If you were not one of the 17,170 on hand at Nationwide Arena, you missed a game that had a little bit of everything, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Actually, make that 17,168, as the two guys next to us left with about 3:00 left in the game. Pity the fools . . .
This one incorporated everything from the Blue Jackets' current season in one package. You had speed, skill, penalties, turnovers, injuries, missed opportunities and terrific, timely plays. In the end, you simply had a gutsy group of guys -- largely kids -- who refused to be denied. Let's dig in, because this one was delicious.
Period One -- Punch & Counterpunch
The day had started on a sweet & sour note for the Blue Jackets, as they activated blue-liner David Savard from IR, but placed Sergei Bobrovsky back on the injured list, retroactive to December 31. Bob re-aggravated his groin injury, but is officially "day-to-day". He can be activated as early as Wednesday, but from the tone in coach John Tortorella's voice after the game, I have a hunch it will be longer. Anton Forsberg was called up on an emergency basis, and made the trek from Milwaukee, where the Monsters were scheduled to play. His equipment came separately, and fortunately caught up to him. But more on that later.
With the positive vibes from the Dallas game in their minds, and a couple of solid practices under their collective belts, the Blue Jackets came out strong, particularly pushing the pace in the offensive zone. Pressure pays dividends, and just 1:24 into the game, Dmitry Orlov was whistled for slashing on Brandon Saad, as the latter was entering the zone with an odd-man opportunity brewing. The power play has been in a slump of late, but not this night. Ryan Johansen won the draw to Braydon Holtby's left, bringing the puck neatly back to David Savard. Savard skated the puck to the middle, then returned it to Johansen high to his right. Johansen quickly found Nick Foligno in his usual spot at Holtby's left post. The captain quickly centered the puck toward Brandon Dubinsky in the crease. Dubinsky got a blade on the puck, but was converged upon by Brooks Laich and Matt Niskanen. While they denied Dubinsky, they left things wide open for Jack Johnson, who was creeping in to Holtby's right. The puck found his stick, and Johnson parked it in the back of the gaping net. That sequence took all of eight seconds, and the Blue Jackets had their first lead. Dubinsky and Foligno earned the helpers on the play.
The Capitals have been playing terrific hockey, winning nine of the last ten, and have an offense that is truly frightening. The power play is 2nd in the NHL, so opponents are well-advised not to put themselves in the penalty box. This is a tall order for Columbus this year, and tonight was no exception. Boone Jenner was whistled for tripping at the 7:04 mark, and in a virtual carbon copy of the Blue Jackets' goal, the Capitals converted in eight seconds. T.J. Oshie won the face-off back to Matt Niskanen, who skated the puck to the middle, then shoveled it back to Niklas Backstrom high to his right. Backstrom found Marcus Johansson at McElhinney's left post. He fed Oshie in the middle -- a bit higher than Dubinsky had been. Oshie, however, did not have the inconvenience of defenders, so one-timed the puck past a surprised McElhinney. Tie game, and an object lesson in not allowing the Capitals to play with an extra man.
The Blue Jackets were not the least bit intimidated, however, and responded just 44 seconds later. Alexander Wennberg put on a clinic in possession along the boards, frustrating Nate Schmidt. Evgeny Kuznetsov abandoned his post in the middle to join the fray, but Wennberg evaded him as well. In the meantime, Brandon Saad snuck into the slot position that Kuznetsov had vacated. Wennberg found him, and Saad went forehand-backhand-forehand, beating Holtby badly. 2 - 1 Columbus, with Wennberg and Scott Hartnell earning assists.
Remember that object lesson on penalties we discussed a moment ago? Well, the Blue Jackets did not grasp it. Rene Bourque was whistled for holding at the 10:00 mark -- a relatively weak call -- and Washington was back in business. Former Blue Jacket Jason Chimera set up camp in front of McElhinney, with his stick in the blue paint and his skates similarly situated. Jack Johnson had decent position, but Kuznetsov put a perfect pass on Chimera's blade, and caromed past McElhinney's skate. Tie game once again, with assists to Kuznetsov and Niskanen. In truth, this is one where you would like to have seen McElhinney take control of his crease. A bit of anticipation of the play would have enabled him to disrupt the pass with his stick, or at least send a message to Chimera that his presence in the crease was not welcome.
