As we were on final approach to Nationwide Arena this evening, listening to NHL Network Radio (as is customary between September 1 and June 15 or so), I heard the following: (Slightly paraphrased for brevity and clarity)
The best team in the Metro Division right now is the Columbus Blue Jackets. If they were in the playoffs, nobody would want to play them. They should create a spot in the playoffs for this club.
Consider that for a moment -- it wasn't long ago that this was being called "The Lost Season", due largely to the devastating string of injuries the squad has suffered. Instead of embracing The Tank, the boys on the ice chose to embrace The Cannon, and the results have been transformational.
On the heels of a 5 - 0 thrashing of an apathetic Toronto Maple Leafs squad, what would the Blue Jackets bring for Fan Appreciation Night? Quite a lot, as it turns out, both from their skates and their hearts.
Period One: Any Which Way But Loose
Let's be realistic. This was Game 81 of 82 for both clubs, neither of which is headed to the playoffs. Except for the War of the Folignos, there were few compelling story lines entering this one. So, if you expected a tight checking affair, you might want to check your expectations at the door. While this one had a few testy moments, it was generally a loose, flowing contest -- the type fans & players love . . . and coaches loathe.
It took exactly 14 seconds to set the tone. Columbus won the face-off, settled the puck in their own zone, then moved it to Brandon Dubinsky . Dubi carried the puck into the offensive zone, and circled low behind the net. As he was challenged there, he managed a one-handed nudge of the puck to the center, which was devoid of blue sweaters. However, it managed to get past the reach of Zach Bogosian, and found the stick of Nick Foligno, who was charging the middle, and met the puck between the circles. Anders Lindback had no chance against that laser, and Columbus had an early 1 - 0 lead. Dubinsky and David Savard earned the assists. This one looked like it might be a laugher early.
Not so fast. Buffalo's fans may be all about The Tank, but the players have pride, and unlike the visitors from Toronto on Wednesday, these guys clearly care. Just two minutes later, Marcus Foligno tracked the puck down low in the Columbus zone, moved it quickly to Brian Gionta, who tipped it to a trailing Mikhail Grigorenko. Grigorenko snapped a a quick one right over Sergei Bobrovsky's shoulder, and suddenly it was a tie game. Foligno and Gionta had the helpers, and it was now apparent that the Sabres were not going to go quietly into the good night.
The Buffalo goal seemed to spur some increased urgency on the part of the Blue Jackets, who again displayed the ability to maintain significant periods of possession in the offensive zone. (Maybe they learned something after all of those years being in the same division as Detroit?) It paid off at the 9:35 mark, with the fourth line demonstrating how to maintain offensive pressure. Matt Calvert drove hard to the middle and caromed a nasty backhand off of Lindback's chest. Jeremy Morin, driving the middle, just had his stick lifted or he would have put the rebound home. Be that as it may, Columbus got the puck back to the point, re-set, and found Calvert at the left circle. Calvert would not be denied this time, finding the back of the net and restoring order in Nationwide. Jack Johnson and David Savard had the assists, and it again appeared that the Blue Jackets could do pretty much what they wanted to.
The balance of the period was an exchange of free skating opportunities, with Columbus having by far the greater number of chances. The Blue Jackets notched 17 shots on goal for the period, and but for some nice Lindback saves and some inexplicably missed chances, the blowout would likely have materialized. However, that feeling of being able to dominate at will can lead to complacency, and that came into full flower in the second.
Period Two: From Loose to Goofy
There is loose play, and there is goofy play, and the Blue Jackets transitioned from the former to the latter in the second period. Don't get me wrong -- they skated beautifully, created a bushel basket worth of chances . . . and came away from the period with the game tied. Joe Yerdon, the NHL.com Sabres correspondent, tweeted the following pearl of wisdom as the period wound down:
If I was Todd Richards, I'd be screaming at my players to knock the cute stuff off. They're dominating Buffalo yet it's tied.
Yerdon was precisely correct. The Blue Jackets were dominant in every phase of the game, but appeared more interested in showcasing their skill than in putting the game away. (Read that last sentence a few times, and consider the implications) Wide open chances were eschewed in favor of fancy passes, and the entire spectacle was reminiscent of the cat toying with the mouse. However, sometimes the cat toys too long, and the mouse gets away. So it was in the second.
