Columbus has been the talk of the town around the NHL of late . . . for all of the wrong reasons. Everywhere you turn, the hockey media speculate about potential coaching changes or trades, and the speculation ramps up dramatically from those starting points. The Blue Jackets entered the contest intent upon ending the winless streak . . . which seems to have lasted much longer than the six games and 11 days it has actually persisted.
The much-speculated changes have not occurred, but some others materialized. Alexander Wennberg returned to the lineup and Curtis McElhinney stayed in net. Cam Atkinson was a healthy scratch. Boone Jenner moved up with Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno, while Brandon Saad skated with Alexander Wennberg and Scott Hartnell. David Clarkson moved up to the third line with Matt Calvert and Brandon Dubinsky. That left a fourth line of Gregory Campbell and Rene Bourque on the wings, with William Karlsson at center. Would the mix & match effort be enough?
Period One: Getting to Know You
The early stages of the first were a feeling out process, both between the clubs and within the Blue Jackets themselves. Between the shakeup in the lines and the recent unpleasantness of the losing streak, the team was more than a bit tentative. Controlled zone entries were at a premium, and any offensive advantage evaporated relatively quickly for lack of support.
On the other side of the ice, the Blue Jackets eschewed the aggressive two man forecheck, in favor of staking out a presence in the neutral zone, with occasional forays deeper into the zone. This helped slow the Islanders' transition, and aided the Blue Jackets in maintaining reasonable gaps between the forwards and the defensemen. (Matt Calvert was especially effective with his stick, causing a few turnovers and generally disrupting play.) Unfortunately, when the puck got deep, many of the same issues emerged. Defensemen were trapped on their backhand, and too many passes went to open ice, either due to gripping the stick too tightly or simply poor execution. Fortunately, Curtis McElhinney was solid for most of the period, and the club was better in supporting botched plays
6:14 into the period, Calvert went off for a questionable tripping violation. The penalty kill has not been a strength this season, to be kind, but they managed to kill this one off, despite allowing the Islanders to spend almost the full two minutes in the zone. Still, they managed a couple of tie-ups along the boards, avoided any point blank efforts, and McElhinney deflected rebounds safely to the corners.
At the 12:51 mark, Gregory Campbell and Matt Martin went off for what was charitably characterized as roughing. The ensuing 4-on-4 created the Blue Jackets' best chance of the period, denied only when Thomas Hickey hooked Saad. That gave Columbus the relatively rare 4-on-3 power play for 55 seconds. They had good entries, created some shot opportunities, but could not solve Jaroslav Halak. Too frequently, the puck would simply bound off of a Columbus stick (that gripping too tightly thing again), allowing New York to clear.
As the period wound down to the fateful 1:00 mark, the Blue Jackets got trapped in full scramble mode in their own end. Nikolay Kulemin was left by himself at the left post for what seemed like an eternity, and it was only good fortune that his teammates did not see him. Good fortune lasts only so long, however. With just 1:02 left in the frame, McElhinney stopped a shot, but allowed the rebound to come out in front. Dalton Prout whiffed on the clearing attempt, and then failed to mark Kulemin, who parked the puck in the net. Marek Zidlicky and Travis Hamonic earned the assists, and the Islanders held a 1 - 0 lead after one.
The numbers were a bit deceiving for the initial frame. The Blue Jackets trailed in shots by only a 14-12 margin, but in fact the meaningful possession was significantly in the Islanders' favor. The 19 - 10 disparity in hits was more suggestive of reality, as New York had by far the better chances. Columbus did hold a 9 - 6 edge in the face-off circle.
Period Two: Establishing Credibility
The Blue Jackets came out for the second with more energy, and seemingly a bit more comfort. They began to carry the play more consistently in the offensive end, and started to exert significantly more pressure. Each of the lines had its moments, with the Dubinsky-Calvert-Clarkson line having the most extended possession. Unfortunately, the combination of unfamiliarity and pressure conspired to make shots and passes just off the mark, or just a fraction late.
Still, the pressure had the desired effect of tilting the battlefield in the proper direction and putting the Isles on their heels. When Zidlicky was whistled for tripping at the 5:29 mark, Columbus had its second power play. . However, the gift nearly turned to disaster when Ryan Murray misplayed the puck at the point, leading to a 1-on-zero breakaway chance for Frans Nielsen. McElhinney was up to the challenge, however, and smothered the threat. That was by far the best chance for the Islanders during the period, which says something in itself.
