Monday heralded a new month for the Blue Jackets, who were undeniably glad to see November pass into the ether. Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers, with former Blue Jackets Gerard Gallant and Derek MacKenzie in tow, came into this one with a 9-7-6 record, good for ninth in the Eastern Conference, and squarely within the playoff hunt. Could the Jackets reverse the trend and find the win column? Though it didn't look like it early, Columbus found both its game and its nerve, and pulled out a well-deserved 2-1 victory.
Period 1 -- Same Tune, Different Day
Stop me if you've heard this one. Eleven minutes into the first period, the Blue Jackets had more penalties (2) than shots on goal (0). It was the same story that has been told countless times this season -- players holding sticks so tightly that pucks bounced off and over the blades, defensemen who consistently became trapped on their backhand with the puck, and inevitably surrendered the puck, and ill-advised penalties. Fortunately, the defense was quick enough with sticks and bodies to limit Florida opportunities, and Sergei Bobrovsky was classic BOB. Thus, the Blue Jackets' channeling of their inner Keystone Cops did not have adverse consequences on the scoreboard.
Then, just when the disgust level was about to redline for the assembled 12,309, it all changed. (Digression: Note the attendance for a club that has lost much of its roster to injury, and has 9 and 6 game losing streaks in the first 24 games. It was greater than any Florida home game this year. The Panthers have cracked the 10,000 mark only twice in their first ten home games, including 11,419 for their home opener. End Digression.) The home team began skating, providing support, and pulling their heads up. It's amazing how much more accurate passes become when you actually look at your target, rather than your stick.
Columbus got on the board first. Yes, they had a lead. Go ahead, savor that for a moment. . . At the 15:07 mark, Jack Skille moved the puck to Jordan Leopold at the left point. Leopold rimmed the puck around the boards, toward Michale Chaput, camped behind the net to Al Montoya's left. (It appeared to me that Skille got a blade on the puck and pushed it to Chaput, but the official scorer disagreed.) Chaput wasted no time in centering the puck to Matt Calvert at the top of the blue paint. Calvert proceeded to put on a forehand-backhand move that placed Montoya somewhere in Section 106. While he could have waited for the Earth's rotation to carry the puck in, Calvert calmly chipped it in for the 1 - 0 lead. Chapati and Leopold earned the assists, and the energy was back in the building.
The final few minutes were relatively uneventful, and the Blue Jackets went off with the lead, despite playing subpar hockey for 3/4 of the period. Shots were 6 - 4 in Florida's favor, signifying some good defensive work by the Blue Jackets. As for the offense . . . let's just say that quality trumped quantity for this period.
Period 2 -- Medication Time
If you dawdled in getting your Bacon on a Stick at the intermission, you missed most of the action. Kerby Rychel took a high sticking penalty just 29 seconds into the frame. 54 seconds later, it was a tie game. Aaron Ekblad took the puck at the right point, and made a couple of moves on Matt Calvert, who had lost his stick in the proceedings, but did his best to keep himself between Ekblad and the goal. The ensuing shot missed Calvert, but found the back of the net, as Dalton Prout was fully engaged with Sean Bergenheim directly in front of Bobrovsky. The triple screen provided by Calvert, Prout and Bergenheim ensured that Bobrovsky never saw the puck. He sensed a shot was coming, and guessed left, but the puck went right. Tie game. Brad Boyes and Bergenheim earned the helpers.
For the next 17 minutes, the teams traded opportunities, in the loosest sense of the word. Scott Hartnell had a couple of prime chances, but could not cash in. Still, the pace was good and the Blue Jackets did not go into the funk that some might have expected after the tying goal was scored. Hartnell was one of the reasons, as he was at his gritty, annoying best all night long, taking antagonism to the brink, but no further. Jack Skille was another. While others were toying with the puck, he grabbed it and headed north, gaining the zone and creating havoc. He did that repeatedly for sixty minutes, and really deserved to be rewarded. Kerby Rychel provided similar effort, in all three zones, and played with the kind of freedom that all of his teammates need to emulate. Ditto for Brian Gibbons, who used his speed to maximum advantage at every opportunity.
