The Jackets ventured to the focal point of the hockey universe for the final time this season, trying to build on the victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday afternoon, and move themselves deeper into the mix in both the Metro and the East. With two earlier victories over the Maple Leafs, they had positive images to draw upon. Could they convert those past experiences to present victory? You bet they could.
It Ain't Rocket Science, Guys . . .
Albert Einstein famously said " Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result." While the Blue Jackets played an overall decent road period in the first, it wasn't the kind of "take charge" effort that you would expect against a team that has been struggling defensively, was starting a goalie that hadn't had a start in a month (James Reimer), and against whom Columbus matches up well.
Todd Richards started the new incarnation of the "Energy Line" --Derek MacKenzie, Mark Letestu & Matt Calvert -- as has become fashionable of late. They played an inconsequential shift, but were followed by the Nathan Horton, Boone Jenner, Ryan Johansen line, which created some fireworks early. That was followed by a delicious breakaway opportunity for Nick Foligno, which was foiled by a nice save by Reimer. While a couple of more offensive chances would come Columbus' way, the energy and momentum waned, as they reverted to some of the same mistakes that have plagued them periodically all season. They were ragged on passing, did not maintain good spacing in the offensive end, and simply surrendered possession too often and too easily. Toronto has lots of skill, and the ice tilted sharply in the home team's direction.
The other cardinal sin -- penalties -- also reared its head in the first, First, Boone Jenner took an ill-advised holding penalty in the offensive zone at the 7:15 mark, which Columbus did a good job of killing. Less than five minutes later, Brandon Dubinsky took an equally imprudent slashing call in the offensive zone. Toronto enjoyed a few distinct scoring opportunities this time, but Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, and the penalty kill unit was there to support. The Maple Leafs came perilously close to scoring, when Bobrovsky made a nice save, but the puck trickled just behind him, dancing tantalizingly on the goal line. Enter Ryan Johansen and his massive wingspan to sweep the puck away. Crisis averted.
Unfortunately, another crisis could not be so easily avoided. In his last shift of the period, Ryan Murray got his leg pinned awkwardly against the boards, He went directly to the locker room, and did not return, leaving the Blue Jackets with just five defenseman for the balance of the contest -- and no Fedor Tyutin.
When You Least Expect It
Anyone who has visited Toronto knows that it is one of the most caffeinated cities in the world, In the downtown area, you can't walk 100 feet without running into Starbucks, Tim Horton's or Second Cup -- and sometimes all three. Well, the Blue Jackets must have found one or more of those establishments at the first intermission, because they came out on fire. They skated, supported, exerted pressure and played consistently good hockey for the full twenty minutes. Defensively, they challenged Toronto at the blue line, cleared rebounds and made crisp, clean exit passes. Nary a penalty was taken, and the sins of the first were not revisited. Such was the level of domination that Toronto did not generate their first shot on goal until after the halfway point of the period, and would manage only five shots for the period. At one point, Columbus possessed the puck so long in the offensive zone that the assembled fans broke into a prolonged chorus of boos.
Such domination has been a rare thing in the troublesome second period, so it was only fitting that the first Columbus goal would come from an unlikely source. At the 9:44 mark, with a ton of traffic in front of Reimer, Dalton Prout took a pass from MacKenzie, and fired a shot from the right point that found nothing but net. Less than three minutes later, the lead doubled on a beautiful play, again triggered from the point. While Foligno was working the puck to Nikita Nikitn on the left point, Artem Anisimov was victimized by a brutal hit against the end boards from Cody Franson. Franson apparently thought Anisimov was effectively dispatched for the balance of the shift, but Artem had other ideas. He bounced up, and found a quiet spot on the ice, just to Reimer's left Nikitin found him squarely on the tape, and Anisimov did not miss -- burying the puck far side for a 2 - 0 lead -- and his third straight game with a goal. Key in this flurry was the fact that Reimer lost his goal stick, but had no chance to retrieve it in the midst of the Columbus pressure. He was armed with a defender's stick when Anisimov scored.
The balance of the period was more of the same, with some more scoring chances for Columbus, but hardly a threat from the Maple Leafs, who left the ice to a chorus of boos.
