The last time the Blue Jackets lost a game on the road was March 1st, in Pittsburgh. I had to look that up, because it's seemed like they've been finding ways to win every road game of late - and tonight would be no different.
After Friday's dismantling of the Blackhawks, head coach Todd Richards rolled the dice and decided to put the same lineup card on the ice against the St. Louis Blues, including handing the net to Sergei Bobrovsky once again.
Sometimes the decision to forgo a fresh set of legs or two means that the team finds themselves swimming early, unable to maintain a good pace over the full sixty minutes, vulnerable to a rested and hungry opponent.
Tonight, though, the gamble paid off - from the drop of the puck the Jackets were skating hard with St. Louis, and that paid off early when Scott Hartnell, William Karlsson, and Marko Dano broke into the St. Louis zone going three wide, then playing a bit of pitch and catch between Hartnell and Wild Bill before the Swede nailed his first goal as a Blue Jacket straight past Brian Elliot.
The Jackets bench looked like it might keep rolling with the momentum from that goal, but a bad line change ended with Corey Tropp going to the box for a too many men on the ice call, and though the PK stood tall, they'd get an extra helping of work when Sergei Bobrovsky tried clearing the puck not long after the successful kill and put it over the glass inside of the Columbus zone, forcing them to kill another penalty for delay of game.
Despite being pinned back, the Jackets played a solid team defensive game, limiting the Blues to just nine shots in the entire period, and even managing to put a few more on net - including a beautiful one on one attempt by Johansen in the dying seconds of the period that he couldn't quite elevate enough to clear Elliot's pads.
If Columbus suffered a bit from getting in their own way in the back half of the first period, the intermission didn't really give them any relief, as Nick Foligno would learn in his first shift of the middle frame. Attempting to carry the puck up ice before dumping deep and finishing the line change, he instead was caught as the only Jacket on the ice when Jori Lehtera pokechecked the puck away from him and allowing Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund to bear down on Bob totally undefended.
Bob attempted to get wide and fill the net, but Schwartz was able to make a quick cross-crease pass to Berglund for the tap in, and the game was tied less than a minute into the period.
The Jackets had an early opportunity to tie things up when Berglund (ironically!) went to the box for a hook, but couldn't find the handle. Things got even more exciting when Jack Johnson would head to the box for a hook. The PK held once again, but barely had a chance to catch their breath before David Savard would get called for delay of game for once again sending a souvenir into the crowd.
Finally, after the Jackets killed their fourth straight penalty, the Blues would make the next mistake. Boone Jenner would draw a hook from Jay Bouwmeester. Credit to the power play - this time they did an excellent job keeping possession, and as the final minute of the man advantage ticked down, Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson and Brandon Dubinsky worked the umbrella, finally getting Johnson a good shooting lane at the center of the blue line, where he cranked it into the back of the net - not just his 6th of the season, but his 50th career NHL goal.
Unfortunately, St. Louis wasn't going away, and the Jackets' habit of taking 5-6 penalties a game finally burned them after Jeremy Morin was sent to the box for an elbowing call. (On replay, it looked an awful lot like Morin was turning after the puck went up the boards, and smacked Alex Pietrangelo because of his follow through, but oh, well.)
The Blues learned a few lessons from their previous attempts, and frustrated the penalty killers' attempts to clear the puck. Moving things from behind the net to the top of the crease, the Blues' power play got the PK focused on the points, which let Vladimir Tarasenko sneak down to the half boards, where he was waiting for a set up from Berglund before walking in and firing a quick wrister to tie things once again.
If that rattled the Jackets, they didn't show it - in fact, they did their best to throw things back into gear, pushing play back into the St. Louis zone for much of the remaining period, capped off by a last minute (literally!) heroic effort by Cam Atkinson to protect the puck from three St. Louis defenders before he wired a pass to Ryan Johansen. The Johan had time and space to shoot, and Elliot came out a bit to challenge for what he expected to be a top corner shot.
Instead, Johansen spotted Boone Jenner setting up with a wide open net on the other side of the crease, and sent a tape to tape pass to his linemate. Checkmate, and the Jackets once again owned the lead as the period came to a close.
Having been witness to a Ken Hitchcock team for several years in Columbus, one can only imagine how he addressed the Blues locker room, but whatever he said certainly seemed to do the trick. St. Louis came out hard and nasty for the third period, and things started getting chippy fast. Putting the body to anything that moved and pushing Columbus back into their own zone, they put shot after shot on net, and the Jackets were fortunate that Bob was BOB tonight.
Outshot 10-2 going into the final two minutes of play, clinging to their lead by bloodied fingernails, the Jackets finally had a chance for relief when Hitchcock called Elliot to the bench for an extra attacker....and damn near blew it right off the bat when Boone Jenner's attempt to airmail a shot into the open cage went wide for an icing instead.
Thankfully, though the Blues won the ensuing faceoff, David Savard would make a diving block on the shot from Tarasenko, then whacked the puck out to Jenner, who was able to hit Cam Atkinson as he cleared the red line.
One shot, one kill.
That goal marked Atkinson's 20th, marking the second consecutive season he's hit that mark, and giving the team 4 20+ goal scorers (Foligno, Hartnell, Johansen, and Atkinson) for the first time since the 2009-2010 season.
With their first two goal lead of the night secured and just over a minute left in regulation, the Jackets ground the clock down, and chalked up their eighth straight road win, a new franchise record, and continued the win streak that began in Edmonton almost two weeks ago.
In another world, where perhaps this team didn't lose Dubinsky for 30 games, or Bobrovsky for 15, this winning streak would be part of their push to solidify their playoff position - perhaps even taking a serious look at leapfrogging the Pens or Islanders. That's a pretty nice place to imagine ourselves. I bet the beers at Nationwide are cheaper.
But we don't live in that world. We live in what is, and what has been. It would take an insane, improbable, incredible effort for this team to even THINK about sneaking in - starting with going 7-0 through their remaining games, and hoping that Boston, Ottawa, Florida, and Philly all fall on their faces. Mathematically possible? Sure, probably 5 times out of every million simulations, but let's not get too excited.
Well, OK, Boston and Philly might just help us out, but it'd still be nothing short of a miracle.
As it is, we're just this side of locked in for the #7 pick at this point, so all we can do is root for the team, hope this year's sacrifices bring rewards in the coming years, and wait to see what happens.
The Jackets return to Columbus tonight, and will face the Devils on Tuesday night at Nationwide.
Hope we see you there. This team's earned it.