The Blue Jackets entered the third period of this one with a 1 - 0 lead, and extended it to 2 - 0 by the halfway mark of the period. They exited the third period with a 3 - 2 loss, surrendering three power play goals in the last half final frame. However, it wasn't that simple. Strap in, this might take awhile.
Period One -- Bad Process, Good Result
As we'll discuss later, many of the sins that have plagued recent games appeared in this one -- just in slightly muted and altered forms. Still, the Blue Jackets came out with intensity, avoided the dramatic "collapsing" defense of past games, and were better about getting the puck out of their own zone. The forecheck was more consistent and effective than in the last two outings against Toronto and the Islanders, which can set up a lot of good things.
The first good thing happened just 3:31 into the game. A strong forecheck by Jeremy Morin, Sean Collins and Alexander Wennberg allowed Morin to take possession of the puck along the half wall to Carey Price's left. Morin skated the puck hard deep into the zone and behind the net, out skating both Lars Eller and Andrei Markov in the process, and forcing a delayed penalty call for hooking against Markov as Morin moved around the end wall to Price's right. Undeterred, Morin kept the puck all the way to the top of the circle, then found Kevin Connauton at the point. Connauton continued his sniping ways, letting loose a laser that found the back of the net far to Price's glove side, abetted by a solid screen from Collins. It was Connauton's 7th goal of the season -- in just 21 games -- placing him fifth on the club in goal scoring, tied with David Savard -- behind only Nick Foligno, Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson and Boone Jenner. The latter two are just one goal ahead of Connauton, who has proven to be a terrific waiver wire acquisition. Morin garnered the lone assist, which was well earned. Morin was one of the better Blue Jackets on the ice all night, showing a willingness to skate the puck into the zone, keep his head up, and keep the puck in play. Curious, then, that he had only 10:26 in ice time. By the way, Connauton's goal came on Columbus' first shot of the game.
Nobody knew at the time that Connauton's goal would prove to be the only even strength goal of the evening. The Canadiens thought they had one with about 5 minutes left in the period, when Brendan Gallagher deflected a Plekanec shot over Sergei Bobrovsky's pad. Bobrovsky sprawled and kicked the puck along the goal line, and off the post. It appeared to cross the goal line, triggering the goal light and a Montreal celebration. The officials, however, made no immediate call, and huddled at center ice to review the call. They ultimately signaled a good goal, which triggered a review in Toronto. Amazingly to some, Toronto overturned the call, ruling that the entire puck had not crossed the line. Not to say this was a close call, but if this happened before HD TV, it's a goal.
Meanwhile, the penalty box was open for business. At the 9:41 mark, Nick Foligno and Tomas Plekanec drew matching roughing calls. At the 18:48 mark, James Wisniewski was called for holding the stick (remember this one). That power play was partially negated when Matt Calvert stole the puck and sprinted down the middle toward Price. As he was ready to shoot, a nasty cross-check from Max Pacioretty sent Calvert catapulting into Price and into the net. Referee Frederick L'Ecuyer (remember this name), manning his post below the goal line, saw nothing amiss with this, but Tom Kowal recognized the infraction and made the call. Any advantage gleaned from this was eliminated just 18 seconds later, when L'Ecuyer whistled Nick Foligno for hooking. A search party has been deployed to find the hook anywhere, but to no avail.
The initial period came to an end with Montreal on a 4 vs. 3 power play, leading the shot totals 12 - 6, and winning the face-off battle decisively. Thus, the 1 - 0 lead was attributable more to the efforts of Bobrovsky than any sort of systemic effort by the Blue Jackets. Still, it was a lead, whatever the cause.
Period Two: Repetition
The surest way to get better at something is to repeat the behavior until it becomes second nature. The Blue Jackets demonstrated that they have that concept down pat. Stop me if you've heard this one, but the Blue Jackets stopped skating, made horrible passes to nobody in particular when attempting to exit their own zone, and proved incapable of exerting any consistent semblance of an offense. Shots were "only" 9 - 6 for the Canadiens in the period, but it seemed like much more.
Of course, the Blue Jackets began the frame defending a 4-on-3 power play, which was effectively killed. However, they had the opportunity to gain some more reps on the PK when Jack Johnson went off for hooking at the 4:12 mark. David Savard joined the parade at the 17:41 mark, the culprit in an interference call that sent everyone scurrying to their rule books. Can you interfere with somebody in possession of the puck? Inquiring minds want to know, Mr. L'Ecuyer. Both penalties were killed, but the club certainly did not need more short-handed situations to handcuff their ability to generate offense. The Canadiens were penalty-free for the period.
