This one was a head-scratcher. The Blue Jackets fell behind early, but not because they weren't ready or came out sluggish. The players on the ice actually dominated even strength play all night long, but simply could not put the puck behind Semyon Varlamov. Lots of curious elements to this one, so let's dig in.
Period One -- Early Exit
For those who did not actually watch the game, but only saw the final score and/or the fact that the game was a 3 - 0 affair after the first period, this one was likely written off to the same old phenomenon of not being ready to play at the drop of the puck. Actually, that was only partially true in this one, as it was not preparation or effort that hexed them on this night. Instead, a couple of momentary lapses conspired with some substandard play in net to place a massive obstacle between the Blue Jackets and victory.
After featuring an opening front line of Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Jared Boll for the second consecutive night (more on the lineups later), Columbus settled into more standard configurations and exerted some early pressure in the offensive zone, courtesy of the Nick Foligno -- Ryan Johansen -- Cam Atkinson line. However, just 1:01 into the game, as that group was coming off the ice, Foligno was whistled for a tripping call that was about 1/3 trip and 2/3 dive. No matter, it gave the Avalanche the extra man. The penalty kill unit responded well early, but just past the half-way mark of the penalty, Dalton Prout looked to clear the puck, and succeeded . . . into the stands. Two minutes for delay of game, and a full 56 seconds of 5-on-3 for the Avalanche. They needed only 19 seconds of that to convert, as old nemesis Jarome Iginla converted on a slap shot from the top of the left circle. Curtis McElhinney -- starting the back half of the back-to-back sequence -- seemed to see the puck, but simply missed it. Tyson Barrie and Alex Tanguay notched the assists,
So, Colorado had the early lead, and 1:41 of power play remaining. They would use all but 14 seconds of that allotted time, cashing in again, courtesy of Gabriel Landeskog. David Savard extended the defensive "diamond" a bit far out, and Landeskog was able to sneak behind him from below the goal line. After accepting the pass, McElhinney's attempted poke check succeeded only in putting him out of position, and Landeskog spun and parked the puck in the net, doubling the lead. Ryan O'Reilly had the primary assist, with Barrie picking up his second of the night. So, with still over 16 minutes to play in the first period, the Blue Jackets faced a two goal deficit.
The second power play goal had an obviously deflating effect upon both team and crowd, as Colorado built an 8 - 3 advantage in shots on goal. However, just as the clock was winding toward mid-period, the Blue Jackets emerged from their funk and staged a flurry in the Colorado zone, notching the next six shots. Just as they were seemingly ready to break through, Scott Hartnell took the puck laterally across the top of the offensive zone, and while being pressured, attempted an ill-advised backhand pass along the blue line. The pass found Matt Duchene, who out-sprinted the defense, made a couple of moves, and parked the puck through a gaping five hole on McElhinney. 3 - 0 before the halfway mark of the period, and as the promotional parachutes dropped from the rafters, many of the assembled 16,599 hoped they were bearing tequila or similar.
To the Blue Jackets' credit, they did not allow themselves to be overtly deflated after Duchene's goal. They continued to press, but could not beat Varlamov on the initial shots, and either did not have players in position to put home the rebounds or simply could not corral the rebounds on their sticks. Columbus actually led the shot count after one, 15 - 12, and dominated even strength Corsi/SAT numbers. However, the only numbers that mattered were on the scoreboard, and the Blue Jackets could only hope for better fortune in the second.
Period Two: Status Quo
The second period had a bit of a strange start, when referee Chris Rooney took a hard shot squarely on the left knee in the Blue Jackets' zone. He tried to make a go of it, but slid to the ice in obvious agony. After a protracted delay, Rooney was able to get off the ice with assistance, but no stretcher, but was obviously not a candidate to return. That left veteran Kelly Sutherland on his own for the remainder of the contest, and he handled the game as well as could be expected.
Unfortunately, officiating was not a contributory factor to the Blue Jackets' inability to score in the second. Again, Columbus dominated the even strength play, and would post 17 shots on goal for the period, almost double the Colorado total of nine. Some were relatively easy chances, but there were several point blank efforts that Varlamov stymied, including a couple of prime shots on the Blue Jackets' lone power play of the period.
Sergei Bobrovsky replaced McElhinney for the second period, and acquitted himself perfectly, showing good rebound control, good vision and his traditional anticipation of the play. The lone PK situation of the frame was dispatched with ease, and after 40 minutes, the Blue Jackets were in the somewhat quizzical position of dominating the statistics but losing the game . . . badly.
