Stopped into a church I passed along the way
Well I got down on my knees, and I pretend to pray
The Mama and the Papas penned those lyrics 50 years ago, but it's not a stretch to say that many Blue Jackets fans felt like dropping to their knees and doing some actual praying as the three-game California swing kicked off in San Jose. Entering this one, it was difficult to make any predictions of results, as this has been a Jekyll/Hyde team over the past few. While that is a distinct improvement over the exclusively Mr. Hyde performances for the first eight, it leaves precious little to hold onto if you are a fan. Tuesday night's contest in San Jose gave everyone something to grasp firmly.
All of the scoring plays and related details are covered in the Quick Thoughts piece I posted in the wee hours, so this recap will focus on the larger themes that emerged as the evening wore on. Happily, this is mostly a positive discussion.
Mixing and Matching
John Tortorella is still learning his roster, and what guys can do under what circumstances. The line pairings last night worked well, with the three top lines all having some really solid shifts and maintaining possession. The fourth line was mediocre, and had difficulty getting out of the zone. Clarkson's apparent injury also put a fly in the ointment, so it's tough to judge too harshly. However, I thought that Rene Bourque had been doing some pretty good things on the ice away from the puck, and deserved some ice time. He should see it now, if Clarkson is out for any significant period of time.
Fedor Tyutin's return to the lineup in place of Dalton Prout had immediate results. The back end speed and precision was noticeably better. While Tyutin has lost a step or two, he's still a crafty veteran who knows how to get the job done.
Some interesting personnel usage stats came out of this one. David Savard led the defensemen with 24+ minutes, followed by Jack Johnson (23+), Ryan Murray (21+) and Connauton & Goloubef (15+ each). Of the forwards, William Karlsson (19+) and Dubinsky (18+) led in ice time. Nick Foligno had only 14+ minutes, but played no special teams. That ranked him third in even strength ice time, behind only Jenner & Karlsson. Cam Atkinson had only 9:35 of even strength ice time, ahead of the fourth liners but significantly less than everyone else.
It's too early to make sweeping generalizations about the TOI stats. Torts is clearly leaning on guys he trusts (Dubinsky, Karlsson), while feeling his way along with the others. This will be an interesting process, and worth watching.
Attitude is Everything
John Tortorella has talked about the club needing to get its "swagger" back -- to approach each game with that slightly cocky air of confidence that says "I know what I'm going to do to you, and you don't." To say that the Blue Jackets have lacked that aura to date would be a massive understatement. When a club isn't really sure in which direction the puck is going to go off their sticks, confidence is an elusive commodity.
Last night they got a big piece of it back. Maybe not yet to "swagger" status, but they came out of the locker room hard, made short, direct and confident exit passes, and played with speed, but in a controlled way. When they surrendered tying goals -- twice -- there was no hanging the heads, no "Here we go again" body language. They put their heads down and went back to work. Importantly, three guys who have appeared to be the most fragile from the psychological standpoint -- Ryan Johansen, Sergei Bobrovsky and Ryan Murray --- all emerged from their funks and had stellar games.
As the game wore on, the confidence clearly grew. Bobrovsky, who looked tentative at the outset, was dominant the rest of the way. Passes went to tape instead of skates, and stayed on the sticks when they got there. There were few offsides calls, just one indication that the Blue Jackets were entering the zone confidently, and as a unit.
I'm not sure what was communicated in which direction during the team meetings and individual sessions that undoubtedly occurred over the past few days, but whatever it was, it worked.
Skating, Skating, Skating
The movie Miracle has the late Herb Brooks promising his squad that they might not be the best team at the Olympics, but they were going to be the best conditioned team out there. Tortorella has alluded to some lack of conditioning in his early tenure, and similarly promised changes. Last night was the first true indication that his emphasis on skating is taking hold.
From the beginning face-off until the final horn, the Blue Jackets skated. Not only did they skate fast, they skated smart. They skated all the way to free pucks, and abandoned previous plans to keep pucks in play in the offensive end. Any Shark who dared to wait for the puck to come to him was punished -- either physically, by losing the puck or both. Ask Brett Burns, who flinched when Scott Hartnell bore down on him behind his own net, which led directly to Boone Jenner's goal. That scenario was repeated over and over throughout the night, in all three zones. It enabled the Blue Jackets to preserve possession, to recover when San Jose did gain some opportunities and to escape trouble in their own zone.