At this point, this one had all of the earmarks of a barnburner, but neither team could convert on chances for the remainder of the period. The Blue Jackets managed to kill off yet another penalty, when Ryan Johansen was called for interference at the 13:18 mark. Johansen put a solid check against Tom Wilson down low against the end boards, but the officials deemed it to be a bit late after the puck had left. Marginal call, but no harm done.
The Blue Jackets truly dominated the even strength play during the period, out-shooting the Capitals 13 - 8 for the frame, with the vast majority of Washington shots coming on the power play. They similarly acquitted themselves well in the face-off circle (and would win the battle 55% - 45% for the night), which provides much needed possession time against a quick strike team like Washington. If the Blue Jackets could keep the play at five-on-five, they appeared to be in good shape.
Period Two: Controlled Frenzy
The second period started off with a bit more jump from the Capitals at even strength, but a similar level of response from the Blue Jackets. However, shortly thereafter, a sequence ensued that seemed to typify the season to date. At 2:36, David Clarkson was whistled for high-sticking, putting the PK on the hot seat once again. Groan. However, William Karlsson awoke the crowd by blocking a shot, grabbing the puck, traversing the length of the ice, and beating Holtby with a pretty shot, for an apparent shortie and the lead. I say "apparent", because Washington issued a coach's challenge, claiming that Columbus was offside on the play. Unfortunately, they were right. Cam Atkinson was clearly offside on the play, and the goal was negated.
The play for much of the period was a stand-off, with each team getting some great chances, but the respective net-minders stepping up to make some solid saves. The Blue Jackets had some episodes of passes to nowhere, but kept their feet moving and avoided adverse consequences.
The Capitals managed to take the lead at the 16:07 mark of the period. Jason Chimera came through center ice with speed, chipping the puck deep to McElhinney's left, with Justin Falk and David Savard in pursuit. McElhinney left the crease to play the puck, but succeeded only in giving it an indifferent tap, which moved it out of Falk's reach. Chimera took Falk into the end boards, and Tom Wilson retrieved the puck along the goal line. Savard over-committed to the goal line to McElhinney's right, leaving the middle wide open, for Marcus Johansson. He parked Wilson's pass squarely past McElhinney, who never really got re-set after his abortive play on the puck. 3 - 2 Capitals, with Wilson getting the only assist. That's how the period would end, with each team managing only seven shots on goal, despite a fair amount of end to end action.
Period 3: Finding A Way
Once again, the Blue Jackets came out hard, pushing the play in the offensive zone, and creating some chances. Holtby was up to the task early, however and triggered some counter-attacks, which McElhinney similarly defused. That pressure again paid off, as T.J. Oshie was forced into a delay of game penalty for putting the puck over the glass at 4:15. Just 32 seconds later, the Blue Jackets had the equalizer, as Jack Johnson zipped a point shot past Holtby, who had a lot of traffic in front of him. Johansen and Savard earned the assists, and the crowd was electric.
That electricity lasted precisely forty seconds. Karl Alzner took possession of the puck in his own zone, and made a quick pass to a streaking Tom Wilson. Dalton Prout, who treated the puck like a porcupine all night long, was caught contemplating something other than hockey in the neutral zone, and Kuznetsov waved as he went by. Wilson found Kuznetsov with the pass, and the result was a foregone conclusion. 4 - 3 Washington, and the anguish on Tortorella's face said everything about what this season has been like thus far.
What ensued for much of the period was a series of solid chances for both clubs, with Holtby and McElhinney standing strong. Scott Hartnell took a brain-dead unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at 9:20. The Blue Jackets had apparently entered the zone with an odd-man chance, but the play was whistled down for a hand pass. Hartnell, obviously disagreeing with the call, continued to skate the puck into the zone, and nonchalantly parked it in the net. The referee did not appreciate being shown up on the play, and aggressively pointed Hartnell to the box. Maybe some overreaction by the official, but a really bonehead play by Hartnell, particularly under the circumstances. Fortunately, the PK was up to the task, and no harm was done.
As the clock wound down, and that awful sense of inevitability descended on the crowd, McElhinney was pulled for the extra attacker with 1:45 left. The Blue Jackets attacked the net with the predictable desperation, but without losing structure. As the clock moved inside a minute, Jack Johnson made a nice save at the blue line, and nudged the puck to Saad, who was skating ahead to Holtby's left. Seemingly interested in cutting to the middle, Saad chose instead to let loose with a backhand, which beat a slightly cheating Holtby to the short side. Tie game and absolute pandemonium at Nationwide Arena. Johnson earned his third point of the evening on the play, and Cam Atkinson garnered the second assist.
