Last night, within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets and Coyotes were having a terrific fight, when suddenly a hockey game broke out. An old joke, to be sure, but this was alternately an end-to-end footrace and a toe-to-toe slugfest, with 22 distinct violations whistled, without a single fighting major being dished out. It featured a game misconduct to Shane Doan, a 10-minute misconduct to Boone Jenner and 14 roughing calls. Surprisingly, John Scott earned only two of those, but one was a double minor.
When the dust cleared, the Blue Jackets had a 5 - 2 win under their belts, and had exorcised a number of demons along the way. Let's review the festivities.
First Period -- Early Spark, Late Lethargy
After a tense, physical game against the Pittsburgh Penguins (who were shutout 4 -0 by the New Jersey Devils in the aftermath), there was considerable interest in how the Blue Jackets would come out of the gates, particularly with the news that Brandon Dubinsky would be out two or three weeks with an infected elbow. ( Kerby Rychel saw his first action of the season, replacing forward stand-in Dalton Prout on the fourth line.) The answer would come quickly.
Just 1:39 in to the game, the Blue Jackets entered the offensive zone at full speed, with Scott Hartnell carrying the puck on the right, the underutilized Rene Bourque driving the middle, and William Karlsson flanking the left. Hartnell drove hard to the circle, attracting Mike Smith's full attention, then angled a perfect pass to Karlsson. They young Swede has had numerous opportunities go for naught this season, but not this one. He zinged it past Smith, and in so doing broke the hex. Hartnell and David Savard picked up the helpers, and the Blue Jackets had a 1 - 0 advantage.
After killing off a Ryan Murray tripping penalty with alacrity, the Blue Jackets got a power play of their own, when Oliver Ekman-Larsson was flagged for tripping Karlsson. The Blue Jackets set up nicely in the offensive zone, and moved the puck with dispatch. David Savard nudged the puck up top to Jack Johnson, who skated the blue line until he found an opening, then sent one netward, where Boone Jenner was waiting to deflect it. Deflect it he did, but it found Smith's pads, and caromed to Smith's right, where Ryan Johansen was waiting. Johansen wasted no time in putting the rebound through Smith, ending his own personal drought, and giving the Blue Jackets a 2 - 0 advantage. Johnson and Jenner had the assists, and the home crowd could not have asked for a better start.
Then, inexplicably, things changed. John Tortorella characterized it this way:
It looked like it just got good to our guys. We scored two quick goals, and we were all done.
Keep in mind that the Blue Jackets scored on two of their first three shots, and Mike Smith was clearly battling the puck, as he has been of late. The situation called for a fusillade of rubber to be sent in his direction, yet it seemed as if Columbus had called a cease fire. They still skated, but what had been a cohesive, structured attack became sort of a scrambled mess. The ice began tilting in Arizona's direction, and the Blue Jackets appeared content to blithely chip the puck out of their zone, make a change, and await the next rush.
Needless to say, that's not a recipe for success. At the 12:09 mark, the Blue Jackets got too cute with the puck near the offensive blue line, and got caught flat footed. Tobias Rieder streaked the puck down the right, with Anthony Duclair winging him on the left, with nary a defender in sight. Rieder got Sergei Bobrovsky to commit, and zipped the cross-ice pass to Duclair, who buried his seventh goal of the campaign into the open side. Martin Hanzal garnered the other assist, and it was now a one goal game.
The remainder of the frame was much of the same, and though the Blue Jackets went to the locker room with a lead, there was an unsatisfying and nervous feeling about this one, as if some real opportunities had been squandered. Columbus was out-shot 11- 8 during a period when they should have had twice that many shots. What would the second hold?
Period Two -- Early Lethargy, Late Fireworks
Encouraged by the Blue Jackets' early hibernation, Arizona came out strong in the second, while the Blue Jackets' play, while a bit improved, remained disjointed. At the 5:39 mark, after a series of end-to-end sequences, Duclair brought the puck down the right, and sent a pass toward Jordan Martinook, driving the middle. The pass bounced hard off of Martinook's stick, popping up in the air. Martinook took a backhanded swipe at the puck, directing it to Bobrovsky's right. Sergei made the stop, but sprawled on the ice, while the puck bounced crazily to Ekman-Larsson's stick. Ryan Murray sprawled out in attempt to influence the play, but ended up colliding with his net minder. The puck arced lazily into the very top of the net, just eluding Bobrovsky's glove. Tie game.
The reality of the vanquished lead seem to provide a bit of a wake up call, but execution still lagged. Then, all hell broke loose. While there had been the predictable amount of pushing, shoving and scrumming in this one, the boiling point was reached at the 15:32 mark, when all hell broke loose. Here's how John Tortorella described it:
Boller gets a chance in front of the net there and stuff starts happening. That's an important part of the game, as far as getting to their blue and protecting our blue. We were flat, and I think that really helped us . . . A really good job by our fourth line.
