtby. Foligno drifted to his left, toward the center of the ice, and let loose with a nasty wrister from the top of the circles. It beat Holtby, and the game was tied. Gibbons and James Wisniewski earned the assists, and gained some momentum, which they carried to the end of the period. As an added bonus, Alexander Ovechkin took an inexplicable goaltender interference call with just a few ticks left in the period. Columbus would start with the power play in the 2nd. Could they capitalize on the momentum and restore order?
Period Two: Tempting Fate
The Blue Jackets played role reversal for the better part of the first half of the period. Starting on the power play, Columbus had some chances, but could not convert. However, just 90 seconds later, Nate Schmidt was called for holding, and it was back to the power play. Again, some good chances, but no conversion. However, the Capitals were held without a shot on goal for almost half the period. As Jeff Rimer reminded everyone, the vast majority of the Capitals' shot attempts came off the power play, and the second would prove to be no different.
After mutual cross-checking penalties to Jason Chimera and Jared Boll took place with nobody noticing, Washington began to ratchet up the pressure a bit. The second had already become more than usually chippy, with the number of physical confrontations escalating. So, when Tom Wilson started serially cross-checking James Wisniewski in front of Bobrovsky, one could sense that a short fuse was simmering. Sure enough, Wiz let loose with a slash, then cross-check of his own which put Wilson down, with significant enhancement on Wilson's part. Instead of a cross-checking/slashing trade-off and 4-on-4 hockey, the refs saw only Wisniewski's transgressions. Messrs. Ovechkin & Company had a four minute power play.
Again, the Blue Jackets power play -- including Mr. Bobrovsky -- rose to the occasion. They played tight down low, were acutely aware of the passing lanes, and forced the puck into the predictable areas. If a cross-ice pass was attempted directly, it was more often than not deflected by a Columbus stick. Though the Capitals managed a number of shots during the power play (shots ended at 15 - 4 for the period), Bobrovsky was anticipating the play well, and negated every chance.
The final three minutes of the period passed uneventfully, with the Blue Jackets looking to rest the legs and establish some rhythm to their game in the final period. Interesting subtext: through two periods, Ovechkin had 16:20 of ice time, with eight shots on goal, and another five missed or blocked. From another perspective, he had just two fewer shots than the Blue Jackets did as a team through two. Ouch. Yet, somehow, this was anybody's game. Who would grab it?
Period 3 & OT: The Agony & The Ecstasy
After two periods where the scoreboard did not reflect the true on-ice situation, the two clubs hunkered down and played something approximating solid hockey. Shots were dead even for the final stanza and the OT, and the on-ice pace was similarly a back and forth affair. Early in the period, Brandon Dubinsky found himself with two defenders high in the offensive zone. Properly reasoning somebody must be open, he spotted Cam Atkinson drifting unmolested down toward the right post. He had the high glove corner pegged, but Holtby made the best save of the night by snaring the puck and denying one of the best single opportunities of the evening. The Capitals had similar opportunities, but Bobrovsky was his customary brick wall.
At the 9:20 mark, what seemed inevitable -- given the shot differential -- finally came to pass. Matt Niskanen took the puck at the right point for Washington, while Kevin Connauton battled Troy Brouwer at Bobrovsky's right post. Connauton succeeded in plowing Brouwer away from the crease, but Brouwer craftily circled the net to Bobrovsky's left, with Connauton trailing. Niskanen saw this and fired a shot/pass off-net at Brouwer, who got his stick on it and deflected it diagonally into the net. With just over ten minutes remaining on the road, against one of the offensive powerhouses in the league, and trailing by one, things did not look rosy. But these are the Blue Jackets, and despite their travails, they retain that attitude of tenacity and resiliency. Tonight was no different.
Just 1:30 after Washington took the lead, Columbus fought back for the tie. This time, it was Connauton, fresh off his game-winning goal over the Flyers, who fired a shot from the right point at a crowd gathered in front of Holtby. It appeared to most observers that Matt Calvert caught the puck on his stick, but the official scorers disagreed. No matter, the puck resided firmly in the back of the net, and Connauton had his second as a Blue Jacket. The assists went to Wisniewski and Atkinson, and it was, as they say, a whole new ball game.