If you left your seat early to return your bacon intake to therapeutic levels, you missed the other excitement of the period. Just after the one minute mark, Florida had a flurry in Bobrovsky's crease, and Bob put on one of his patented shows -- getting his body to the right to fend off the first shot, and his goal stick to the left post, negating what looked to be an open net opportunity. It was a fitting end to the period, which re-energized the crowd.
Shots were 10 - 7 for Florida in the period, and the anxiety level in the crowd was considerable. A 1 - 1 tie heading into the third is a scenario seen more than once in the recent past, and those did not turn out well. How would the club respond on this night?
Period 3 -- Effort Vindicated
This story has a happy ending, boys & girls. The Blue Jackets came out for the third period and played responsible, but aggressive hockey. The forecheck was present, and they challenged in the neutral zone. Fewer instances of being trapped along the boards were seen in the defensive zone, and contributions were received from all four lines. The Blue Jackets outshot the Panthers 12 - 9 for the period, confirming the visual sense that they kept getting stronger as the game progressed.
The seminal moment came just past the midpoint of the period, and it was a microcosm of all of the things the Blue Jackets did well on this evening. Boone Jenner came in hard on the forecheck against Ekblad, forcing a weak pass behind the net. Jenner pursued the puck, and when it took a strange bounce of the end boards, Jenner nudged it into the slot. Rychel was waiting, and patiently took the puck to the base of the circle to Montoya's left, where he let loose with a hard shot on net, which Montoya stopped. However, Jenner had positioned himself squarely at the edge of the crease, and when the rebound emerged, he battled the puck across the line for the deciding tally. Both the crowd and the bench erupted, and the smiles were evident, both for the late lead, and Rychel's premier NHL point.
Columbus did not go into a shell after gaining the lead, but remained disciplined. There were few turnovers, no stupid penalties, and only a couple of serious chances surrendered. When Montoya was pulled with time running down, the discipline remained, with the iconic image being the puck rolling on edge all the way down the ice, seemingly headed for the clinching goal, when it veered left and missed the net by a foot. The resulting icing call put the face-off in the Blue Jackets' zone with just ten ticks left in the game. The draw was won, and the puck frozen against the end boards by a horde of bodies until the final horn. The crowd sounded like a gathering twice its true size, and the players themselves were bordering on giddy, providing a series of body checks to Nick Foligno as he attempted to work his way toward Bobrovsky for the ceremonial hug. He eventually got there, and there was more joy than usual in that hug. As it should be.
Summing It Up
It's easy to write this one off, but I think that would be a mistake. This is not your father's Florida team, and the cumulative impact of the injuries and losses on the team psyche cannot be over-emphasized. The squad lapsed into old habits at the beginning, but found a way to change course and right the ship. The old standards -- Foligno, Hartnell, Johansen -- were very good, but the stars just did not align for them tonight. The important thing is that others were there to step in -- Calvert, Jenner, Rychel, Skille, Gibbons. That's been lacking, and the speed, enthusiasm and tenacity that those guys brought became contagious.
Equally important was the discipline and responsibility that took over after the 11th minute of the game. Only one penalty came after that point, and the Blue Jackets surrendered only 25 shots for the game. Consider that they allowed 20 to Nashville . . .in the first period alone . . .just a few nights ago, and the progress is apparent. With a more consistent effort in front of him, Bob was able to leverage his uncanny ability to see the play developing and be where he needs to be before the other guys.
Still, it was not a sixty minute effort, and the tendency to play cautious, heads-down, "Please God, don't let me make a mistake" hockey remains a danger. Hopefully this win loosens the grips . . . and the attitudes. A good sign came with the 12 shots in the third -- duplicate that every period and you'll win more than you lose. Tonight, that total represented more than half the total shots of the game for the Blue Jackets.
At the end of the night, it was a baby step, but an important one nonetheless. It took a chunk out of that psychological wall that the club has built over the past six weeks or so, and provided a glimpse of what lies on the other side. After seven consecutive weeks with a back-to-back sequence, there are none in December. Of the twelve games this month, only four are on the road -- Florida, Tampa Bay, Detroit & Washington. Opportunity knocks. Stay tuned.