There were some more familiar faces on the ice at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday evening, as the Blue Jackets worked on getting the band back together again. Sergei Bobrovsky, Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Fedor Tyutin, Jack Johnson and Matt Calvert were the returning veterans as the Blue Jackets faced the St. Louis Blues at Nationwide Arena, in half of a split squad evening, with the remaining crew facing off at the Scottrade Center in St Louis. In the Columbus half of the engagement, the good guys prevailed, 3 - 1, in a contest that provided a little bit of everything for those in attendance.
After last night's pre-season debut featured a scoreless 65 minutes plus 5 shootout efforts, the Blue Jackets wasted little time getting on the board. With Brandon Saad sidelined with dental issues, Sonny Milano filled in with Johansen and Foligno on the top line. With just 3:17 gone in the first period, Columbus caught St. Louis in a mistake, leaving Johansen unmarked along the far boards. Foligno found his linemate quickly, and Johansen was off on a break-away, beating Jake Allen with a nasty last second move. 1 - 0 Blue Jackets, and it seemed like we never left.
St. Louis played typical St. Louis (and Ken Hitchcock) hockey, exerting maximum pressure through the neutral zone, hoping to create extra man opportunities in the other direction. Failing that, they try to keep the opponent pinned in its own zone, and create opportunities that way. It is tough hockey to watch, but it works. The Blue Jackets were held to a scant four shots in the first period, and were outshot 36 - 19 for the game. That represents the primary negative of the game, as Columbus had difficulty executing the zone exit, too frequently relying on the "pull the pin" pass to nowhere. It's early in the pre-season, so no need to panic, but it we saw a similar phenomenon last season.
However, on this night, the Blue Jackets had this guy named Bobrovsky. Bob looked like . . . well, like Bob. He was smooth as silk, quick across the crease, and seemingly effortlessly held the Blue scoreless in 24 shots over two periods, including a barrage of 16 in the second frame. In that period, the offense helped by extending the lead with a power play goal by Milano, off a beautiful feed from Nick Foligno. Milano worked hard to find the seam, and showed nice hands in accepting the feathered pass from the Captain (nice to say that for the first time in a while), and parking it in the net in a single motion. Johansen got the second assist, and the Blue Jackets had a two goal lead.
The final frame saw Anton Forsberg assume the net minding duties, and things did not start well. After some protracted pressure from the Blues, Dmitrij Jaskin beat Forsberg through the five hole, narrowing the lead to one. Columbus played a more sound fundamental game for the remainder of the period, and iced the contest with Gregory Campbell's empty netter at the 19:48 mark. Matt Calvert notched the only assist.
The game was followed by another demonstration of the 3 vs. 3 overtime format that has evoked considerable interest around the league. Last night's session was extraordinarily entertaining, even with no scoring. Tonight, the other extreme was in evidence, as the Blue Jackets used the trio of Johansen, Foligno and Johnson to put this one away just 39 seconds in, with Johansen providing the killing blow.
Things were not quite as rosy in the Show Me State, where the Blues handed the Blue Jackets a 5 -2 defeat. Curtis McElhinney went the distance in goal for the Blue Jackets, while Boone Jenner and Justin Falk scored for Columbus. John Ramage and Antti Pilhlstrom had the assists. For the Blues, who kept most of their scoring power at home for this contest, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen each had a goal and two assists, with Alex Pietrangelo, Paul Stastny and Spencer Asuchak all adding goals. Columbus was also out-shot in that contest, 36-23.
Back at Nationwide, the regulars all impressed. Johansen and Foligno look to be in top shape, and have obviously not misplaced their chemistry. Jack Johnson looked good, which provides a hopeful sign for the season. Fedor Tyutin similarly looks a bit leaner and quicker. Bobrovsky looks . . . other-worldly.
Among the newcomers, Milano again was a standout. His speed and skill is undeniable, and he will not go quietly into that dark night. He obviously intends to make life miserable for Richards, Kekäläinen and Davidson, and he's doing a good job of it. While he sometimes overskates the play, he also makes some really smart and skillful plays that go unnoticed on the scoresheet. Oleg Yevenko was a physical presence all night long, and plied his fighting trade in the opening period, making Cody Beach regret the fact that he dropped the gloves. Paul Bittner had a great game, came within an eyelash of a couple of goals, and showed that he is entirely comfortable on NHL ice. T.J. Tynan also made a good showing up front, while Michael Paliotta showed well on the blue line, playing in all situations and racking up 22:19 of ice time, behind only Johnson and Tyutin. Gregory Campbell had some nice moments as well, boding well for the prospect of rolling four lines this season. Ryan Murray had the night off, hopefully for no sinister reasons.
The primary take-away from the evening's festivities was simply this: Columbus is almost scarily deep, particularly at forward. Jarmo may be heading to the Advil bottle a lot this season, but primarily because he has such difficult, but wonderful decisions. Talent provides options, and teams with options tend to go very deep in the playoffs. It's early, but after the first round of cuts tomorrow, and possibly another round before the weekend, we should start seeing some truly scintillating hockey. This promises to be fun, folks. Stay tuned.