Coming off a thrilling 2 - 1 victory over the Penguins on Thursday, the Blue Jackets were looking to start a road trip ending back-to-back with similar success in Montreal. Some early stumbles kept them from reaching their goal.
Period 1: Sluggishness Punished
Two weeks ago, the Blue Jackets went into Ottawa on the back half of a back-to-back, having beaten the Blues 7 - 1 the night before, and came out on fire, eventually posting a 4 - 1 victory over the Senators. The lessons of that evening were apparently misplaced over the last fortnight, as Columbus surrendered ice, position and goals to the home club.
Montreal plays well at home, and was obviously prepared to pounce from the opening puck drop. Pounce they did, although Columbus managed an extended possession in the offensive zone to start the game (albeit with no shots). Montreal registered the first five shots, and put tons of pressure on in the offensive zone. That pressure paid dividends early, as Kevin Connauton got his stick in on Brendan Gallagher, who should be a contender at tomorrow night's Oscars for the diving performance he put on to get the tripping call. Halfway through the power play, Montreal cashed in, with Max Pacioretty beating Curtis McElhinney, who was slow to shift with the play. McElhinney seemed to have trouble picking up the puck early, sharing the team's overall lethargy. Andrei Markov and Gallagher got the assists, as the home team took the early lead.
Columbus began to gain some momentum as the first period moved into the second ten minutes, with Alexander Wennberg benefitting from his pairing with Ryan Johansen and Scott Hartnell. Wennberg made a number of nice plays, but none could be converted to goals. The Anisimov - Foligno -- Dano line also had some moments, but lacked any real chemistry early. At the 13:03 point, the Canadiens reprised their first goal, this time at even strength. The puck found Pacioretty at virtually the same spot to McElhinney's left, and he again beat McElhinney, who lagged the play. 2 -0 Montreal, and things looked like they might be on the verge of getting very ugly. Nathan Beaulieu and David Desharnais notched the assists.
The Blue Jackets came right back, however. Obviously feeling healthier, Artem Anisimov made a classic power forward move on Carey Price, and jammed the puck toward the back of the net. Price appeared to make the initial stop, but Nick Foligno crashed the net, seemingly putting the puck across the line. Initial reviews, however, suggested that the puck simply caromed off Price's skates, and gave the unassisted tally to Anisimov. Later, the goal was awarded to Foligno, with Anisimov and Dano earning helpers. Back to a one goal game, and the Blue Jackets seemed to be making the ice tilt a bit in their direction.
Columbus almost surrendered the momentum shortly thereafter, as Jared Boll took a bad penalty, launching himself into Jarred Tinordi, in a play that could have been called charging, roughing, targeting the head, you name it. The officials settled on roughing, and it was combined with a fighting major after Tinordi registered his objection to the hit in a forceful fashion. Fortunately, the Blue Jackets killed the penalty, and exerted more pressure as the period came to close. Shots ended up 13 - 11 in favor of the Canadiens, while the Blue Jackets held the face-off edge at 12 - 9.
Overall, the Blue Jackets were a bit fortunate to end up only one goal down, but could be credited with finding their legs in time to make it a game. They would be well advised to not have any further lapses in attention in this one.
Period 2: A Tale of Effort and Inches
Columbus learned from its lackluster start, and came out with all engines firing in the 2nd. They quickly established a good pace, dominated play in the offensive zone, and showed that they could both skate with Montreal and display the control necessary to maintain extended possession. They quickly made up the shot deficit from the first period, and blew past Montreal in that category, ultimately posting a 12 - 5 advantage for the frame.
At 5:41, the Blue Jackets earned their second power play of the game when Lars Eller was whistled for tripping Cody Goloubef. Columbus showed control and skill throughout the power play, maintaining possession of the puck, creating great opportunities, and providing two of the more remarkable saves of this or any other game. After a point shot from Jack Johnson, Cam Atkinson put the rebound back on net, high to Price's stick side. The celebrations of a tie game were about to begin, but Price somehow reached behind him, batting the puck out of the air with his stick, and parking it beneath his pads. Shortly thereafter, Price just nicked a wide open chance from Scott Hartnell, causing it to carom off the crossbar. It's a game of inches.
At the 10:02 mark, Jiri Sekac provided competition for Gallagher in the Best Performance By a Diver in a Skating Role category, going down like he was shot after Fedor Tyutin nudged his foot with the stick. That was a call aided and abetted by the vocal whining of the local fan base. Fortunately, the Blue Jackets were solid on the kill, and they soon resumed the offensive zone pressure, which they carried to the final horn.
Speaking of the final horn, it appeared that the period ended on a Blue Jackets goal, when Cam Atkinson let a wicked wrister fly with less than a second left in the period. He beat Price to the stick side, the goal light went on, but the puck clanged off the post, across the goal line to the other post, and out. Atkinson, who had been celebrating, could only look up at the replay and shake his head.
So, Columbus lost out in the game of inches, but dominated in effort and execution. The breaks have a way of evening out, and if the Blue Jackets could post a similar effort in the third, good things would come their way.
Period 3: Too Little, Too Late
The Blue Jackets played a very solid period and good road game hockey. They stayed out of the penalty box, out shot the opposition (9 - 6), and put themselves in terrific position when Andrei Markov took a delay of game penalty at 18:16, giving Columbus an empty-net 6-on-4 advantage. Unfortunately, some mishandled pucks and aggressive defense led to a Tomas Plekanec empty netter with 50 seconds left in the contest, which was the only tally of the period, and accounted for the final 3 - 1 margin.
Cary Price played a flawless period, making the saves he needed to make, controlling his rebounds, and overall validating his status as a prime candidate to take home the Vezina this season. The players in front of him played smart defense -- taking no chances, clogging the middle, keeping the Blue Jackets to the outside, and simply clearing the puck to the neutral zone, forcing the opposition to re-set. Not pretty stuff, but very, very effective. It was a luxury that Montreal had because of the early advantage they were able to build, and the solid play they received in net.
Summing It Up
The Blue Jackets played 50 minutes or really good hockey tonight. Unfortunately, it was the first ten that killed them. As the calendar speeds toward March, the caliber of play is ramped up and the margin of error is reduced to razor thin proportions. That is particularly true when you're playing a team who is flying as high as the Canadiens have been.
Full marks to the Columbus players for shrugging off a bad early start and really taking it to the Canadiens on their home turf. Curtis McElhinney turned a very shaky start into a very strong effort. Artem Anisimov, Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano were terrific all night long. Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno -- all had their moments. Johansen, Foligno and Dubinsky collectively won well over 60% of their face-offs, and Johansen had the lowest percentage -- at 59%. Cam Atkinson had some moments, as did Matt Calvert.
Some of the problem was the lack of any real chemistry among some of the lines, which caused some chances to fizzle. Foligno was moved to the third line, apparently to provide some face-off prowess, with Wennberg sharing top line duties. While the reasons are perhaps understandable, the guys obviously battled to figure out where everyone was going to be, and some prime chances went awry due mostly to misunderstanding. Two posts, a crossbar and a stick were the only things keeping this one from being a 4 - 2 Blue Jackets win, but prevent the win they did.
I would have liked to see Jack Skille in the lineup in this game -- his speed would have been an asset. I liked the play of Cody Goloubef, while David Savard, Kevin Connauton and James Wisniewski had rough nights. Still, the Blue Jackets played with skill and speed -- just too late.
No time to grieve this one -- Rick Nash and the Rangers await tomorrow. Stay tuned.