If the Blue Jackets were a high school student, Sunday's effort would be reminiscent of the student who neglects to do the homework, but nonetheless aces the tests. It's a technically flawed approach, but at the end of the day, the results can't be disputed. It's not a long term strategy for success, but from time to time it can work. Such was the case against the Islanders on this night, in the final division contest of the regular season.
While the game was not artistic, it correctly answered the three key tests that the squad faced coming in. First, they had to come away with points, and preferably 2 points. Second, they needed to jump on the out-manned and fatigued Islanders early, depriving them of any chance to believe that they were in the game, and hopefully sending a message to the Philadelphia Flyers, who started their game 90 minutes after the Blue Jackets dropped the puck. Finally, Columbus needed to find some of the offensive touch that had been their ally, but had faded in recent games. Check marks across the board on these.
The Themes Established
The first period truly exemplified the entire game. The Blue Jackets had energy, but lacked focus. They lost four of the first five face-offs, then won 18 of the next 20. They were slow and sloppy in the defensive zone, but created havoc in the offensive end of the ice. The Islanders showed exuberance and speed, but also showed the combined impact of injuries and a back-to-back with travel for the second game. They simply did not have the chemistry or skill to maintain consistent offensive pressure through their own efforts. The fact that the Islanders garnered 31 shots is more a testament to the Blue Jackets penchant for turning the puck over in their own zone than it is to the Islanders' prowess.
When your team is struggling to find structure, the tendency is to reach and grab, and the Islanders did plenty of both all night long -- only some of which were called. At the 2:56 mark, Johan Sundstrom went off for high sticking, and it took the Blue Jackets just 90 seconds to cash in. Ryan Johansen found Mark Letestu in the high slot, and Letestu unleaded a low laser at Anders Nilsson. Nilsson appeared to make the stop, but the puck squeezed through his legs, coming to a stop just an inch or two short of the goal line. For what seemed to be an eternity, only the fans and the referee behind the net were aware of this fact. Finally, Boone Jenner glimpsed the stranded rubber disk, reached over the pile of players, and tapped it into the net. Good start.
A similar scenario played itself out with 7:29 left in the first frame. Thomas Hickey was called for interference (which might have been called felonious assault outside the rink.) The power play unit required only 31 seconds to convert this time. Keeping possession for the entire time, the Jackets worked the puck to the right wing, where Jack Johnson unleashed a one-timer that beat Nilsson. (For those of us seated behind the goal, it appeared -- and sounded -- like Artem Anisimov tipped the puck off the shaft of his stick, but higher authority apparently disagreed).
Throughout the first, Sergei Bobrovsky was stellar. Though not severely tested on a consistent basis, the periodic defensive zone turnovers created some real chances, which he dispatched with alacrity. Despite not moving their feet much in their own zone, the Blue Jackets seemed in control as the first intermission came, which provided an uneasy sense of tranquility among the assembled fans.
Same Themes -- More Detail
The majority of the second period can be described as follows: Blue Jackets win face-off, establish possession in offensive zone, create (fill in number) offensive chances, but fail to register shot on goal. Islanders dump puck deep. Columbus players chase Islander players around the boards and focus more on hitting than getting the puck. Finally, when they do gain possession, the puck is quickly turned over to the Islanders in a prime scoring chances, where Bobrovsky makes a (good/great) save. Repeat.
This likely makes the situation sound more dire than it actually was, but the defensive zone play by some of the Blue Jackets was truly horrific. James Wisniewski tries to channel his inner Bobby Orr . . . but he's not Bobby Orr. R. J. Umberger floated passes to nowhere, and both he and Jared Boll could have been called The Drifters -- as they generally floated in the defensive zone, leaving Derek MacKenzie to do all the work for that line. Dalton Prout had similar issues and Matt Frattin, while better than last game, looked lost in the defensive end. These resulted in some breathtaking chances for the visitors, and only some really stupid saves by Bobrovsky kept this one in control.
However, as ugly as the home end of the ice might have been, the pressure in the attacking end ultimately bore fruit. At the 10:11 mark, the desperate Islanders mounted an attack, but allowed four players to get deep in the Blue Jackets zone. The puck came out to their left point, were Matt Frattin tipped it to Boone Jenner, who pressed the play hard down the right wing. Frattin entered the zone with speed, charging the middle, while Letestu trailed in Frattin's wake. Jenner waited patiently for Letestu to emerge free, and found him on the tape. Letestu returned the puck to Jenner, who by this point was low on the right. It had the desired effect, as both defender Scott Mayfield and Nilsson committed to the left side. Jenner deftly feathered a pass between Mayfield's legs to Letestu, who had a gaping net behind the sprawling Nilsson. He didn't miss. 3 - 0 Blue Jackets, and chili for everybody.
