Monday's matinee contest vs. the Buffalo Sabres seemed to be the perfect cure for the ills that manifested during two losses to the New York Rangers to open the season. Instead, Columbus came away with a 4 - 2 loss that had them scratching their heads and reaching for the aspirin.
Period 1: Standoff
The first period was an unassuming one, which you might have been lulled into believing was a decent start for the Blue Jackets. Although each club managed only seven shots on goal, the Blue Jackets continued the theme from the first two games by exerting early pressure. However, there were subtle signs that the two early losses may have had more of a psychic impact than they would care to admit. Sticks were gripped a bit too tightly, causing some rather wild misses from close range, and another spate of misdirected passes. Equally frustrating was the lack of a meaningful presence in front of the net in the offensive end. There were ample rebound opportunities, but no white sweaters present to convert them.
The early defensive effort was adequate, but a few strong chances crept through the cracks, and were duly snuffed by Sergei Bobrovsky. The penalty kill was called into service early, killing consecutive penalties to Rene Bourque and Ryan Murray with dispatch, and actually creating more dangerous opportunities on the kill than the Sabres did on the power play. Unfortunately, this was not to last.
The first frame ended in a scoreless tie, which is as close as the Blue Jackets would get on this afternoon.
Period 2: The Penalty Box Polka
In the second period,the Blue Jackets began the painful process of losing their legs. Three minor penalties -- two trips and one hook -- put the Blue Jackets on the PK for six of the twenty minutes in the 2nd, extending the total shorhanded time to ten minutes of the first two periods. Not surprisingly, the ice tilted sharply in Buffalo's direction in this stanza, with the Sabres registering 16 shots on goal, to just eight for Columbus. The optics were even worse, as Sergei Bobrovsky was forced to come through with some spectacular saves to keep the game in hand.
It was frankly amazing that Buffalo tallied only once in the period, on a laser from the right point by Rasmus Ristolainen that threaded its way through traffic and past a heavily-screened Bobrovsky. (Assists to Marcus Foligno and Evander Kane). Buffalo was the aggressor this period, won every race to errant pucks and jumped on rebounds in their own zone to clear them from danger.
On the Columbus side, urgency evaporated during this period. Gone was the defensive pressure in the neutral zone and high in the defensive zone that had created pressure and opportunity in the first two games. With much of the frame spent on the penalty kill, any offensive chemistry was lost, and execution suffered. The tripping and hooking calls were classic signs of a gassed team. Still, despite all of it, the club trailed by only one goal heading into the final period.
Period 3: Killed By the Penalty
If you were to look at the box score of this one, and saw that five goals were scored in the final frame, you would likely envision a rocking and rolling frame with lots of end to end action. You would be wrong. Look again. Four of the five came on the power play (and five of the six scored on the night). Not quite watching paint dry, but close. If you were a Blue Jackets fan, it was closer to nails on the chalkboard.
The Parade of Penalties continued at the 4:33 mark, when Nick Foligno incurred his third of the afternoon for tripping. It was an uncharacteristic lapse of discipline by Foligno, and this one hurt. Just 33 seconds in, Ryan O'Reilly converted the extra man advantage, fielding a deflected puck for a wide open wrister. Matt Moulson and Jamie McGinn had the helpers on this one. 2 - 0 Buffalo, and things were not looking good for the visitors.
As they have done so often in past couple of years, the Blue Jackets found a way to respond. After Nick Foligno drew a holding call against Zemgus Girgensons, the Blue Jackets converted a power play of their own. As if to atone for his own penalties, Foligno took the puck hard to the net, forcing Chad Johnson to make a couple of nice saves. As the Buffalo defenders scrambled to find and clear the puck, it bounced out toward the right circle, where Brandon Saad was ready and waiting. He put the puck behind Johnson for an unassisted tally that narrowed the gap to one. Hope was revived.
But wait . . .an old friend came to visit. This is the Blue Jackets' crazy uncle, the one who insists on allowing a goal shortly after scoring one. Less than two minutes after Saad's tally, it was time for The Jack Eichel Show. In one sequence, he displayed everything that is good and bad about rookie play. He skated the puck into the zone hard down the left wing, then forced a pass through the crease, that was deflected away toward center ice. Boone Jenner went after the puck at half speed, while Eichel engaged all cylinders to move from the goal line to the blue line, nab the puck from Jenner, skate back down the left wing, and put an absolute bullet in the only 3 inches of net that could have beaten Bobrovsky on the play. 3 - 1 Sabres, on the only even strength goal of the game. Assists went to Moulson and McGinn again, but they had nothing to do with the result. This was all Jack Eichel, and it seemed like the coffin was being nailed shut for Columbus.
Once again, however, the Blue Jackets showed they had a pulse. After Evander Kane was whistled for roughing Kevin Connauton, Columbus went back to the power play, and converted another opportunity. It was nearly a carbon copy of the prior goal, with Foligno taking the puck hard to the net, Johansen keeping it alive, and the puck coming out to the middle this time, where Scott Hartnell accepted the gift and cashed in. Johansen and Foligno got the helpers, and it was back to a one-goal game.
Re-enter crazy uncle. After Rene Bourque went off for cross-checking, Matt Moulson notched a goal of his own at the 15:47 mark, effectively sealing the victory for Buffalo. Though Bobrovsky made a couple of really nice saves, Moulson was one of a couple of Sabres without defensive companionship in front of the goal. Assists to O'Reilly and Ristolainen, and this one was history.
As I said yesterday, these are a few games out of 82, and every team is going to go through their own period of hell. By the same token, however, as many have said, you cannot ignore history, at the risk of being condemned to repeat it.
This is a Goldilocks Moment for Todd Richards. Two years ago, he did not have the depth of talent. Last year, he had more talent, but injuries scuttled the opportunity to utilize it. This year, there are no such excuses. The club is both talented and deep. The Wennberg concussion aside, it is also healthier than it has been in a long time. Sure, the talent on the blue line may be thinner than would be ideal, but in a salary cap environment every club is going to have some positions with more question marks than others.
Sure, there is no need to panic after three games. However, you can "increment" yourself to death with that approach as well, and suddenly you are at game twenty saying "no need to panic." Panic is not the answer, but neither is going into a shell. The loss in Buffalo was a passive, non-skating fiasco, as evidenced by the revolving door in the penalty box. Whether by chance or design, Columbus abandoned the pressure, started falling back on defense and surrendered the territorial advantage.
The fact is that the Blue Jackets play at their best when they attack high in the defensive zone and neutral zone. Their spacing is better, their support is better, and their ability to create offense is better. When they collapse deep in their own zone for extended periods, they get in trouble. They embark on individual play, rather than team play, and invariably an assignment gets missed. it also exposes the weaker aspects of guys like Prout, Savard and Connauton, who struggle when challenged deep. Nobody is saying that they have to play the Red Bull infused frenetic style we saw in the first period on Opening Night against the Rangers, but they have the talent to be aggressive. Most teams in the league will have trouble keeping up with them if they do that, but the Buffalo game seemed like an eerie reminder of sins of the past.
On the bright side, the power play converted two of three chances, and Bobrovsky looked more in command.
Bottom line: Richards & Co. need to take control now, and play aggressively. If individuals are not getting with the program, sit their butts in the Press Box and bring in one of the many guys ready and willing to show his stuff. That's how you turn things around, and I have a funny feeling that upper management is not going to allow this season to succumb to death by incrementalism. Just saying. Stay tuned.