The Blue Jackets played a sound technical game against the tough Washington Capitals on Friday, and the expectation for this Halloween guest appearance at Nationwide was for more of the same, only with a better result. Unfortunately, the home crowd saw a ragged, listless club for most of the evening, leading to a 3 - 2 defeat. Truly, it wasn't that close.
I'll forego the traditional period by period approach to this one, as this was an instance of consistent themes that extended from puck drop to final horn -- with the possible exception of the last 90 seconds of the contest. It was characterized by choppy, disconnected play by the home team, with no sustained offensive pressure, and a lethargic pace. While it might be easy to write that fact off to a rigorous back to back, coach John Tortorella categorically refused to take that avenue. He characterized the evening's events succinctly:
I thought it was a struggle for us all night long, in all facets.
It really describes events perfectly. Passes bounced off sticks, or were just ahead or behind the intended recipient. Rebounds came into the slot when nobody was there, and went out high when somebody was. Nick Foligno also noted that such is the life of a team battling to gain its footing. Reviewing the scoring in this one tends to confirm what both Foligno and Tortorella alluded to. Even little mistakes get magnified when you are losing, and each goal was the direct result of a little mistake.
In the first, a poor change (or poor recognition of the fact that a change occurred) left Bryan Little all alone on the right wing. To Little's credit, he wired an absolutely perfect shot to the high far corner. Nothing to be done. The second goal comes off of a crazy carom from the end boards, with the mistake being leaving Andrew Copp all alone in front of the goal. Kevin Connauton was engaged with Thorburn, and Alexander Wennberg was late getting to the play. All of that transpires in less than a minute, but put the Blue Jackets in a two goal hole early.
Being in that position that early, at home, does nothing good for the psyche. The sticks were gripped even tighter, and the plays came harder. Still the effort was there -- which is another point that Tortorella emphasized. It's not lack of caring or lack of effort that is submarining the Columbus ship -- it is more a case of caring too much and trying too hard. That results in too much individual play -- "isolation" as Torotorella called it. That's precisely 180 degrees from the team concept that the coach is trying to instill, and the effects were obvious.
Certainly, the evening was not an unmitigated disaster, despite the boo's that resonated throughout the arena. The first goal came as the result of as pretty a passing sequence as you'll ever see. Kevin Connauton zipped a pass to Ryan Murray, who threaded a cross ice laser to Brandon Dubinsky up high. That sequence came quickly enough to open some cracks in the Jets' PK unit, and Dubinsky made a surgical pass to Saad's stick right at the post to the right of Ondrej Pavelec. It was a simple deflection to score the goal. Hartnell's goal was a think of beauty as well, coming as the result of a stepped-up pace bred from desperation. It made the fan base wonder where that pace had been the rest of the evening.
The decisive goal (though it seemed like window dressing at the time) was the result of yet another small mistake. Blake Wheeler had a clear lane to Bobrovsky from the left face-off circle, but stopped and took the quick wrister. Bobrovsky was in perfect position, had his glove right there . . . and simply missed the puck, which grazed right under the glove. Murray may have partially screened Wheeler, but the puck was clearly in view, and Bobrovsky was equally clearly distraught at having missed that one. While McElhinney took over and shut things down the rest of the way, the damage was done. Three small mistakes, three goals. If you're winning, Little's shot hits the post, the puck never bounces to Copp and Bobrovsky catches that puck. Otherwise, you get what happened to the Blue Jackets tonight.
While the fan base has the right to be frustrated, it's unlikely to be any more frustrated than the coach or the players. While dismissing the notion that this is the most difficult challenge he has faced as a coach, and addressing the boos from the crowd, Tortorella made the following observations:
It's a challenge, because of the hole were in. . . It's very important not to look at the whole thing that's ahead of us. It's just trying to get better that next day. . . .You need to have some skin here -- everybody has skin in this game. When things are going well, we love hearing that other stuff and all the other things that come with success. You've got to be able to handle this stuff. To me, I think this is a great process. We still have a very young team, and if that (the booing) is going to affect us, then we've got the wrong guys on the bus. I don't think it will affect us. I think these guys are proud, I think they want to fix this, and the stuff that happens in the stands is all part of this business.
