The Toronto Maple Leafs have been at the center of a hockey maelstrom for the last several days, involving the dismissal of coach Randy Carlyle and the media pillorying of Phil Kessel. Brandon Shanahan engaged in a lengthy discourse about the need to maintain possession in the offensive zone & to stop being massively outshot. (Yes, he was talking about the Maple Leafs, not the Blue Jackets) The club promptly lost its first outing under the new regime, 5 - 2. What would tonight bring?
Period One: "I Can't Find a Pulse, Doctor . . ."
From the drop of the puck, the Maple Leafs played with an edge of desperation, while the Blue Jackets shuffled their feet and shoved the puck up the ice with no apparent intent. Fortunately, the Toronto execution was a bit off in the early going, and Ryan Johansen took advantage. Just 3:15 in, Johansen took advantage of a turnover up high, sprinted down the ice between the circles, and beat Jonathan Bernier. 1 - 0 Blue Jackets, and it seemed that order had been restored. Except that it hadn't.
The Blue Jackets continued their version of the Ickey Shuffle, rather than skating, and once again chose to adopt the collapsing defensive strategy, which provides tons of time and space in the upper half of the zone, and allows chaos in front of the net minder, particularly when the offense is swarming, as the Maple Leafs were. Add two unfortunate bounces and four stupid penalties, and the recipe for disaster is complete.
After surviving a delay of game penalty incurred when Kevin Connauton sent the puck out of play, Columbus was able to resume its passive play. At the 8:30 mark, the Blue Jackets were predictably defending in their zone, when Tyler Bozak attempted a cross-ice pass to Phil Kessel. However, the puck instead found the skate of Cody Goloubef, and caromed between Sergei Bobrovsky's legs. Bob never had a chance, and it was suddenly a tie game.
It was more of the same for the following six minutes, then the collapsing defense again took its toll. After an extensive possession, abetted by Cam Atkinson's insistence that empty ice requires close attention, Daniel Winnik came up with the puck in the middle of the ice, and his shot found its way through the sea of bodies from both clubs fronting Bobrovsky. 2 -1 Maple Leafs, with Tyler Bozak earning the assist.
Enter the penalty bug. David Savard went off at 15:35 for interference, and the penalty kill was doing a good job of challenging the puck. In fact, the Blue Jackets gained possession and were just about to start a short handed odd man rush when the whistle blew. Too many men on the ice, and Toronto had a two-man advantage for 1:39. It took just 35 seconds for them to convert. James van Riemsdyk sent the puck at the net from the right hand circle, and it ended up in the back of the net. The official scorer ruled that Phil Kessel tapped it in at the right post, but replay seemed to indicate that the puck deflected off Mark Letestu's stick. Officially, it was Kessel's goal, with van Riemsdyk and Cody Franson gaining the assists.
That gave Toronto a two-goal lead, which is the most dangerous lead in hockey . . . unless you score another goal 52 seconds later, which Toronto did. Still on the power play, van Riemsdyk wristed one past a shell-shocked Bobrovsky for a 4 - 1 lead. Kessel and Franson notched the helpers, giving them good games in just one period. Adding insult to injury, Jared Boll took a blatant and stupid slashing penalty with just 52 seconds left in the period. Sorry, but Boll does not deserve a spot in this lineup, and how Todd Richards can justify his persistent use of Boll on the ice is one of the great mysteries of this season.
The numbers merely confirmed the scope of the carnage. Toronto outshot the Blue Jackets 17 - 8, and it wasn't that close. For his part, Todd Richards showed no emotion, made no adjustments, nothing. It was, simply stated, a pathetic period of hockey.
Period Two: "There is a Pulse, but it's Weak . . ."
The Blue Jackets came out for the second, having apparently applied oil to their knee and ankle joints. They skated, looked better with the puck, and put more pressure on the Maple Leafs in their own zone. They still got bogged down in their own zone too frequently, but it was a distinct improvement over the first period.
