Last night, the Blue Jackets turned a silver lining into a cloud, transforming a 2 - 1 lead into a 4 -2 deficit with three penalties in five seconds, and another (highly suspect) major penalty for good measure. That was after a very solid first period that saw them dominate the skating, the shots and the face-off circle, and a solid start to the second, taking them into the lead. Such is the 2015/16 season thus far.
On Sunday, the Blue Jackets finished their early winter Florida tour with a 6:00 PM start against the recently en fuego Florida Panthers, guided by former Blue Jacket coach Gerard Gallant. John Tortorella held a closed door meeting with his squad before the game, during which he undoubtedly conveyed his message of "mental weakness", particularly among some of the veterans. Could the Blue Jackets draw on that inspiration, capture the good elements of their play against the Lightning and douse the fire? Let's see.
Period One: Reprise of the Dirge
The Blue Jackets entered this one after playing in Tampa last night, while the Panthers were playing their first contest after the holiday break. Under the circumstances, you would expect Florida to come out hard, even if they might have a bit of rust. Well, you may have expected it, I may have expected it, John Tortorella certainly expected it, but the players were apparently caught off guard. The Panthers came out hard and fast, and Columbus struggled to keep up from the outset.
Kevin Connauton returned to the blue line, replacing Bodnarchuk. Unfortunately, it did nothing to mask the gaping defensive holes with which the current roster is afflicted. Although each had moments, Connauton, Falk and Prout are struggling mightily to keep up with the pace and positioning requirements of the NHL game. Prout was particularly bad exiting the zone, and it was up to players such as William Karlsson to come back and help move the puck out of the zone. They also were dangerously inconsistent on the points, frequently giving up scary odd man chances by failing to control possession, and generating nothing in return.
A couple of easy stats tell the entire tale. 19 shots for the Panthers. 1 shot for the Blue Jackets, courtesy of Boone Jenner. Six minor penalty minutes for the Blue Jackets, two for the Panthers. Have you heard this one before?
Curtis McElhinney was in net for this one, and the Panthers' first tally was one that got away. At the 4:34 mark, Reilly Smith put a shot off the post, and it caromed out to the circle to McElhinney's left. Aaron Ekblad retrieved it, and slapped a change-up in the general direction of the net. McElhinney was looking straight at the puck, but made no motion as it slipped by him. It was difficult to tell if he was screened by Alexander Wennberg, but there was nothing sinister about the play . . . until it went in. Smith and Vincent Trocheck earned the assists, and Florida had the early lead.
After this most of the rest of the period can be summarized as consisting of Blue Jackets penalties, extended Florida possession in the offensive zone, and a series of shots directed on net. Rinse and repeat. After Gregory Campbell tried to create some life by battling Alex Petrovic, the Blue Jackets had an apparent sign of life when Willie Mitchell was nabbed for tripping. Not so, however, as Columbus could not manage any structured possession, and generated no shots on goal.
Being the courteous visitors, the Blue Jackets came bearing gifts, in the form of more penalties. David Clarkson was called for roughing at 11:59, and Cam Atkinson joined him just 22 seconds later for cross-checking. Again, the Blue Jackets were forced to defend a 5-on-3 advantage for an extended period of time. This time, they came through. McElhinney was solid throughout, and the penalty killing unit maintained its structure throughout, even though there were precious few clearing opportunities. Jack Johnson was particularly good in defending the cross-crease pass, while being careful not to screen McElhinney. The PK unit had another chance just three minutes later, when Johnson was called on a marginal interference call. Again, the penalty killers stymied the Panthers, this time without a shot on goal.
Just when it seemed it was safe to go back in the water again, the Panthers struck. With just 18 seconds left in the period, Jonathan Huberdeau threaded a ridiculous backhand pass from below the goal line to the stick of Aleksander Barkov, who was marked closely by Brandon Saad -- albeit on the back side. Barkov snapped the one-timer past McElhinney. 2 - 0 Florida, and it probably should have been worse.
Interviewed behind the bench, Craig Hartsburg put it succinctly -- "We need to shoot the puck." What a concept . . .
Period Two: Taking Advice
Somewhere between Period1 & Period 2, the Blue Jackets got the message -- shoot the puck. The Blue Jackets came out hard, skating fast, and actually dominating the possession equation. While the final shots for the period were only 9 - 8 in favor of Columbus, it was 9 - 1 for a good chunk of the period, and only late power plays narrowed the gap. As is usually the case, putting the puck on the net forces Florida to react, and teams reacting can make mistakes.
