The most potent offense in Columbus this Saturday did not belong to the Ohio State Buckeyes, but to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who dismantled former nemesis Nashville 7 - 1 at Nationwide Arena, in a game that represented the final dress rehearsal for the squad before the NHL season begins in earnest on Friday. Had critics the critics been in the stands, the morning papers would contain nothing but rave reviews.
Yes, this was a pre-season game, but this was not a contest of roster aspirants. Both clubs were in full costume, and the stars dominated the cast. Pekka Rinne was in net for the Predators, with Shea Weber, Seth Jones, Filip Forsberg, Cody Hodgson, Mike Fisher and other regulars playing their customary roles. For the Blue Jackets, only Cody Goloubef, David Clarkson and Matt Calvert were missing from the roster. So, this was a true Preview of Coming Attractions.
The numbers are certainly impressive. The top line of Brandon Saad (2 goals), Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno (2 goals) accounted for four goals and seven assists, with Johansen garnering four of those assists. They were each plus-4, and the club had a collective plus-30 ranking. Rene Bourque, Brandon Dubinsky and Jared Boll (yes, really) contributed the remaining tallies. Ironically, the team Corsi/SAT numbers were quite misleading, with each team coming in at 50%. That in no way matched the optics, where the Blue Jackets dominated possession time in all three stanzas. They led 3- 0 after one, 4 - 1 after two, and closed it out with another triple in the third. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 of the 26 shots he faced, and his lone goal allowed came after a Dalton Prout turnover behind the net allowed the puck to find Hodgson, who was all alone at point-blank range.
As impressive as the numbers are, the message of this one was not the score, nor even the victory. It was the way the club played that impressed. As well as the club played at the end of last season, what we saw on this night represented another gear above that. The club was fast . . .very fast. Passes were crisp, exits were sharp, and the possession was borderline ruthless. As big as the top line's numbers were, they could have been larger, as the Predators simply could not gain possession of the puck, unless it was surrendered. Defensively, the pressure on the puck was intense, and lasted sixty minutes. The forwards pressured Nashville throughout the neutral zone and high in the defensive zone all night long, creating numerous turnovers and transition opportunities. As the score would indicate, many of these chances were converted. In the post-game presser, coach Todd Richards was asked directly "Is this how you want the team to play?" You could see that every coaching instinct in his body wanted to say something like "We're making progress in that direction, but have lots of things to work on." Instead, confronted with the reality of what he just saw, he smiled and reluctantly said simply, "Yes." That in itself speaks volumes, as praise does not customarily flow generously from Todd Richards' lips.
Rolling four lines has been an long-time aspiration for the Blue Jackets -- as it is for most teams. This game saw that dream come to fruition. While Jared Boll (10:29) and Scott Hartnell (12:17) were the least utilized forwards, all of the others fell within a three minute window. Scarily, Foligno, Johansen and Saad were near the lower end of that range, with fewer than 15 minutes of ice time. On defense, Jack Johnson surrendered his usual "Iron Man"title to Ryan Murray, who led the blue liners with 22:32. That fact itself is remarkable, as Murray was out on his feet this morning, due to a stomach ailment he characterized as food poisoning. He took a few IV treatments, and played a dynamic game, helping push the pace, stifle the Predators and foster stability on the back end. It says quite a bit about the young man's character that he would go to such lengths to be ready for a pre-season contest.
Having the confidence to roll four lines -- and not play JJ 30 minutes -- kept the troops fresh, and allowed them to skate and exert the consistent pressure that made much of the difference in the contest. Murray agreed that the pressure paid huge dividends:
Creating offense off of defense is a great thing, because you're forcing the other team to make mistakes. You're not trying fancy one-on-one plays, but playing in a way that provides a high percentage chance of creating offense.
As Murray suggests -- and as Richards acknowledged -- this was a sixty minute team effort. The club skated hard, and skated as a five man unit in all three zones. Response was immediate, and if a gaffe was made, someone was their to cover. Even in those times when some scrambling was evident low in their own zone, the Blue Jackets had active sticks, preventing clean chances.
In discussing the seemingly amazing chemistry that the top line has displayed in just a brief period of time, Nick Foligno summed it up thusly:
We're having a blast. I think it because we genuinely like each other. . . I actually can't believe we've been able to get the chemistry this fast, and it's allowed us to feel good about our game. . . .I'm really proud of Joey . . .he's come in in really great shape, and now is taking his game to another level. The same with Brandon - he's young, he's still learning, but he plays the game the right way, and its a lot of fun when you do that.
Pretty scary to think that Saad is still learning, eh? For his part Saad characterized his early success with his line mates as follows:
It's a little surprising how much success we've had this fast, but at the same time when you're playing with two players of their caliber, you usually gel fairly quickly. We're just talking to each other, having fun out there, and the puck is finding us.
Probably safe to say that the fan base is hoping that they keep talking and having fun, as that will likely mean the opposition is having no fun at all.
This game was by no means all about the top line. Some other observations:
- Rene Bourque continues to surprise, both with his speed and his skill. His goal in the first came on a 2-on-2 rush, with Bourque carrying the puck down the left wing, and Dubinsky coming down the middle. Not only did Bourque fly down the wing, the shot he unleashed was a cannon that Rinne got a piece of, but could not stop completely. Bourque was active all night long, and could contribute more than some might have thought. His line mates -- Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky -- meshed well, and the three created some terrific chances and perpetuated possession in the offensive zone.
- Both Gregory Campbell and William Karlsson (who found out after the game that he had earned a spot with the big club to start the season) were tenacious on the puck all night, and showed responsible play in all three zones. Jared Boll was uneven. He showed improved speed at times, but his decision to throw the gloves down with Eric Nystrom just three minutes into the game was questionable, considering the fact that this was a pre-season game, he has a history of broken hands, and Ryan Murray was engineering an offensive rush at the moment. He redeemed himself by deflecting David Savard's point shot into the net in the first, but was largely invisible after that.
- As noted above, Murray looked very good, as did Fedor Tyutin. Connauton and Savard both showed improved play in their own zone, with Connauton being quicker at reading the play and getting into good position. Jack Johnson showed some of the flair that characterizes the "good"JJ, and the hope is that this carries into the regular season. Dalton Prout, however, had a poor outing. He still seems lost when pinned below his own goal line, and his awful turnover led to Nashville's only goal. With Justin Falk heading to Cleveland (assuming he clears waivers), it seems probable that Prout and Goloubef will be platooning in the sixth slot, depending upon the opposition.
- The Atkinson -- Wennberg -- Hartnell line was largely invisible, though Wennberg made the best showing of the three. He was 7 out of 11 in the face-off circle (as was Campbell), and worked hard to make things happen. Hartnell worked hard, but the puck simply did not find his stick. Atkinson was a presence on the fore-check, but otherwise was invisible. The chemistry of this group is simply not there yet.