Optics vs. Numbers
If you went to bed early and woke up to look at the team stats, you might have sputtered your coffee all over the computer screen, assuming that the Blue Jackets lost big. The numbers included some apparent ugliness -- getting outshot 15 - 8 in the second, 18 - 3 in the third and 43 - 24 overall, and losing the face-off battle 46 - 22. The Corsi/SAT was similarly lopsided -- 61.4 for the Sharks vs. 38.6 for Columbus. However, these numbers do not align well with the optics of the game as it happened, particularly when it comes to the implications on possession.
The fact is that the Blue Jackets did a nice job of what they had to do with the puck. They dominated possession for much of the game, and when they didn't establish possession, they were meticulous in getting the puck deep. Possession for Columbus did not necessarily translate into shots, however, as the confidence level -- while improved -- is not yet where it needs to be. Ryan Johansen only attempted two shots all evening. Ditto for Dubinsky, Calvert, Foligno and Karlsson. Atkinson had zero shots on goal. So, the guys who are clearly feeling it -- Jenner, Saad and Hartnell -- are registering the shots right now, as well as some of the defense. That's O.K. -- for now. As the confidence continues to build, we should see those numbers escalate.
In the defensive zone, the Blue Jackets did a good job of keeping San Jose to the perimeter, clogging the middle, and denying any quick passes into dangerous areas. Over a third of San Jose's attempted shots came from the blue line. When a few close in opportunities arose, Sergei Bobrovsky snuffed them out.
So, while the numbers appear ugly, the reality of how the game was played was much more appealing. This one was more like the NFL club that wins 45 -28, but surrenders 450 passing yards to the other quarterback, mostly after the game was out of reach. The club played the right way and got the right results, numbers be damned.
The Blue Ice
To be honest, when this one started I was nervous about Bobrovsky's performance, He seem jittery, with "happy feet" that often signals over-reaction and bad positioning. However, after making an early save of a Sharks breakaway, he settled down and was nothing less than stellar the rest of the way. He had zero chance on either of the San Jose goals, and had several sequences where he made typical Bob stupendous saves on consecutive chances. Stopping 41 of 43 is heady stuff.
If any criticism is to be lobbed Bob's way, it would be on rebound control. It was better this game, but there were still several opportunities from rebounds that the defense had to take care of. Fortunately, Tortorella's collapsing style is suited to do just that. As with others, I think that as Bob's confidence grows, the rebounds will reduce in frequency. However, from any angle, this was a great one to build on.
You could really name the whole team here, but here's my view of the individual contributions.
On defense, Cody Goloubef , Ryan Murray and Jack Johnson were all terrific. They were extremely active in all three zones and created chances without sacrificing defensive responsibility. I'm waiting for Goloubef to let the offensive side of his game show more, but he is a solid contributor. As is their style, David Savard and Fedor Tyutin simply did their jobs efficiently and well. Kevin Connauton is improving, and used his speed to advantage several times against the Sharks.
Offensively, it's easy to continue the love for guys like Brandon Saad, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner and William Karlsson -- all of whom are playing really, really well right now. Once Karlsson lets his offensive game loose, watch out. These guys were all dangerous all night long.
Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno showed signs of life. Foligno got his pocket picked, leading directly to the Pavelski goal, but also made some great plays in the offensive end, and was defensively on the ball all night long. He laid Jumbo Joe Thornton flat with an open ice hit, and was a presence. He clearly misses Johansen chemistry from last year, but his ability to keep the puck in play contributed to Hartnell's goal. Johansen showed much more confidence with the puck, even with the lack of shots. His assists are a harbinger of good things to come.
Brandon Dubinsky is playing with lots of confidence for 200 feet, but needs a bit more focus. He and Karlsson were absolutely taken to the woodshed in the face-off circle last night, combining to win only 9 of 36 draws. Ouch. Atkinson was quiet, as was Calvert, except for the empty netter. Both helped maintain possession, but did not assert themselves offensively.
Wrapping It Up
A big team effort with vastly more positives than negatives. The primary areas for improvement include fewer penalties, fewer rebounds and more shots. This was a joy to behold, and we might just see some of that swagger return.
I'd be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.
California Dreamin' on such a winter's day