The third period started as a variation on the theme established in the second. Columbus exerted less consistent offensive pressure, but did all of the fundamental things well, and actually generated more shots. In one memorable sequence, Johansen danced the puck through the Maple Leafs' defense, and no less than four separate Blue Jackets had a crack at the puck in the crease, but to no avail.
Columbus continued with the defensive pressure, and frustrated Toronto for the bulk of the period. However, they then allowed the game to develop into more of a track meet than they would have liked. With the defense shorthanded, the legs were not up to the task, and Bobrovsky was forced to make some good saves. Ultimately, with just o4:15 left, Mason Raymond got the puck off a deflection near the left dot, and used Joffrey Lupul and Nikitin as screens to beat Bobrovsky far side. Now it was a one goal game, the legs were burning, and the Leafs' faithful were fully engaged.
To the Blue Jackets' credit, they played a gutsy and sound final few minutes. While you could see the beginnings of a scramble, and there were some anxious moments, the club maintained its composure for the most part, and Bob was solid. There were some choked sticks, resulting in missed clearing chances, but the squad was able to avert danger and finish off the nail-biting last 1:48 with Toronto's net empty. While a 25 shot final period (13-12 in favor of Columbus) was likely not what was intended when they came out of the locker room, it was two points nonetheless, completing a 3 - 0 sweep of the Maple Leafs for the season, including the last two in Toronto.
In the final analysis, there were far more positives than negatives in terms of the caliber of on-ice play in this one. The first period was disappointing, but not awful. The second was simply stunning, and the third was 15 minutes of good, and five minutes of adequate.
After an effort against the Panthers that saw six goals -- but none at even strength -- this was a game where the five-on-five game needed to come to the fore. Toronto's defense is suspect, and Columbus has the skill and speed to exploit that, if they play the way they can. They found that game in the second, and for much of the third. They skated hard, maintained spacing, kept their heads up, and created some impressive chances. The finish is still not what you would like to see, but you get the sense that Horton and Dubinsky are not far off. Atkinson is still MIA, but made some better plays across three zones tonight. In the meantime, Anisimov has decided he'll take things on his back for a while, and Johansen is creating lots of opportunity, though not burying the puck himself.
Truly, the biggest kudos need to go to the defensive end of the ice -- including the defensive play of the forwards. Losing Murray seemed to galvanize the troops, and the frustration the tight defense engendered among the Leafs players and fans was palpable. Nikitin continues to impress, and Prout had his best game of the year . . . by far. Toronto is an offensively talented team, and to keep them off the scoreboard with only five blue liners is a tall task, yet it almost happened. Still, in the last six periods on Toronto ice, it's Columbus 8 Toronto 1. That's not bad, folks. Sergei Bobrovsky looked far more confident in net tonight, seeing the puck better than in the past two contests, confidently controlling his rebounds, and looking like a net-minder who is ready to lead the stretch run.
With this win, the club moves to 67 points, just two shy of the 3rd place Rangers, three short of the 2nd place Flyers, and 1 point behind the 4th place Capitals. Importantly, the Blue Jackets hold a game in hand on each of these squads. They are also only 1 point behind Detroit for the final wild card berth in the East, though the Red Wings have a game in hand on Columbus.
Tomorrow, the Dallas Stars come to Nationwide Arena, after playing just across Lake Ontario from the Blue Jackets tonight, in Buffalo. (At press time, the Stars and Sabres were tied 2- 2, with just over 12 minutes left in regulation). So, the Blue Jackets will have a slight edge in rest time tonight, but will need to juggle the defensive pairings once more, in all likelihood, with Cody Goloubef likely to draw in for Murray tomorrow. Dallas is 6-2-2 over its last ten, so the Blue Jackets will need sixty minutes of effort again tomorrow. A three game road trip ensues (Chicago, Nashville, Dallas), which means that Columbus will enjoy home ice for 10 of the final 17 games.
Of course, there's also this little thing called the trade deadline coming up on Wednesday, and if Ryan Murray will be out more than a few games, you might see Jarmo Kekalainen explore some defensive options. Exciting times, which is all you can ask for. Stay tuned.