As much as everyone would love for the resurrection of the team's performance and psyche to be a linear process, it simply isn't. The three game California swing, while presenting a stern challenge on the ice, provides yet another opportunity for teaching, for working on that chemistry and gaining that confidence back piece by piece.
A positive right now are that the defensive effort has been significantly improved, although there are still lapses. Unfortunately, the defensive improvement has come at the expense of offensive production. Tortorella bristles at the notion that any focus on defense should detract at all from the offense, as he firmly believes that the foundation lies in the defensive end. While that's undoubtedly true, the offensive end is more dependent upon precision of execution, and that is sorely lacking. But as much as we resist, we have to realize that the coach is still learning the roster, and figuring out who does what well, and who plays well with who. Tonight, Rene Bourque and David Clarkson were the forward scratches, while Fedor Tyutin was scratched for the second consecutive game, in favor of a Connauton/Prout combination.
Guys like Boone Jenner, William Karlsson and Scott Hartnell are working hard and playing really well consistently. Brandon Dubinsky is giving his usual effort, but also has been guilty of squeezing the stick, resulting in some problematic plays. Nick Foligno is playing hard as ever, but has been a bit snakebit and is also guilty of trying to do too much by himself. Ditto Cam Atkinson, who has terrific speed, but lets his frenetic pace overcome the overall plan, resulting in difficulty finishing a play. Cody Goloubef and Ryan Murray are settling into a nice pair, while Jack Johnson and David Savard are also settling into their games. So there is definite progress, but more needs to be accomplished. Nobody in the locker room disagrees with that premise, whether they are wearing sweaters or suits.
From my perspective, there are the key issues that have to be resolved -- sooner than later -- in order for the club to get to the next level:
- Ryan Johansen -- whether illness or petulance, Johansen has to get his mind right and start playing hockey. He takes adversity hard, but it translates on the ice as sulkiness and lack of effort. Tonight, his play was simply embarrassing. He took two undisciplined penalties, and could not even maintain basic control of the puck at times. He created no chances, and certainly did not finish any opportunities. Every player goes through slumps, but as a prime scorer, if he's not scoring goals, he has to be helping others score. More fundamentally, he needs to look and act like he wants to contribute. This situation is analogous to Rick Nash when Ken Hitchcock arrived. There were sparks there, and Hitchcock hated Nash's one dimensional game. In the end, Nash became a more complete player, and he'll tell you today that Hitch made him a better player. Tortorella and Johansen find themselves on the same dance floor, and the result of this interaction will dictate whether Ryan remains on the bus, or at least in which row.
- Sergei Bobrovsky -- Bob's game has improved, but it still needs to get to another level. The one goal tonight that fell on his slate was a clear miss, and he looked somewhat surprised at the shot. That's not Bob. When he is on his game, he is reacting instinctively, as he did at times against the Capitals. He also makes that impossible save to keep the team in the game -- as he also did in Washington. However, that's been an infrequent occurrence thus far, and it needs to return. Confidence is a two way street, and the defense both provides confidence to the goalie and draws confidence from the goalie. The offense, in turn, plays with more speed and decisiveness if they know the back end is good.
- The Third Pair -- Tortorella is clearly experimenting with the defensive personnel, trying to get a handle on what he has. From my seat, the Prout/Connauton pairing needs to disappear deep into the filing cabinet, never to surface again. Connauton has been better these last two nights, but Prout's play has not improved. He is a liability with the puck in his own zone, and his turnover led directly to a Capitals goal on Friday. Yet, he has not missed a start. Whether a Tyutin/Connauton pair, a call up from Lake Erie, or elsewhere, that third pair is a gaping hole that needs to be filled.