The melee saw Jared Boll and Kevin Connauton earn roughing calls for Columbus, with Michael Stone also getting a roughing minor for Arizona. Young star Max Domi tallied a double minor for roughing, giving the Blue Jackets the power play. As has been their habit, the Blue Jackets did not disappoint. Jack Johnson again skated the puck high, and nudged it to Ryan Johansen on his left. Instead of looking for the seam pass, as he frequently does from that spot on the ice, Johansen sent a wrister toward the near post. Boone Jenner, again positioned perfectly, deflected the puck evilly into the far corner, restoring the lead, providing chili for the fans, and allowing a bit of a collective exhale. Johansen and Johnson earned the helpers. Jenner makes the act of putting a thin blade on a puck moving at 90 mph seem deceptively easy. Just saying'. . .
The restoration of order did not sit well with Arizona, and as the second frame ticked down, Slap Shot again erupted. While no text description can do it justice, the aftermath provides perhaps an indication of the chaos. Venerable Coyotes' captain Shane Doan earned 10 minute and game misconducts. Boone Jenner got a 10 minute misconduct. Scott Hartnell earned a roughing minor, while John Scott was tagged with a roughing double minor. If I was one of the combatants, I might be disconcerted that my efforts didn't even earn a fighting major, but that's just me . . . While this would have entitled the Blue Jackets to the extra man, Ryan Johansen, not wanting to be left out, was whistled for his own roughing minor as the period expired. When asked if the rash of penalties and misconducts made his job more challenging, especially with Dubinsky on the shelf, Tortorella shrugged it off:
I don't mind that. I want them to take care of one another. . . With the misconducts, we lost some good players, they did too. That's part of the game. It wasn't difficult. I was changing my lines anyway because our lines stunk in the first period.
Arizona had the 12 - 7 shot edge in the period, but the Blue Jackets had the lead on the scoreboard. More importantly, they had found their game again, and though Arizona likely did not know it, the Coyotes were done.
Period Three -- Finishing the Job
While the Blue Jackets had a great game the previous night vs. the Penguins, the third period -- and particularly the final five minutes -- was unnecessarily dramatic. Not so on this night. The Blue Jackets came out hard and made it clear that this one was not going to get away. Though shots were only 6 - 6 for the period, the Blue Jackets were the clearly dominant team.
Columbus pressed the play for most of the first half of the final stanza, and finally got rewarded at the 10:42 mark. Cam Atkinson put a shot on goal from the right circle, and William Karlsson was there to park the rebound. Cody Goloubef earned the other assist, and the Blue Jackets had some breathing room. Just five minutes later, Arizona was pressing hard to pull closer. However, as often happens when a club presses at one end, opportunities are created at the other end. Brandon Saad gathered the puck along the left wall, and joined Ryan Johansen in a 2-on-1 break. Saad looked off Smith, and then lasered a beauty off the post and into the net, providing the final margin of victory. Boone Jenner earned his third point of the night, and Sergei Bobrovsky made the scorecard with the second assist.
The home fans got to hear "The Hockey Song", and stood as a unit with one minute left to cheer the team on with chant of "CBJ!" It was an atmosphere that had long been missing, and seemed to auger good things ahead.
- Getting the first home victory, while getting Ryan Johansen and William Karlsson out of their slumps was huge. Nick Foligno is next.
- William Karlsson is the real deal, folks. He did it all last night, and earned effusive praise from Tortorella in the presser. Owner J.P. McConnell made a rare locker room appearance, and offered his personal congratulations to the young Swede. Well deserved.
- Sergei Bobrovsky is back. He kept the team in the game, and displayed the economy of movement that characterizes him at the top of his game.
- Boone Jenner and Scott Hartnell continue to impress at every level, and Ryan Johansen seems to be emerging from his funk. He was openly appreciative of the fan response after the game, which clearly means a lot to him and the other guys. With the focus on results, we can sometimes forget that many of these guys are youngsters, and have yet to develop that leathery skin that the veterans use as a survival tool in bad times. That's the virtue of leadership, and that is starting to show.
- A Blue Jackets team that is skating and pissing off the opposition at the same time is a really good sign. Clearly, they have the full support of John Tortorella in that regard. Equally important was the ability to lose their game and find it again within sixty minutes.
- Some kudos are due to John Tortorella himself. He has managed to move the team toward his style of play -- which truly suits this squad -- while maintaining the focus on the team, and maintaining that delicate balance between discipline and encouragement that is tough to find for a young, fragile team, especially in the short time he has had to do it.
- Don't look now, but since the beginning of the California swing, the Blue Jackets are maintaining the "win two out of three" pace I referenced in one of my earlier posts. Last night had the feel of a club that is turning the corner. Stay tuned.