In fact, the early skating put pressure on the Toronto defense to the point that Winnik took a tripping call just 2:31 into the frame. The Blue Jackets calmly maintained possession during the extra man situation, and with 48 seconds left in the power play, Nick Foligno worked the puck up top to David Savard. Savard found Johansen to his right, and Ryan worked his way toward the net, feinting a shot, then zipping a nasty snapper high to Bernier's right and into the back of the net. The lead was trimmed to 4 - 2, with Savard and Foligno picking up the assists.
The balance of the period was a snoozer. The Blue Jackets had a few tantalizingly close chances, and you could feel the crowd become increasingly restive as the ice tilted ever so gently toward the Blue Jackets. Shots for the period were 6 - 4 in favor of Toronto. (Yes, you read that correctly). So, while the effort was better for Columbus, they failed to maintain consistent offensive pressure. They did, however, manage to stay out of the box for the full twenty minutes.
The game was not out of reach, but the Blue Jackets would have to exploit a fragile Maple Leafs' psyche in the third.
Period Three: "Sorry, Doctor . . . the Patient Died."
O.K. . . . you're down by two goals against one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, and know that a little pressure is all that is needed to trigger a meltdown. So, what do you do? Nothing, apparently. The Blue Jackets played an indifferent third period -- generating a total of eight shots . . .the same number put on net in the first, which was quite possibly the worst period this season for Columbus. So, in short, there were no answers.
The Blue Jackets played a clean period from a penalty perspective, and were the beneficiaries of a single power play, which they could not convert. They pulled Bobrovsky for the extra man with just over two minutes left, which resulted in the obligatory empty netter by van Riemsdyk with 1:13 left. Winnik earned another assist on that one. That made the final score 5 - 2 for the home team, making Columbus .500 for the road trip. Not an awful number in the abstract, but with the way this one was lost, the trip ends with a bad taste in the mouth.
There is little redeeming social value to this effort. Full marks to Johansen, Foligno and Scott Hartnell, who played hard. Calvert started off like a firecracker, but disappeared when Richards fooled with the lines. Atkinson was invisible. Dubinsky was good in the face-off circle, but otherwise did little. Cody Goloubef put forth another solid effort, and David Savard had a good effort as well. Sergei Bobrovsky was more victim than perpetrator.
What is deeply troubling about this loss is the total lack of response when challenged. Toronto is one of the worst possession and defensive clubs in the world. Jonathan Bernier is a vulnerable goaltender. The organization is in turmoil. Those circumstances cry out for a high pressure game that generates lots of shots, and accordingly lots of pressure. For some mystifying reason, the Blue Jackets could muster but 20 shots on goal.
Part of the blame on this one rests behind the bench. In his post-game remarks, Todd Richards inexplicably characterized the club's 5-on-5 play as "O.K.", and attributed the troubles exclusively to penalties and losing battles along the boards. Sorry, but that explanation doesn't match up to a review of the tape. This was a situation where the Blue Jackets reverted to the collapsing defense, which comes out regularly when the opposition is perceived to have a surplus of speed. However, that approach has not worked this season, and for obvious reasons. Teams with speed and skill can use the top of the zone to make passes and maintain possession, tiring out the defenders and eventually creating openings. Meanwhile, the collapsing defenders create confusion in front of the goaltender, and the possession time becomes skewed in favor of the opposition.
To show that advanced stats are not necessarily all they are cracked up to be in all situations, the Blue Jackets only lost the team Corsi battle tonight by a margin of 52.3% to 47.7%, due in large part to 21 missed shots. The optics of this one were far worse than those numbers would suggest.
This was a case of criminal indifference, both by the team and the coach. The TV cameras kept panning to Richards, obviously hoping to catch him in some twitch, some display of emotion that would suggest he cared or was otherwise invested in the game. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nobody is suggesting that he transform himself to John Tortorella, but a pulse would be welcomed. It's tough for the players to care when the coach appears not to.
Fortunately, as has seemed to be the case of late, the Blue Jackets have the chance to redeem themselves within 24 hours, as they did in Colorado after a 6 - 3 pasting at the hands of a very beatable Arizona Coyotes team. However, this time the opponent is a very, very skilled New York Islanders team, which invades Nationwide Arena as the #2 overall team in the Eastern Conference. Indifference will not cut it tomorrow. That's why the patient died tonight.