On Friday night, the Blue Jackets celebrated their most complete effort of the still-young season, and a thrilling 2 - 1 OT victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. That is a rivalry with enough mutual hatred to warrant the Blue Jackets' move to the Eastern Conference all by itself. However, life in the NHL means that you can enjoy that win for about the length of time it takes to drive to the airport, as a lean and hungry opponent awaits.
Coach John Tortorella and the team will not abide excuses, and this one was viewed important enough to play the red-hot Sergei Bobrovsky in back-to-back games. That decision was additionally validated when the Player Safety folks at the NHL suspended Brandon Dubinsky for one-game for his poorly located cross-check on Sidney Crosby. Unfortunately, they did not suspend Crosby for his poor acting job after the hit, where he remained on the ice like a victim in Act V of Macbeth, rather than a hockey player who had been cross-checked. A topic for another day, however.
Dubinsky's status brought Markus Hannikainen into the lineup, and shuffled the center ice assignments a bit. Let's see how they all did.
The Blue Jackets girded for an early rush by a rested St. Louis club, but it really didn't materialize. Sure, the Blues skated hard, but the Blue Jackets came out the quicker and more nimble of the two squads, notching the first few shots. It was a hard skating, physical but clean beginning to the game -- one that lasted some seven minutes before the first whistle stopped play. In fact, the first period was penalty free.
From the Blue Jackets' perspective, this one could best be characterized as "solid". The club was responsible and quick in its own zone, made reasonably quick exits, and avoided turnovers in the bad areas near the blue lines. The puck was religiously put deep into the offensive zone, and while there were few sustained periods of possession, Columbus made the Blues travel a full 200 feet each time. When opportunities did arise, Sergei Bobrovsky was there to deny the chance.
As is customary for Blue Jackets/Blues contests, this one was sparse in terms of offensive opportunities, and it appeared that this was going to be another chess match, likely to end the first period in a scoreless tie. However, the Blue Jackets had other ideas. At the 14:46 mark, the Blue Jackets managed some extended possession, established a presence in front of the net, and worked the puck up high. David Savard gathered it in, found no shooting lane, and instead fired it hard just outside the post to Jake Allen's left. The puck caromed hard off the end boards, where Boone Jenner and Ryan Johansen were camped near the aforementioned post. The puck was deftly tapped into the corner of the net before Allen knew what happened, and a 1 - 0 lead was established. Everyone agreed that David Savard had the lone assist on the goal, but there was considerable dispute over who scored it. The tally was originally awarded to Boone Jenner, which appeared to conform to the replay, but was eventually given to Johansen. Regardless, it was the right play at the right time.
The balance of the period went without incident, as the clubs tied in shots (6 - 6), hits (9 - 9) and really had a fairly even possession split. St. Louis dominated the face-off circle, 10 - 5, which marked the biggest area of improvement for the second. Still a good start on the road.
Period Two: The Push
Remember that rush the Blue Jackets expected in the first? Well it came in the second. In spades. After presumably receiving a verbal lashing from Ken Hitchcock at the intermission, the Blues came out skating with a frenzy. Just 24 seconds in, Boone Jenner was whistled for tripping, which exacerbated the balance of power. The Blues maintained seamless possession in the ensuing power play, and with just 15 seconds remaining in the extra man situation, Vladimir Tarasenko buried a wrister high to a screened Bobrovsky's glove side. Tie game, with Kevin Shattenkirk and Alexander Steen garnering the assists.
The Blues were not done. They continued the pressure, and peppered Bobrovsky with the first eight shots of the period without a response from the Blue Jackets. Columbus righted the ship a bit, and began exerting pressure of its own. That pressure forced Jay Bouwmeester to take a slashing penalty at the 4:43 mark. The power play had some chances, but could not convert. Still, the momentum had been broken and the Blue Jackets then had a series of chances, including a golden one by Cam Atkinson, who found himself the heir to a deflected puck in the high slot. Allen came way out of the net to challenge, and just tipped Atkinson's shot.