With speed not working, the Islanders elected to turn to thuggery. With just 1:36 left in the period, a good old fashioned donnybrook broke out in the Blue Jackets' offensive zone. In true Slap Shot fashion, the ice was littered with sticks and gloves as dance partners were selected. When the dust cleared, Matt Martin, R.J. Umberger and James Wisniewski each had 2 minutes for roughing, and Matt Carkner had a double minor for roughing. ("Matt"is apparently to the Islanders what "Ryan"is to the Blue Jackets, now that that most of the Dereks/Dericks are gone). It was the first four of what would end up to be 23 penalty minutes for Carkner in the game. It provided the Blue Jackets with another power play opportunity, while simultaneously assuring that neither Umberger nor Bobrovsky could touch the puck in the waning seconds of the period.
The power play unit beat their record, scoring in just 29 seconds this time. Cam Atkinson took the puck deep to Nilsson's right, and quickly fed the puck to Ryan Murray high in the middle. Murray caught the one-timer perfectly, squarely beating Nilsson high glove. Three power play goals, a 4 - 0 lead, and 15,667 faces that looked significantly relieved.
From a technical standpoint, the third period was the best one of the game for Columbus. They skated hard, were structured and responsible, and took much better care of the puck in their own zone. In a continuation of the thuggery theme, Carkner assaulted Matt Calvert just 5:46 in the period, and Calvert refused to back down, despite the patent mismatch in size. The officials charitably referred to the struggle as mutual roughing , with Carkner again picking up the extra two. Columbus could not convert this time.
Five minutes later, Jared Boll confronted Carkner in defense of Calvert's honor, and held his own, but frankly lost the decision. That earned both combatants early showers, with 5 minute fighting majors and 10 minute misconducts. Another mugging disguised as interference was called on John Persson at the 11:29 mark. Simultaneously, Cal Clutterbuck's mugging of Mark Letestu went uncalled. This was part of a pattern of cheap shots that permeated the game, particularly in the latter stages. While the officials did their best to maintain control, the Blue Jackets were fortunate to escape this one apparently without serious injury. It was also a testament to the Blue Jackets that they maintained discipline fairly well, surrendering only two minor penalties not offset by New York transgressions.
When the cannon report signaled the end of the game, the boys received a well-deserved ovation, appreciative of dispositive results, not aesthetic glory.
The Bottom Line
This was precisely what both the club and the fans needed -- a relatively stress free, large margin victory. I think to most in attendance, it was clear very early on that the Blue Jackets were in solid control. Yes, they took that too literally and were frequently too cute on offense and too irresponsible on defense. They would likely not have gotten away with it against a stronger rival, but I'm not sure they would have displayed those lapses against a different opponent. With the intensity of the time, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt on this, but they need to really focus on the defensive puck possession before Tuesday's game against Phoenix. There is no way that the Islanders should have tallied 30+ shots on this night.
On the positive side, the resurgence of the power play was really good to see. The passing was crisp and decisive, and the shots were largely on the mark. There was traffic in front, and players were there to collect rebounds and re-cycle the puck. Fulll marks on this score. The penalty kill was also aggressive and effective, which will be a huge need in the final four.
Bobrovsky, Jenner, Letestu, Anisimov and Dubinsky were terrific all night. Close behind were Calvert and Murray, and MacKenzie played hard and fast. Atkinson hustled, but was a bit invisible in the defensive zone. Johansen made lots of little plays that enabled possessions. Truly, there were few true passengers on this night, just a bunch of guys who played too loosely under the circumstances.
Still, the important end note is the two points. Buffalo did not provide any help, falling to the Flyers 5 - 2, which enables Philly to hold onto the 2 point edge for the 3rd slot in the Metro. However, the Blue Jackets reduced their magic numbers across the board. Any combination of 3 Columbus wins or New Jersey losses eliminates the Devils as a rival. New Jersey faces Calgary at home on Monday, then finishes the season with three games in four days -- at Ottawa on Thursday, home against the Islanders on Friday, then hosting Boston on Sunday.
The magic number against Washington is now down to two, with the Capitals visiting St. Louis on Tuesday and Carolina on Thursday, before returning home to finish the season against Chicago on Friday and Tampa Bay on Sunday. Finally, the magic number vs. Toronto is just 1.5. A Blue Jackets win or a Toronto loss, combined with an overtime loss by either club, keeps the Leafs on the sidelines. They play their last three on the road -- at Tampa Bay on Tuesday, Florida on Thursday and Ottawa on Saturday.
For the Blue Jackets, Monday is a rare day off, with the home season ending on Tuesday vs. Phoenix. They go to Dallas Wednesday, with a one goal lead built in. Thursday is an off day, when they can watch Philadelphia play Tampa Bay, who faces the Blue Jackets on Friday. The regular season ends Saturday in Florida.
The Flyers travel to Florida on Tuesday, have the Tampa Bay game Thursday, travel to Pittsburgh on Saturday, then host Carolina on Sunday. Detroit travels to Buffalo and Pittsburgh on Tuesday and Wednesday, hosts Carolina on Friday, and ends the season in St. Louis on Sunday.
Bottom line is that there is no easy path for anyone, and its far better to be Philadelphia, Detroit or Columbus than it is to be New Jersey, Washington or Toronto. Tonight was a big step toward the playoffs, but much work remains. Stay tuned.