After Ryan Johansen was whistled for tripping at 18:44, Buffalo looked to capitalize on the power play to bring the match even after two. Their plan succeeded. With a minute left in the period, Zach Bogosian brought the puck up the middle, got it to Brian Gionta, and Gionta did the rest. He scurried between half-hearted efforts by Calvert and Dubinsky, and beat Bobrovsky with a nasty wrister. Despite the fact that Columbus held a 30 - 16 shot advantage at the time, a similarly huge SAT advantage and optically had dominated the game, the scoreboard said it was all even. The mouse was on the verge of escaping. Anybody want to bet whether Todd Richards took Yerdon's advice? Anybody? Bueller?
Period Three: Return to Earth
Assuming that the head coach may have had a word or twenty with the lads at the period break . . . it worked. The Blue Jackets came out with the same speed and skill, but with a more direct, north-south approach. However, Buffalo was also encouraged after knotting the score. What ensued was an extended period of relatively tightly contested hockey, with some chippy play and much tighter checking. Consider that the Blue Jackets won the shots battle for the period by a narrow 10 - 8 margin, and you'll get the idea.
Columbus took the lead for good at the 10:35 mark. Ryan Johansen moved the puck to Cam Atkinson, who circled behind the net from right to left, emerging with a backhand attempt that the Blue Jackets recovered and cycled back to the point. Dalton Prout let a hard one fly from the right point, but Lindback made the save. However, the rebound came straight back to Atkinson, who had moved to the right circle. His return effort did not miss, and the Blue Jackets had the 3 - 2 lead. Prout and Johansen had the assists.
The second half of the period was filled with chances denied -- by posts or goaltender -- but not by silliness. Buffalo exerted pressure of their own, but Sergei Bobrovsky was more than up to the challenge, and the defense was particularly adept at clearing the path in front of the net. Ultimately, Buffalo pulled Lindback with 1:16 remaining, with the assembled crowd on their feet, exhorting the club to the finish. Columbus gained possession of the puck, and Matt Calvert let loose from center ice, with the shot missing wide left. It took a big carom off the end boards (Did the facilities folks also take a page from the Detroit book???), and Boone Jenner was more than happy to collect the puck and deposit it in the empty net. It was poetic revenge for Jenner, who had positively undressed Lindback in an earlier short-handed breakaway, only to have his effort bounce off the post.
Of Players, Fans & Messages
While it was disappointing that the crowd fell a few hundred short of a sellout, they more than made up for the shortfall in terms of decibels and enthusiasm. While the club gets a nice sendoff every year, regardless of record, this one seemed different. Just as the team is being built brick by brick, so is the fan base maturing and becoming more hockey savvy. There is genuine understanding of the fact that the organization could do nothing about the crippling injuries, and equally genuine appreciation of the performance the nearly healthy squad has been able to put together, despite having nothing to play for but pride. It shows that pride means a lot, actually, and the fact that the fans appreciate that fact is truly good to see.
The Blue Jackets players clearly get the message, and are equally genuine in their appreciation of the fan support. Sergei Bobrovsky always applauds the fans after a win, and tonight the players went beyond the ceremonial raising of the sticks, going out of their way to give the sticks to kids in the stands. For the first time in my memory, a Blue Jackets player -- Nick Foligno -- took the microphone and personally thanked the fans and expressed the team's appreciation. That's good stuff folks. As I said last August , this Foligno guy needs to wear the "C" in this town, and the ensuing eight months have only made my conviction on that score even stronger.
So, the messages of mutual support and respect were delivered and understood by all concerned on this night. But there was another message -- one that has been building word by word as the victories have piled up, the confidence has increased and the skill on the ice blossoming to levels not seen previously in Nationwide Arena. It is the same message already noted by the NHL Radio folks: "Watch out, NHL. You do not want to tangle with the Blue Jackets." Even that message is deeper and more resonant now, as in the past the Blue Jackets have been "hard"to pay against, due primarily to that "grit"and "physicality"that has been so near and dear to many hearts locally. Now, toughness is augmented by real, tangible skill. Watching Ryan Johansen toy with the opposition in the offensive zone is a mesmerizing experience. Seeing four lines -- all playing double digit minutes -- able to play with speed, maintain possession and create opportunities, is quite literally breathtaking.
However, we will have the whole off-season to contemplate how a draft pick, a trade or a free agent acquisition may put the next row of bricks in place for what is becoming a very impressive wall. For this night the mouse did not escape, and there is one more to catch . . . tomorrow night in Long Island. Stay tuned. Meow.