At the 7:59 mark, Brandon Saad took the puck at his own blue line, and brought the puck into the zone at speed . . . but all by himself. It was a one-on-four, but Saad was undeterred. He let loose a shot that was deflected wide to Roberto Luongo's right. Saad just kept skating, and let loose another shot from just about the goal line on Luongo's right. To everyone's surprise, the shot found the mark. Think the opening night Blue Jackets vs. Rangers game, and the improbable shot that beat Sergei Bobrovsky in the third. Same deal here. Once again proving that if you put the puck on the net . . . Justin Falk and Connauton earned the assists, basically for passing to each other and then tapping it to Saad in his own zone. This was a much-needed shot in the arm, and brought Columbus within one.
An opportunity to pull even went to waste when Dmitry Kulikov was whistled for hooking at 12:12 on a Brandon Saad breakaway. It was on the edge of a penalty shot situation, but the Panthers got away with just the minor penalty. However, Columbus could do nothing on the power play, and showed some positively apathetic play, including a Curtis McElhinney pass to nowhere that nearly ended up behind him. Nonetheless, the Blue Jackets continued to push the offensive pressure.
That pressure was derailed once again by the penalty bug. Scott Hartnell went off for hooking at 16:13, and a too many men penalty added insult to injury with just 13 seconds left in Hartnell's penalty. However, the PK unit was once again solid, and Curtis McElhinney continued to make the saves. Through two periods, half of Florida's 28 shots had come with the extra man, on five power plays. The Blue Jackets' mission in the third was simple -- continue to shoot, and stay out of the box. Period.
Period Three: No Moral Victories
Coming out in the third, the Blue Jackets first had to dispatch the remaining 18 seconds of the extra man penalty, which they did with dispatch. They then embarked upon the mission of trying to win the game. Again, they skated well and put pressure on the home town Panthers, but could not crack Luongo.
With just about seven minutes gone in the period, Ryan Johansen made a rare appearance on the offensive radar, helping to engineer a very good shift that nearly brought the equalizer. However, in the ensuing transition to defense, assignments were confused, and Florida found themselves with a 2-on-1, with Barkov and Huberdeau bearing down on McElhinney. It was no contest, as Huberdeau nudged the puck to Markov, who bagged his second goal of the evening. Huberdeau had the sole assist on the play. That one was a back-breaker, restoring the two goal lead.
Still, the Blue Jackets did not disappear into the shell that has appeared all too frequently this season. They kept pushing the play, and were the beneficiaries of a too many men penalty at the 8:03 mark. Although that extra man opportunity did not bear fruit, the next one did. Vincent Trocheck was nailed for tripping at 11:03, and the Blue Jackets went to work, looking more like a skilled hockey club than the Keystone Kops. The Blue Jackets moved the puck quickly, with Alexander Wennberg putting the puck in the middle to Brandon Saad, who put the puck on net. Luongo managed to make the save, but the rebound came out to Luongo's right, where Cam Atkinson was waiting. He didn't hesitate to park the puck in the back of the net, and the one-goal margin was restored, with Saad and Wennberg garnering assists.
Unfortunately, it was as close as the Blue Jackets would get. Although there were several prime chances -- particularly in the last 1:30 of the game when the extra attacker was on the ice -- none of these hit pay dirt. 3 -2 was the final, and the Blue Jackets head home to face the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. An unenviable task under the best of circumstances.
- Curtis McElhinney played his best game in a long time, and kept the club in the game when their collective heads were improperly situated from an anatomical perspective. That first goal was a softie, but he more than atoned after that.
- Full marks to Brandon Saad, Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson, who really brought it all night long. Honorable mention among the forwards to Brandon Dubinsky, who was visible, but just can't seem to cut loose with his offense.
- Cam Atkinson played well early, and well late, but in between was largely invisible. He is one of those veterans that really needs to turn in sixty minutes of performance.
- Ryan Johansen remains an enigma. He was terrific in the face-off circle, but had zero shots, one hit and one blocked shot in 14:06 TOI. Yes, he has a number of assists, and is near the club lead in points, but his role goes far beyond that. Another mentally fragile member of the squad.
- Ryan Murray, Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin had better games than their numbers would suggest. In an interesting quirk, Tyutin drew only 17:52 of ice time, compared to 19:29 for Dalton Prout, which is scary. Johnson and Murray had over 26 and 25 minutes, respectively.
- One of the major differences between the two clubs was Florida's ability to put passes on the tape, and to get rid of the puck -- via either shot or pass -- almost immediately. While the Blue Jackets improved in this regard in the second and third stanzas, there was still too much hesitation and puck handling before doing something with it. Think about the basketball player who insists on dribbling once or twice before going up for the shot, to no apparent purpose. Same thing here. That's all it takes at this level to make the difference between a goal and a blocked shot going the other way.
- The Blue Jackets did not go gently into that good night, but into that good night they did go. No moral victories in their situation, and John Tortorella is increasingly militant in his displeasure over the mental state of some of his players, who are "not the youngsters." The drums of change are getting louder. Stay tuned.