In what could be the biggest back-to-back regular season encounter in Blue Jackets' relatively young history, the club sojourned to Quebec for a meeting with the Montreal Canadiens -- they of the case of Stanley Cups and a solid 83 points in 70 games this season. Holding the 2nd Wild Card position by a thread, but also hold a couple of games in hand on other contenders, Columbus was looking to take advantage of its speed, skill and physical play to bring 2 points home in time for Friday night's battle against the New York Rangers.
Montreal may have all of the history and tradition in the world, but they do not have Ryan Johansen. The Columbus youngster made a difference in every conceivable way on this evening, and fittingly was the centerpiece in an intense 3 - 2 victory.
Setting the Stage
The first period was predictable in some ways, but wildly out of character in others. The Blue Jackets came out with speed and skill right from the opening face-off. After the face-off win, the puck found its way to the stick of a streaking Cam Atkinson -- he of the frequent Press Box visit -- who made a nice move, but was frustrated by a sharp Carey Price. This was a good omen, despite the save, as those who have been choosing up sides in the Great Camsanity Debate each had something to point to. Cam had another prime scoring chance a few minutes later, and for the first time in a long time, was visible all over the ice. For the pro-Richards set, this was a vindication of the veritable foot planted in Cam's rear-end to play a 200 foot game. For the Camfanatics, they could point to the fact that Cam could be effective in all three zones with his speed and his stick. It's a draw, folks. The important thing is that he was out there, playing hard, and contributing in all ways.
Equally effective was Boone Jenner, who scored the only goal against Carolina, and had two exquisite scoring chances himself. First, a wraparound attempt just crept across the crease, and on the other Price made a really nice save. Jenner is showing the ability to maintain his intensity away from the puck, while his native scoring touch is becoming more and more prominent. The forecheck consistently disrupted Montreal's breakout efforts, and defensive support was, for the most part, sound.
The Canadiens, for their part, did not play a dissimilar game from Columbus. They have watched the tapes, and know that some of our defensemen are less than secure with the puck when pressured. Their pressure caused problems for the Blue Jackets as well, and there were the predictable . . . and frightening . . . defensive zone turnovers. However, some errant shooting by the Habs and some nice saves by Sergei Bobrovsky prevented those errors from being fatal.
With 28 shots in the first (a 16-12 edge for Columbus), this was not the "grinding" style of game that Todd Richards would perhaps prefer, and there was some palpable frustration on the Columbus side, as prime chances continued to go unrewarded. Still, they held it together and did their jobs . . . for the most part.
The guy who lost his composure was a surprising choice --- Ryan Johansen. The rosy-cheeked superstar in training brought gasps from the Montreal crowd with his moves and his speed, but his inability to convert those moves to goals started gnawing at him. Max Pacioretty, a cagey veteran, knew how to poke and prod the youngster to get him to boil over. First was a marginal boarding call that put Johansen in the box for two minutes. Next came a retaliatory cross-checking call. Then came the big surprise -- when Johansen dropped the gloves with Pacioretty for his first NHL fight. There were 16 penalty minutes in the first, with 7 belonging to Pacioretty and 9 to Johansen.
Johansen's two minors accounted for both goals in the frame. During the boarding penalty, Montreal managed to get a flurry going in front of Bobrovsky, who made a terrific point blank save. The puck, however, caromed far up in the air. When it came back to earth, it appeared to strike Dalton Prout and skitter backwards across the line. Brendan Gallgher was credited with the goal, and it appeared that injustice on the ice was continuing. However, the table was about to turn.
After Johansen went off the ice for his cross-check, the Blue Jackets got the clear and forced a face-off in the Montreal zone, to Price's left. Mark Letestu won the draw and immediately put the puck on net, with Derek MacKenzie screaming toward the crease. A surprised price made the initial stop on Letestu's effort, but could not prevent MacKenzie from putting the puck in the back of the net, evening the score via the shorthanded route.
The balance of the period was relatively uneventful, but the pace and quality of play had the spectators appreciating the break almost as much as the players. It was clear that the stage had been set, and plenty of fireworks remained.
Pressure & Pace
With the intensity of the first period, you almost had to expect a lull in the second. You could expect it . . . but you would have been wrong. Once again, Columbus came out firing on all cylinders, skating hard in all three zones, supporting each other on defense and putting the Habs on their heels. The effort was rewarded just 6:53 into the period. Jack Johnson took the puck on the left wing and skated it deep into the zone, looking like he might take it to the crease. Instead, however, he veered behind the net, emerged on the other side and centered the puck up high. Blake Comeau stepped in front of Dalton Prout and put the shot on Price, while Nick Foligno and Brandon Dubinsky provided the obligatory traffic in front. The puck caromed out to Dubinsky, who slid the rebound through Price's legs for the 2 - 1 lead. With Price stopping everything in sight, it was a welcome tally to provide a crucial lead on the road.
With the Blue Jackets skating . . . and skating . . . and skating, Montreal was forced into some penalties. Columbus benefited from three minor penalties, including 43 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage, but could not solve either Price or the Montreal penalty-killing unit -- which was ranked fourth in the league coming in. The Blue Jackets got shots off, but simply lacked that confident, crisp power play game that was clicking so well, but has disappeared of late. The nagging sense that these squandered chances would come back to haunt the club grew a bit stronger with each successful Montreal kill.