Period Three: Anticlimax
In his post-game remarks, coach Todd Richards characterized the first and second periods as good efforts, but seemed to suggest that the third became somewhat of a track meet that did not meet his expectation. While the third was not up to par with the other periods, "track meet" does not come to mind.
For the most part, the Blue Jackets continued their effort at offensive pressure in the third, but with perhaps a greater degree of desperation than earlier in the contest. However, the period was a relatively disjointed affair, due primarily to the re-surfacing of the penalty bug, and some ongoing line tinkering that created some obvious issues with chemistry, timing and flow. Rene Borque, who acquitted himself quite well in this one, replaced Atkinson on the top line, and the middle six took on a variety of configurations as the game progressed. While the shot production remained reasonably good (both teams had twelve for the period) , there was nowhere near the flow of the earlier frames, as players seemed unsure of where their line mates were going to be at any given time. Drop passes failed for lack of a friendly target, rebounds went to empty ice, and the overall speed and flow was diminished.
The final margin was provided at the 9:23 mark of the third, when Tyson Barrie lofted a high, arching pass from his own goal line to Alex Tanguay, who was approaching the Blue Jackets' blue line. David Savard was back, and while center John Mitchell initially had a step or two on Jack Johnson, Johnson quickly made up ground to cover the possible pass. The veteran Tanguay simply patiently held onto the puck as he cruised toward the center of the ice. David Savard inexplicably dove to the ice instead of stepping up and challenging Tanguay, who merely stepped around the sprawled Savard, and let loose with a wrister under Bobrovsky's left arm. Sergei got a lot of the puck, but not all of it, as it snuck behind him and trickled inside the post to Bobrovsky's left. Johnson's stick was tied up with Mitchell as he slid past the post, so could not deflect the puck from the goal. Barrie notched his third assist of the night, with former Blue Jacket Nate Guenin earning the additional helper.
Unfortunately, six of the final ten minutes of the game were spent on the penalty kill, as Marko Dano was called for tripping at 12:59, and Jared Boll was called for simultaneous separate roughing and slashing minors -- in the offensive zone, no less -- at the 16:37 mark. So, while these were all successfully killed, that's not a great comfort when faced with a four goal deficit, and certainly does not foster persistent offensive pressure. Actually, the Blue Jackets did better than most in generating some short-handed chances, but Varlamov was simply too good on this night to be denied the shutout.
If this were any other season -- and any other time of the season -- a game like this might be written off to bad puck luck and I'd tell you to move on, nothing to see here. And certainly, even tonight, there were certainly elements of that phenomenon in play. Varlamov was very good, McElhinney was not, and when some momentary lapses gave the Avalanche the extra man, Colorado's 28th ranked power play was good enough to provide a two-goal lead very early. That's a tough psychological blow to a club really fighting to close the season with some success and a recapturing of a bit of the swagger they were known for last year.
Again, this was not a game lost due to lack of effort. There was some good work done here, ironically much of it in the offensive zone. Both Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg continue to impress, and Rene Borque overcame some early jitters to show some real contributions. He played with speed, drove the middle hard, parked in some of the tough areas of the ice and generated four shots, a hit and a blocked shot. Far too early to draw any conclusions, but it was a positive first impression. Was it positive enough to earn a battlefield promotion to the top line? Objectively, probably not.
While special teams play does funny things to TOI allocations, there remained some head scratchers tonight. How could Marko Dano get only 11:36 of ice time, and Scott Hartnell only 13:00. Why the incessant line juggling when there are known combinations that work. Foligno-Johansen-Hartnell is still the best line Columbus has iced this season, and the Anismov-Wennberg -- Dano combination has also shown good results. Dubinsky and Atkinson have great chemistry, and Borque's speed would seem to be a natural complement there. Then there is poor Mark Letestu, forced to drag the trailers that are Jared Boll and Corey Tropp behind him. Yet, Todd Richards seems bizarrely attracted to Boll and qualities that are apparently invisible to us mere mortals. While the players seem to be genuinely invested in making the final 17 games as successful as possible, Richards seems increasingly disconnected with the on-the-ice product.
So, this one will go down as an ugly one on the scorecard, but one that was not devoid of merit. There was hustle, there was genuine effort. There were simply no results. That may seem like a ludicrous statement, as results are the standard by which all athletic effort is measured, but with this season definitely ending in the Nassau Coliseum in four weeks time, I want to see the effort and the character of the players shine through, regardless of the final score. I saw a lot of that tonight. Stay tuned.