The back half of the period was a bit more even, but the Blues continued the push. (They would outshoot Columbus 18 - 8 for the period.) Matters worsened when Scott Hartnell was whistled for holding at 15:58, followed by a delay of game call against Gregory Campbell just 47 seconds later. That gave the Blues a two man advantage for a full 1:13. The Blue Jackets were up to the challenge, however, killing both penalties without a serious challenge. That provided a much-needed emotional lift as the period drew to a close.
Face-offs were even worse in the second, falling in the Blues' favor, 17 - 6. Still, Columbus weathered an awful period and emerged with a tie. Entering the third period on the road on an even basis was not a bad result, under the circumstances. However, complicating Columbus would need to collect itself for a big third. However, they would have to do it down one forward, as Markus Hannikainen went off with an upper body injury after being jammed into the side boards, and would not return.
Period Three: Coming Up Short
St. Louis continued to skate hard as the period began, dominating the possession early. Again, the Blue Jackets had sporadic forays into offensive territory, but could not maintain any sustained effort, due largely to the sound defensive positioning of the Blues. Ken Hitchcock is the master of shutting down close games, and this one was no different. To their credit, the Blue Jackets were not allowing a lot in their end either. On a couple of occasions, an opening was created, but Bobrovsky shut things down. That included one incredible sequence when Vladimir Tarasenko danced through Matt Calvert and Ryan Murray, only to by stymied by Bobrovsky on a point blank effort . . . twice.
Unfortunately, one of those opportunities hit pay dirt. At the 6:02 mark, St. Louis kept the puck in the offensive zone, after winning a battle along the boards. Scottie Upshall grabbed the puck, and maneuvered from right to left, across the top of the circles, marked by Andrew Bodnarchuk. Bodnarchuk went down to a knee as he tracked Upshall, as if he were ready to block a shot. Upshall made a pump fake at center ice, then let loose a shot from the left circle. Bodnarchuk did not block it, but did screen the puck from Bobrovsky. No matter, as the puck lasered its way into the upper corner -- practically a perfect placement. The home team had the edge, with David Backes getting the only assist. 2 - 1 St. Louis.
From that point forward, the Blues went into full shut down mode. One Blue Jackets rush almost netted the equalizer, but Brandon Saad was robbed when Allen reached back to his left to snare the wrister. The result was sealed when the Blue Jackets lost another offensive face-off with about a minute left, and Alexander Steen pocketed the empty-netter, providing the final margin of victory. Tarasenko had the only assist. Final score: St. Louis 3 Columbus 1.
Wrapping It Up:
This was one that got away due to lost battles. The face-off circle was a disaster zone for the Blue Jackets, which really hurt their possession opportunities. The much fresher Blues were able to get to pucks just a step ahead all night long, just enough to disrupt any prolonged possession by the Blue Jackets. There was an extraordinary amount of quick reversal play in the neutral zone and high in the other zones, which made it seem that you were watching a series of Herbies. The resulting effect predictably took more out of the Blue Jackets than the Blues, particularly with the loss of Hannikainen in the second. This was the kind of game where Brandon Dubinsky would have made a huge difference.
It's tough to lay a lot of individual blame for this one -- they were simply outplayed by a good team that had its legs. Bobrovsky was solid, and the defense, for the most part, played really well. Jack Johnson and David Savard played big minutes, and were factors in all three zones. Ryan Johansen played with an edge, and Kerby Rychel was doing everything in his power to make a difference, channeling his inner Matt Calvert by blocking three shots on a single shift.
The "must do" items to take away from this one are face-offs, cashing in on chances, and skating all the way to the puck. They've got until Tuesday to work on it, when they can try it out on the Montreal Canadiens.
Nothing to do with the game, but the following Tortorella gem is a nominee for Best Quote Ever from a Blue Jackets coach:
We’re not going to whine here. Pittsburgh can whine. Pittsburgh whines enough for the whole league. So there’s no room for any other team to whine. We just go about our business.
Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
I'll be traveling overseas for the next couple of weeks, so others will be handling recaps, though I have some opinion pieces in the pipeline. I'll be tracking the Jackets and just might drop in a remote piece. Stay tuned.