The opener of this home-and-home, back-to-back set that takes Columbus and Montreal into the break featured a bit of everything. A goal from center ice. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Both by the same guy on the same play. A hat trick. Five Blue Jackets goals. A sighting of Jimmy Hoffa . . . I jest, but weirdness was in the air. With no reason to hold back, what will the Bell Center hold in store tonight?
Period One -- A Special Start
Everyone -- absolutely everyone -- knew that the Montreal Canadiens were going to come out of the blocks fast in this one. Michel Therrien was mortified at his team's performance the previous evening at Nationwide Arena, and made some adjustments to the forward lines before the puck dropped at the Bell Center. True to expectations, the Habs came out skating hard, buzzing in the offensive zone. The Blue Jackets were ready, but nonetheless surrendered some early chances. Joonas Korpisalo, however, was more than ready. He was alert, mobile and reacted quickly to the proffered shots, which came from any direction (likely encouraged by P.K. Subban's neutral zone goal last evening.) He made a few truly terrific saves, and the Blue Jackets seemed to draw some strength from the effort, finding that extra step as they exited the zone.
Cody Goloubef drew back in for this one, replacing Fedor Tyutin, and his presence was felt early. He was mobile, moved the puck briskly out of danger, and did not hesitate to join the offensive rush. Unlike his visiting counterpart, Ben Scrivens seemed unsettled in net, which encouraged Columbus to be fairly free in firing shots in his direction. This was one of the better periods in recent memory for generating some true north-south opportunities.
At the 8:02 mark, Scott Hartnell was whistled for an unfortunate delay of game penalty off of a deflection. No matter -- the penalty kill unit was precise and belligerent, causing Montreal to repeatedly circle back in their own zone, eliciting some vocal displeasure from the home crowd. At 10:42, the hosts returned the favor, with Brandon Dubinsky drawing a holding penalty against Torrey Mitchell. The power play has not been a strong suit for the Blue Jackets of late, as they entered the game only 21st in the NHL with the extra man. Well, it took precisely eight seconds to change the perception. Winning the face-off, the puck moved quickly to Boone Jenner at Scrivens' left post. Jenner jammed the puck toward the net, and it bounced off Scrivens' left pad. Scrivens, however, thought the puck got through, and vacated the post. Jenner simply parked the puck through the vacated space, and the Blue Jackets had the all-important opening tally, with Alexander Wennberg and Seth Jones earning the helpers.
By this point, the Blue Jackets were holding their own with the even strength play, and kept the pressure on. That momentum was briefly derailed by a Seth Jones holding penalty at 13:51, but the penalty kill again was more than up to the challenge -- at one point causing the Habs to engage in an almost comical center ice circling exhibition that seemed more appropriate to Disney on Ice than the NHL. Once again, at the 17:32 mark, the hosts graciously provided another opportunity for a power play, when Max Pacioretty tripped Wennberg high in the offensive zone. While the power play had trouble finding traction, it eventually clicked. With just 13 seconds left with the extra man (and just 41 in the period), Nick Foligno gained control of the puck deep to Scrivens' left. Brandon Dubinsky created havoc in the center, and Foligno zinged the puck to the far post, where Scott Hartnell was waiting to deposit it behind Scrivens. 2 - 0 Blue Jackets, with Foligno gaining the only assist. After an evening where Hartnell had trouble converting opportunities, that one undoubtedly came as a relief.
Leaving the ice with a 2 - 0 lead, the Blue Jackets had to think that this was the ideal start on the road. Two special teams goals, a perfect penalty kill, and an 11 - 9 shot advantage. Face-offs were an issue, as they surrendered a 15 - 9 advantage to Montreal in the circle. All things considered, however, a very special start.
Period Two -- Killing It
The second period began on a hopeful note, when Alex Galchenyuk was whistled for holding Seth Jones. However, the ensuing power play was listless, abetted by the absence of Cam Atkinson, who did not accompany his teammates out of the locker room after the first intermission. No explanation was offered, though rumors that he was puppy shopping are entirely unfounded.
The bizarre atmosphere that prevailed on Monday at Nationwide Arena resurfaced here. At 5:22, Torrey Mitchell found Devante Smith-Pelly with an against-the-grain pass. Smith-Pelly was all alone at the base of the circle to Korpisalo's right, and did not miss. The Blue Jackets challenged the goal, asserting that Montreal was offside on the play. The puck appeared to enter the zone while the Habs were offside, but the official review response simply stated that "available replays" indicated that the Canadiens entered the zone legally. It did appear that the offside player touched up before the puck was played, but it was a curious explanation . . . or lack thereof. In any event, it was 2 -1 Blue Jackets, with P.K. Subban picking up the second assist.
Montreal drew strength from the goal, but the Blue Jackets received their own jolt when Cam Atkinson returned to the bench. It soon paid off. Atkinson and Dubinsky challenged P.K. Subban below the Montreal goal line. Dubinsky sent Subban flying, then circled in front of the net, where Atkinson found him with a perfect pass. Dubinsky took his time, and beat Scrivens handily. Cam had the only assist, and the two goal lead was restored.