Some nervous moments came at the 14:23 mark, when Hartnell was whistled for a marginal high sticking call. Hartnell was tied up in front of Braden Holtby, and had his stick lifted over his head. When his stick came down, the shaft hit Holtby on the top of the left shoulder. There was a brief dramatic pause before Holtby was able to channel his inner World Cup Soccer Star, and collapse to the ice. The arm went up for yet another Capitals power play. However, the kill was simple and efficient, and the threat was tidily dispatched.
With just a few minutes left, Hartnell was featured in another prime opportunity. Cam Atkinson brought the puck into the offensive zone on the left, with Matt Calvert driving hard down the middle. Hartnell filled the empty space as the trailer, and Atkinson found him wide open. A nice wrister was saved by Holtby, but the rebound caromed directly to Hartnell. His comeback attempt was again denied by Holtby, and the remainder of the period passed without incident.
The overtime was both bizarre and sublime. The Capitals took early control, and put a couple of shots on Bobrovsky, one requiring a nice pad save. Columbus then took control of the puck, and put a couple of their own shots on goal. More importantly, they had Washington trailing the play. The predictable happened with 1:57 left in OT, when Jason Chimera was forced into a bad interference penalty against Jack Johnson. A coveted 4-on-3 power play, with almost the full two minutes at their disposal.
What seemed like paradise almost turned to disaster early in the extra man situation. A bad entry created a turnover high in the zone, and Washington had the highly unlikely odd man rush, featuring Brooks Opik and Jay Beagle. Orpik brought the puck down the left, and fired from point black range. Bobrovsky was square to the shooter and denied the effort. However, the rebound came directly out to Beagle, who turned and fired. Bobrovsky, however, saw what was coming and sprawled to his left, stacking the pads and denying the chance. A good omen?
Finally, order was restored, Jack Johnson gained entry into the offensive zone and worked the puck between the right wing and the point, with Foligno, Johnson and Johansen playing catch. Finally, Johnson zipped it to Foligno just above the right dot, and his one timer was hard and true, beating Holtby high for the game winner. It was Foligno's 13th goal of the season, to match his 13 assists.
This one is difficult to rationally summarize. On the one hand, the optics of this game were awful most of the way. Columbus made stupid mistakes, had no chemistry, and once again relied upon a superlative effort in goal to save the day. They surrendered 41 shots on goal, and 13 of the Blue Jackets' 23 shots came in the final 24 minutes of play. On the other hand, there were a number of really nice individual efforts. Foligno and Bobrovsky, obviously, but many others as well. Ryan Johansen played his tail off, playing over twenty minutes of ice time in all situations, making lots of subtle little plays away from the puck, and even with the puck, across all three zones. He's in one of those funks right now where the puck is not finding the net. His empty netter hit the post against Philadelphia, and a late chance tonight went just wide. Still, he has 27 points in 28 games, and the goals will come.
Cam Atkinson was more visible, despite having only a single shot of any kind. He is slowly becoming more of a complete player, but needs to show that he can do it without losing his scoring touch. Boone Jenner, Brian Gibbons and Jack Skille all had important minutes, and James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson had better games than they have had in a long time. There were mistakes, but they were a real presence in the offensive zone, facilitated the high-low puck movement, and generally had solid efforts. Connauton also merits attention, but still panics with the puck in his own zone far too easily.
The lack of shooting remains a concern, as does the propensity to take stupid penalties. The reticence to shoot has been around since training camp, and has not gotten better. Sure, injuries have played a part, and the constant shifting of lines doesn't do anything for chemistry, but the club just needed to look at the guys in the red sweaters for guidance. Niskanen & Ovechkin -- by themselves -- accounted for 14 shots on goal and 23 shots attempted. Ahem . . . Listening to Todd Richards after the game, I was wondering if he watched the same game I did.
Still, there's no arguing about five consecutive wins. The high wire act, however, has to change, particularly with Pittsburgh coming into the house on Saturday night. The club has Johansen & Foligno going at just about a point-per-game clip, Bobrovsky playing with Vezina form, and both Goloubef and Tyutin on the verge of returning. For a change, good news is outpacing bad.
More importantly, discussion of the standings is now appropriate again. The team is at almost precisely the same record as this time last year, and now sits just seven points out of a playoff spot -- both the Capitals (3rd in Metro) and Boston (2nd Wild Card) have 31 points in 28 games. Columbus trails the Flyers by a single point, and New Jersey by three points, with two games in hand on the Devils. The Rangers are just four points distant, although they have two games in hand on the Blue Jackets. And you all thought I was crazy . . . Stay tuned.