Despite the extra man woes, Columbus dominated the period in shots (13-7) and in meaningful possession. A huge third period awaited. Would the recent proclivity toward surrendering leads late rear its ugly head.
Despair . . .then Redemption
The first 3:30 of the final stanza took the Blue Jackets fans through the entire spectrum of emotions -- leading to the inescapable conclusion that the final 13 games are going to serve as valid tests of cardiac health. Let's review.
Just 39 seconds in, Matt Calvert drew a high-sticking call against P.K. Subban. Johansen won the ensuing face-off, then fired a shot that was blocked. Subsequent shots by Letestu and Johansen were turned aside. Then, with just seven seconds left in the power play, Tomas Plekanec was whistled for a high sticking double minor against Brandon Dubinsky. Seven seconds of 5-on-3, then a full four minutes of 5-on-4. That had to mean good things, right? Well . . . no.
Montreal won the face-off and cleared the puck. The Blue Jackets brought it back in, but were not the epitome of deft puck handling. Foligno lost the puck up high, and Lars Eller was off to the races against Bobrovsky. Nikita Nikitin caught up, but only enough to swing his stick in a tripping maneuver that earned Eller a penalty shot (despite the fact that Johansen was not given the same benefit a few minutes earlier, under what appeared to be an equally clear break) Elation quickly turned to despair. Bobrovsky tracked Eller all the way to the crease as he came in on the penalty shot . . . much as a Patriot missile might track a Scud. Eller ran out of room, and his five hole effort was smothered by Bobrovsky. Despair turned into relief.
Over the next few minutes, the Blue Jackets reasserted their dominance, but their shots were either blocked in front, or turned away by Price. Frustration turned back to despair with 12:14 left in the period. After Montreal won a face-off in the Columbus zone, Foligno challenged Pacioretty against the boards to Bobrovsky's left. He succeeded in disrupting the play, but the puck popped up in the air and dropped behind Foligno, who had no idea where the puck was. Pacioretty did, and he zipped a cross-ice pass to a waiting Tomas Vanek, who buried the one-timer to even the score at two. Despair once again.
The best metaphor for the final ten minutes of the game would be a board held in a slowly tightening vise. With each slow turn, the pressure increases, the wood creaks, and the point of failure seems imminent. Same thing here. The two clubs traded punches and counterpunches. There were takeaways and giveaways, great saves and tantalizing misses. Throughout it all was speed and tenacity. And then, suddenly, just as that one turn on the vise breaks the board, it happened. Lars Eller carried the puck into the Blue Jackets' zone with speed, but was challenged by Nathan Horton in front, as well as a back-checking Johansen, who deflected the puck out of the zone to Jarred Tinordi, who began skating it back toward his own zone to regroup.
Johansen was having none of it, however, as he pursued Tinordi, used his albatross wing span to steal the puck, and used his deceptive speed to charge in on Price. Rather than over-skating the play, however, he stopped on a dime and zapped the puck past Price for what would prove to be the game-winner. A stunning play to effectively end a stunning game. Johansen raised his arms in exultation, bumped the glass, then circled around the ice, providing Bobrovsky with a knowing wink. So this kid is only 21 years old, eh? Wow.
To be sure , there was a scare or two during the final three minutes, but Bobrovsky was up to the task, and the club refused to enter scramble mode when Price was pulled for the extra attacker. They kept the Habs to the perimeter, challenged the puck and got it out of harm's way. Naturally, Johansen's empty net bid from center ice hit the post, but no matter. His heroics were done. Whew.
Wrapping It Up
It's tough to find enough words to describe this one, so just a few key points. First, this was a global effort by the club. Atkinson, Dubinsky, Horton, Letestu, MacKenzie, Comeau, Calvert . . . you name them, they contributed in big ways. Bobrovsky was solid, and the defensemen did their jobs. Yes, Wisniewski was a bit challenged with the puck . . . again . . but made some great plays as well. Jack Johnson looked fast and dangerous, and Tyutin, Nikitin and Savard were quietly efficient.
Yes, the power play was a downer, but I think this was more from over-tinkering by the coaches than bad play on the ice. You have a young team in an immensely pressure-packed situation. This is not the time to be experimenting with new combinations or the "three power play unit" concept. The guys were not comfortable with each other, and it showed in terms of hesitation and the lack of crispness in the passing. This too shall pass.
For the conspiracy theorists among you, it was intriguing that R.J. Umberger was a healthy scratch tonight. Regardless of your view on Umberger, this was potentially a wily move by Richards -- simultaneously giving R.J. the clue that he needs to regain focus on his game, while also showing Cam Atkinson that he is not being singled out -- even veterans can find their way to the Press Box. Subtle, but effective.
You have to be impressed with consecutive games of 40 or more shots, and with the skating the club demonstrated tonight. That skating made the difference tonight, and they'll need to do the same against a rested Rangers team tomorrow night at Nationwide. Nothing much on the line . . . just a four point game, the return of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, John Moore, et al and a playoff position on the line. No big deal . . . right?
Stay tuned. It's getting really fun now.