While that would be the final score of the period, it was not the end to the drama by any means. The Blue Jackets decided that reverting to their penalty committing ways would provide more of a challenge. So, the parade to the box began, with William Karlsson going off at 10:53 (slashing), Matt Calvert at 13:00 (holding) and Ryan Murray at 15:38 (tripping). This played all kinds of havoc with lines and ice time, but the penalty kill remained resolute, despite some scary moments. Max Pacioretty had his own scary moment when a P.K. Subban point shot rang off the side of Pacioretty's face. He left the ice under his own power, but would not return. Almost unbelievably, Karlsson's penalty was his first of the season. That's one more than Alexander Wennberg has, by the way. Are penalties felonies in Sweden? Inquiring minds want to know.
As the period began to wind down, the Canadiens zinged a hard centering pass, which Cody Goloubef deflected. The puck bounced toward Korpisalo, but no goal was signaled. However, Toronto initiated a review shortly thereafter, which ultimately confirmed no goal, by the narrowest of margins, as the trailing edge of the puck just barely touched the red goal line. Another bullet dodged.
It was a disjointed, messy period, and the Blue Jackets were fortunate to maintain the two goal advantage. Shots were 12 - 8 in Montreal's favor for the frame, and they extended their face-off advantage to 30 - 20. Columbus would need to find their game for the third period. Continuing to provide opportunities to the home team is not a recipe for success.
Period Three -- Rope-A-Dope
If you are old enough to remember watching Muhammad Ali fight George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974, you will recall the infamous "rope-a-dope" strategy, which had Ali taunting Foreman in the ring, goading him into an attack. Ali, in response, would cover up and lean against the ropes, which helped absorb the body blows. Ali didn't land many punches in the early rounds, but Foreman exhausted himself, and Ali won by TKO in the eighth. My point, you ask? The Blue Jackets employed a similar strategy in the third.
But first, they had to once again poke the bear. Ryan Murray took a very questionable cross-checking call just 2:45 in. This time, Montreal would not be denied. Halfway through the power play, Alex Galchenyuk took a cross ice pass from P.K. Subban at the center of the right circle, and squarely beat Korpisalo with a one-timer. Give a skill team like Montreal six opportunities, you're going to get burned. Nathan Beaulieu earned the second assist, and now it was a one goal game. Enter the rope-a-dope.
Now, I'm not saying this was a strategy drawn up by Craig Hartsburg or phoned in by John Tortorella. However, for the next fourteen minutes, the play amounted to the Blue Jackets sending the puck deep into the Montreal zone, rarely securing possession for any length of time, then retreating to challenge the Canadiens as they advanced through the neutral zone. Montreal was forced to dump and chase more than they would prefer, which the Blue Jackets' defense used to cut-off angles, and move the puck out of the zone. Rinse, repeat. Not pretty, fairly nerve-wracking, but highly effective. It also forced the Montreal forwards to do a lot of skating.
At 17:03, it paid off. The Canadiens got sloppy with the puck coming out of their zone, and Brandon Dubinsky was able to intercept the puck and advance it to a streaking Cam Atkinson. Atkinson actually lost control of the puck as he advanced on Scrivens, but had the presence to nudge it through the five-hole. Two goal lead restored, courtesy of the Atkinson Dubinsky Traveling Hockey Show. Brandon Saad joined the party 90 seconds later, with a one-handed sweeping empty-netter from center ice that had the puck literally rolling into the net. It's not how, but how many, and the Blue Jackets put the lid on improbable back-to-back 5 -2 wins over Montreal. In so doing, they may have sealed Michel Therrien's fate.
Shots for the period were 9 - 7 for the Canadiens, but the Blue Jackets stayed out of the box after Murray's early penalty, and won the face-off battle in the final period, 11 - 9. The latter was huge, given the path the final stanza took.
Wrapping It Up
Yes, Montreal has been struggling without their prime net-minder, but the Blue Jackets have been fending without their number one guy as well. This was an impressive double, for a lot of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that the club overcame periods of shoddy play and found ways to win. Close behind is the fact that the Blue Jackets tallied ten goals in two games. With more players at the 15+ goal level than every NHL team except Washington, Columbus is starting to find its offensive legs. That's also due to the play of the back end, which is reducing turnovers and creating transition. Seth Jones is the real deal, in case you hadn't noticed, but Jack Johnson, Cody Goloubef and Justin Falk are all contributing.
The offensive contributions are coming from all quarters. Dubinsky, Atkinson, Jenner & Saad have been huge, of course. Scott Hartnell remains a presence, and the return of Nick Foligno has added a definite spark. The young Swedes bring so much versatility, and promise to show more offense after the break, as does Kerby Rychel, whose time tonight was curtailed by the special teams predominance. The young guns are emerging.
Of course, Joonas Korpisalo deserves all of the accolades that are coming his way for his play in net. He is showing both a physical and mental game that is impressive for anyone, let alone a youngster. He is going to force some very interesting conversations on Nationwide Boulevard.
So, the Blue Jackets head into the break with some solid momentum, and a distinct uptick in the quality of play. I know the "tanking" contingent are sighing about now, but professional athletes know only one thing -- play to win. That's as it should be, and these two games showed what they can do when they pay attention to the details -- and even when they don't. Stay tuned.