The remainder of the period was more of the same, with the Blue Jackets exerting pressure, but unable to convert. Defense was better, but still allowed some scary moments. A standoff second period was definitely a step in the right direction. Columbus held the edge in shots for the frame, 13 - 10, but this time they held the majority of solid chances. What would the third offer?
Period Three: Opportunity Knocks . . . and is Turned Away
This one started with a bang. The Dubinksy line again established possession, and David Savard found a wide open Dubinsky in the high slot. His one timer crept through a sprawling Halak, who managed to lay a glove over it before it crossed the line. Still, that set the tone for the early action.
Continued pressure forced Casey Cizikas to launch the puck over the glass from the defensive zone with just two minutes gone in the period. The resulting power play, however, was ineffectual to the point that boos rang down from the assembled crowd. The pressure continued, however, and the Islanders took another delay of game penalty with 15:50 left, this time courtesy of Brock Nelson. This extra man situation was slightly better in style, but no better in substance.
Undaunted, Columbus continued the pressure, and drew another penalty from Brock Nelson, this time for hooking with 13:17 left. The Islanders collapsed hard toward Halak which stymied most efforts. However, with just nine seconds left, the puck got through to Halak. Boone Jenner, camped to Halak's right, hacked at the puck and inched it over the goalie's leg. Again, however, fortune was on the Islanders' side as Thomas Hickey knifed behind Halak and parked the puck under the goalie's pads before it crossed the line.
Nick Foligno and Calvin deHaan swapped roughing and slashing minors, respectively, with 9:04 left in the game. In the ensuing 4-on-4 , the Blue Jackets were again victimized by an ill-conceived blue line pass. Cody Goloubef tried to connect with partner Ryan Murray, but found Thomas Hickey instead. He beat McElhinney glove side for an unassisted tally, and a two goal lead. As Murray noted after the game, had that pass been just a hair harder, Hickey gets exposed for cheating, and Columbus has a prime opportunity. The Blue Jackets tried to respond, but their offensive thrust ended up in an even man rush the other way. Dalton Prout allowed too much time and space to Cal Clutterbuck coming down the left wing, and he beat McElhinney high glove on a shot he would probably like back. Nelson got the only assist on the play.
By this point, Todd RIchards had again scrambled the lines. McElhinney was pulled with almost five minutes left, and Columbus headed to the power play. The special team came up empty for the sixth time this evening, and when John Tavares scored the inevitable empty netter (assists to Matt Martin and Anders Lee), there was no ambiguity as to the mood of the crowd. 4 - 0 was the final.
Epilogue: Moving On From Here
It is of zero consolation, but this was a better effort by the Blue Jackets. Richards, Foligno, Dubinsky and others all felt that the quality of the effort was better, particularly in the defensive zone. That seems like a strange statement in a 4 - 0 loss, but it is true. It is also true, however, that the quality of this effort was far below the level we know this team can sustain. It's a bit like praising a Ferrari for going 50 mph. That's fine, but it can do far, far better. Same thing here.
To be entirely fair, the Blue Jackets are mired in one of those situations where one leak gets fixed, and another crops up. Before tonight, the power play had been one of the best in the NHL. Tonight: zip for six, including three in a row in the third period that provided a golden opportunity to assume control of the game. Richards acknowledged as much in his post game remarks.
Foligno, Dubinsky and Johnson all agreed that the club is pressing right now, gripping the sticks too tightly and trying to do too much. Johnson also acknowledged the confidence factor:
Confidence is everything, no matter what you're doing. . . .That's something you have to overcome. It's part of sticking together and supporting each other. I'm sure there are guys whose confidence isn't where they would like it to be, but the good thing about sports is that you get to get up and play again tomorrow.
The locker room was a somber place, but you got the sense that these guys are all in this together, absolutely hate what is going on now, but know they will find a way out of it. It's an 82 game season, and it can turn around in a heartbeat. There is legitimate effort on the ice, with no results. As professionals, the players know that they have no control over any changes that might be coming from above, but are trying to focus on what they can control. With that in mind, the forthcoming extended road trip might be just the opportunity to do that. Stay tuned.