Through two, the Blue Jackets had been out-shot, 21 - 12 and had been shorthanded much of the time. Yet, they had the lead, thanks to a solid penalty kill unit and an even more solid Sergei Bobrovsky. Montreal was skating well, but the Blue Jackets clearly had the tools to stay with them. They would need to do just that in the third.
Period Three: A Tragedy in Two Acts
The third period began as a taut affair, with much of the play in the neutral zone, and each side having trouble exerting consistent pressure. The Blue Jackets gained some zone time, but for some inexplicable reason were unable to convert that zone time into shots. However, at the 9:25 mark, P.K. Subban took a tripping penalty against Cam Atkinson, putting the Blue Jackets on their only power play of the night. It took them just 13 seconds to convert, as they won the face-off, worked the puck down to Foligno, who then moved it high to James Wisniewski at the point. Wisniewski zipped a cross-ice pass to Johansen, who fired a short-sided laser over Price's right shoulder -- perhaps catching the net minder cheating a bit to the far side -- aided by Foligno's screen. It was Johansen's 11th consecutive game with at least a point, establishing a franchise record, and moved him to 40 points in 41 games, one point behind Foligno. More importantly, it provided a 2- 0 lead with just half a period to play. No worries, right?
In Shakespearean tragedies, Act Five is the one where all of the principal parties end up dead. Metaphorically speaking, the same principle applied to the last half of the final frame on this night. It started at 10:51 of the period, when Matt Calvert was called for slashing. Forgive the personal insertion here, but this sequence of events occurred about 15 feet in front of me, and the fact of the matter was that P.K. Subban had a vice-like grip on Calvert's stick, as he attempted to get free and chase the puck down low. He visibly tugged two or three times, in full view of the aforementioned referee, but no call was made. (Despite the fact that Wisniewski had gone off for the same infraction earlier). Finally, Calvert was able to get the stick away, and brought it down forcefully as he went to pursue the puck. Subban's stick was there, and a slashing call was quickly made. 39 seconds into the power play, the Habs worked the puck to Pacioretty in the center of the ice. As Pacioretty wheeled and turned, Gallagher lost control of his stick in front, and the stick when flying to Bobrovsky's right. The combination of the distraction and a heavy screen gave Bobrovsky no chance, and the lead was narrowed to one, with Markov and Gallagher getting the assists.
Just two minutes later, Jared Boll took an ill-advised high sticking penalty in the offensive zone, providing another power play to the skilled Canadiens. The penalty kill unit performed admirably, ultimately resulting in a face-off to Bobrovsky's left with just 10 seconds left in the extra man situation. Unfortunately, Brandon Dubinsky lost the draw (and admirably took full responsibility after the game), and the Canadiens worked the puck back to the point to P.K. Subban, who let a howitzer fly from the point. Bobrovsky again was fully screened, this time by David Desharnais, who was unmolested. Again, Bob had no chance, and the score was tied.
With 4:59 left in the period, the final indignity was inflicted. Dubinsky was called for boarding -- well behind and away from the play -- again by Mr. L'Ecuyer, who was in a different zip code at the time. It was again a hit that goes uncalled more often than it is called, but Dubinsky had no place putting himself -- or the club -- in that position late in the game. It is the type of undisciplined action that creeps into his game and undermines much of the good he does elsewhere. This time, it proved fatal, and it took just 22 seconds for the knife to find its mark. Sergei Gonchar worked the puck to Plekanec at the top of the circle. Plekanec let loose with a low shot, seemingly headed to the far post. Bobrovsky moved to meet the challenge, but the puck was intercepted and deflected by Pacioretty, finding the hole vacated by Bobrovsky just an instant earlier. 3- 2 Canandiens.
The Blue Jackets found some desperation in the waning moments, and had a boisterous and angry crowd fully behind them as they sought to knot the score. That anger was fueled by a rather flagrant boarding incident -- again directly in front of L'Ecuyer -- and again uncalled. The flurry of activity produced nary a countable shot, however, and time expired. Columbus managed but four shots for the third period.
The Elephant In the Corner
The $64,000 Question that everyone hinted at in the post-game interviews, but nobody directly addressed, was the quality of the officiating, and specifically, the apparent selective blindness displayed by L'Ecuyer. The anger was as virulent as any observed in recent memory at the normally friendly confines of Nationwide Arena, and there were many who felt that there was favoritism being displayed to a club from his home province. This impression was abetted by L'Ecuyer's apparently grateful acceptance of not one , but two separate stick taps to his hindquarters provided by Carey Price in the third period -- looking for all the world like expressions of appreciation.
