Today marked the beginning of the Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa Bay, and Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop played the role of a plundering pirate perfectly, robbing the Blue Jackets of numerous prime chances, allowing his band of brothers to bring home a 3 - 1 victory over the Blue Jackets.
Despite the score, this was one where the Blue Jackets played well -- no, very well -- for the majority of the game. This despite the fact that some weirdness once again impacted the lineup on the ice. With no waiver-exempt defensemen on the roster, Columbus returned forward Josh Anderson to the AHL early on Saturday to make room for Ryan Murray. However, late in the day Matt Calvert fell ill and was scratched. With the "extra" roster players consisting of Cody Goloubef, Jordan Leopold and Dalton Prout -- all blue liners -- the Blue Jackets were forced to use Leopold as a fourth line winger. Somewhat ironic that they were in such a roster bind, just as they start to look reasonably healthy. Except for Jenner . . .and Bobrovsky . . . and Horton . . . and Gibbons. Never mind. Let's look at how this one went down.
Period 1: Robbery on the Frozen Sea
The Blue Jackets came out strong in this one, skating at speed, playing aggressively, tightly and with purposes. For the first time in recent memory, there were a multitude of players who looked dangerous. Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno, of course, but they were joined by Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Artem Anisimov and Scott Hartnell. Alexander Wennberg's progression continued, as he made a number of solid plays in all zones during the opening frame. The defense largely played in a more settled fashion with Murray back in the picture, and Curtis McElhinney seemed more settled in goal, controlling rebounds far better than usual and appearing to see the puck better than in past outings.
Unfortunately, none of this good play could be translated into goals, due in part to some misfortune and in greater measure to the stellar play of the Lightning net minder. The Blue Jackets ended the period in a virtual tie with the Lightning in shots, trailing 7 - 8 for the period, but had more takeaways, fewer giveaways and generally seemed more in control of the play. The lone penalty of the period -- a holding call against Jack Johnson at 8:07 -- was killed with dispatch, and indeed created a prime scoring opportunity for the Blue Jackets. Wennberg jumped the play at center ice, and skated the puck hard into the zone with Dubinsky on his right. When he was challenged by the defense, Wennberg placed a perfect backhand pass on Dubinsky's stick, who rattled the ensuing shot squarely off the left post.
The lone Tampa Bay goal came with just 23 seconds left in the period, and represented a confluence of misfortune for Columbus. James Wisniewski gathered the puck below his own goal line on the right, and waited until he was challenged before lobbing a high clearing attempt down the right side. Unfortunately, it was short of the blue line, and was kept in by Jason Garrison, who immediately tapped it down the wall to Brendan Morrow. Morrow in turn tapped it to Brett Connolly in front of the goal. The Blue Jackets' defense was caught heading up ice, and Connolly was able to beat McElhinney high glove before they could recover. 1 - 0 Lightning as they headed into the locker room, but the Blue Jackets played better than the result dictated. Could they convert that good play into tangible advantage in the second?
Period 2: Same Song, Second Verse
The Blue Jackets played better in the second than they did in the first, and that's a solid compliment. They outshot the Lightning 16 - 11 for the period, including a blistering six shots on goal during their initial power play of the night. However, they were again frustrated in converting that play onto the scoreboard. Bishop was again the primary factor, though again misfortune and some dubious decision making played into the result.
The Blue Jackets complicated things by taking a couple of minor penalties -- an interference call against Wisniewski at 2:18, and a goaltender interference call against Corey Tropp at 10:20. Again, these were killed easily - -even provoking boos from the assembled crowd -- and again, they presented the Blue Jackets with another great opportunity. This time it was Mark Letestu on a short-handed breakaway, and Bishop denied the opportunity. Later, Cam Atkinson seemed to have created an open net opportunity when he seemed to attack the net, then carried it behind. Bishop was woefully out of position, but Atkinson held the puck too long, enabling the defense to recover. Not long thereafter, Fedor Tyutin launched a crafty shot/pass from the left point that rattled off the right post.
Two periods, some really solid play, and nothing to show for it. To the Blue Jackets' credit, they had not allowed frustration to overtly impact their play. They needed to keep that attitude intact, and convert chances in the third.
Period 3: Scuttled
The Blue Jackets carried the same resolve and energy into the final stanza, but an early penalty to Brandon Dubinsky, and the inability to convert on an ensuing power play seemed to allow frustration to set in. The caliber of play became more ragged as the team seemed to take more chances. Curtis McElhinney seemed less focused and began surrendering bad rebounds. The result, of course, was that Tampa Bay was able to maintain possession for extended periods in the Blue Jackets' zone. You can only get away with that against a skilled team like the Lightning for so long.
Sure enough, Tampa Bay found the vulnerability and struck twice in close succession. At 10:02, McElhinney surrendered a succession of rebounds, which eventually resulted in Cedric Paquette parking the puck in the back of the net. Jonathan Drouin and Alex Killorn earned the assists. Just 1:41 later, David Savard badly missed on a cross-ice pass intended for Foligno near the end of the shift. Valtteri Filppula grabbed the puck and beat McElhinney far side for a two goal lead. That was more than enough for Bishop.
With over four minutes remaining in the contest, coach Todd Richards pulled McElhinney in favor of the extra attacker. The strategy paid dividends when Ryan Johansen converted a quick snapper from the top of the zone with 3:26 left in the game, with David Savard and Ryan Murray adding helpers. Anton Stralman helped the cause with a penalty at 17:15, but the Blue Jackets could not get organized on their entries, and spent most of the remainder of the period chasing the puck. No miracles were forthcoming on this night, and the final score remained 3 - 1.
This was an effort that had many commendable aspects. The club skated, provided support and created chances. As noted, equal measures of solid work by Bishop, some misfortune and some poor decisions sealed their fate. The bad part about getting guys back from an extended absence is that the chemistry is simply not there, and the returning guys simply need some time to get in game rhythm. Brandon Dubinsky is just getting to the point where he looks consistently dangerous, and Anisimov is showing signs of getting there soon. Murray looked good in his return, with no hitches in his skating stride.
McElhinney played well for two periods, but lapsed in the third. Savard continued some marginal play - showing glimpses of what he can do, but then lapsing into either a horrific defensive lapse or turnover -- usually with adverse results. The play of Alexander Wennberg tonight showed the folly of the plus/minus statistic. Looking at the scoresheet, you would see that he was a minus-3, and figured he sucked. Watching the game, you would have an entirely different impression of his play. Trust your eyes, this kid is good, and is only going to get better.
Unfortunately for the club, they cannot afford the time necessary to rebuild the team chemistry and hit their stride. They were "zero for Florida", and that simply is not going to get the job done. Talk of playoffs and positioning is really meaningless at this point in the proceedings. The club simply needs to win every game and every point it can, and let the results be whatever they will be. In a universe where a third string quarterback can lead a team to the national championship in just three starts, anything is possible. However, what is mandatory is that the Blue Jackets get people healthy, find their mojo and identify who they are and how they are going to play going forward. Stay tuned.