Objectively, this was a poorly officiated game, and the extraneous matters only exacerbated the impressions. Also objectively, the Blue Jackets committed most of the infractions for which they were whistled. Boll did administer a high stick. Dubinsky did apply a hit that could be construed as boarding. Calvert did technically slash Subban's stick. The problem rested not so much with what was called, but with what wasn't called, and the apparent differing standards applied to the two teams. Wisniewski was not allowed to hold the stick, but Subban was. Dubinsky's hit was boarding, but the much more dangerous hit administered by the Canadiens a few minutes later was not. When one team has seven power plays, and the other has one, an eyebrow is going to be raised. When some of these marginal calls come sequentially against a team that has built a 2- 0 lead, both eyebrows go up.
In the legal profession, there's a principle in the ethical canons known as "avoiding the appearance of impropriety." In other words, no matter what your actual intentions are, don't put yourself in situations that would cause others to question your activities. If you're a judge, probably not a good idea to play golf with the CEO of a company who has a case in front of you. He or she may be an old friend, but until the case is over, it's just not a good idea. The same principle here. L'Ecuyer may have (and probably did) have totally innocent motives, and just had a bad night on the ice. It happens. But you have to have at least some awareness of your surroundings, and understand that when you are making inconsistent calls, whistling one team for the vast majority of the penalties, while simultaneously acting "chummy" with the players on the other team, people are going to question your impartiality.
John Davidson should register a complaint with the league office, as this one was bad. However, as much as people might love to lay this loss at L'Ecuyer's skates, the fact is that the club should never have put him in the position where his calls -- or non-calls -- could have a material impact on the game. There are much larger issues that are the real culprits.
Same Questions, Different Day
During their current three-game losing streak, the Blue Jackets have been outshot 103 - 54, and that only counts the shots on goal. In tonight's game, Montreal had a team Corsi under all situations of 62.89, with Columbus managing only 37.11. For the season, the Blue Jackets rank in the bottom five in that category. They are not consistently providing any meaningful offensive pressure, relying primarily on the Foligno - Johansen - Hartnell line, and the occasional blue line laser. As discussed previously, they rely on the dump & chase far too much -- even when a free entry is available -- wasting zone time.
The problem is exacerbated by a puzzling inability to get the puck out of the defensive zone. Richards properly substituted Cody Goloubef for the more immobile Dalton Prout -- and he provided some good moments. However, across the board, the club has been making far too many panicked "passes to nowhere". Even if they do not result in an immediate goal for the opposition, they prolong zone presence for the opposition, and inevitably increases the number of offensive chances that they can convert. Conversely, it restricts their own offensive opportunities.
Certainly, injuries play a part. The possession abilities of an Artem Anisimov, and the versatility and skill of a Boone Jenner are not easily replaced. A healthy Ryan Murray would help as well. But the existing squad is not without talent, and these guys have proven that they can play with speed and skill, but inexplicably refuse to do it. The Dubinsky-Calvert-Atkinson line creates a lot of havoc, but at the end of the night has nothing to show for it. Matt Calvert is all effort and hustle, but has not been able to consistently finish. Dubinsky is still finding his game after a long injury layoff. Atkinson is simply not producing. Sean Collins is better than during previous call-ups, but is not providing needed offensive punch. Still, he has more points in 8 games than Adam Cracknell or Corey Tropp, and as many as Jared Boll. Kerby Rychel has more points than any of them, and he has played just five games.
Part of the problem is too many guys are skating with their heads down -- in all zones -- and are trying to do things by themselves. If there is some form of unifying system that the players can fall back on, it is not evident. Clubs have figured out that the way to cause Columbus trouble is to pressure them in their own zone. It's troubling that there is no systemic response to that pressure, other than to pull the pin and lob the puck/grenade out of the zone. One would think that a game plan would exist to address a variety of contingencies. It sure doesn't look that way right now.
Unlike past years, this club is not lacking effort. Instead, it is lacking execution, the ability to consistently move up and down the ice as a unit, maintain possession of the puck and exert pressure on the opposition. The first half of the season has been spent identifying the problems -- admittedly dominated by injuries -- and relying on some magnificent individual efforts to keep them in the hunt, albeit tenuously. The second half starts now, and the solutions have to be found quickly if there is to be any hope of post-season hockey. Hope, however, is not a strategy. Stay tuned.