The period ended all squared, despite the Capitals' 12 - 8 shooting advantage for the period. On to OT.
Extra Time: From Improbable to Impossible
The Blue Jackets had salvaged a point, but now faced three-on-three overtime against a club that is supremely suited for that format. Saad, Wennberg and Johnson led off for the Blue Jackets, and both squads skated hard for the first 55 seconds, without creating any significant chances. Then the bizarre hit. Curtis McElhinney lost his balance and fell awkwardly in his crease, with his left leg pinned underneath him. The trainer was summoned, and it was clear that CMac was in trouble. After a few minutes, he gingerly got to his feet, and tested out his range of motion. The first few tentative motions seemed to go fine, but then his next motion seemed to send his eyeballs rolling back in his head. He was done.
Enter young Anton Forsberg, who had been resting comfortably in his Wisconsin hotel room just eighteen hours earlier. Minimal warm-up, overtime, Alex Ovechkin. . . No problem . Ovechkin wasted no time in testing the young net minder, who stayed square and swallowed the puck with his body. One bullet dodged.
The Hockey Gods are cruel, cruel deities. Deciding that Mr. Forsberg was not nearly challenged enough, they dictated that Brandon Dubinsky should take a slashing penalty at 2:04. As if the Capitals needed more of an advantage . . . However, what ensued was little short of magical. The Blue Jackets penalty kill unit stayed cool and structured, quickly pounced on bobbled pucks, and jealously guarded the passing lanes. Forsberg was simply outstanding, stopping all six shots that came his way, and looking like he did this all the time. Penalty dispatched.
To add further entertainment value to the OT, Kuznetsov himself was whistled for hooking with 30 seconds left. The Blue Jackets managed their lone shot of extra time, but could not convert. All of those assembled likely concurred that surviving the overtime was, in itself, a moral victory. On to the shootout -- which is another event for which the skilled Capitals are aptly suited.
The Blue Jackets led off with Cam Atkinson, who put a nice move on Holtby, but Holtby beat him to the post. Shootout specialist T.J. Oshie led off for Washington, and scored with alarming ease. A fast backhand fake put Forsberg out of the play, and Oshie had all day to put the puck in the net. Not a good omen.
Brandon Dubinsky was up next, and beat Holtby handily to the glove side. Evgeny Kuznetzov followed for the Capitals. This time Forsberg was up to the task, and smothered the attempt. Ryan Johansen was the anchor man for the Blue Jackets, and came in on Holtby a bit faster than normal. However, he rapidly slowed and crept in on Holtby, who appeared mezmerized my the movement. Holtby never reacted to the high glove shot, and it was advantage Columbus, with only the dangerous Nicklas Backstrom left to face. Backstrom came slowly down the middle, then made a quick move to the backhand side. Forsberg shadowed him, and calmly nudged the puck safely out of harm's way. Game to the Blue Jackets in one of the most improbably ways imaginable.
There was almost too much to digest in this one, but here are the key points as I see them:
- The Blue Jackets found a way to win for the second game in a row, against another top team, and had to bounce back from significant adversity to do it. That's precisely the type of mental imagery the club needs to succeed going forward.
- Jack Johnson was a monster, particularly in the offensive zone. If he can lead the blue line to get more involved in the offensive end, good things will happen.
- Alexander Wennberg was simply amazing. He was put in some high responsibility roles on this evening, and showed some amazing possession abilities. In the post-game press conference, John Tortorella extolled Wennberg's praises, noting that he has become a real playmaker in both offensive and defensive ends.
- You can't say enough about young Forsberg -- stepping up with the coolness of a veteran, and in the process becoming the first player in NHL history to earn his first NHL victory when entering the game after regulation time had expired. Tortorella was clearly impressed with the effort. As it seems like it will be the Forsberg/Korpisalo net for a bit, this was a good thing.
- The penalties remain a problem, and certain old foibles persisted. Dalton Prout was simply bad, and David Savard made some really poor decisions. Cam Atkinson still prefers to guard the empty ice near the defensive blue line, but was much more energized in the offensive end. Still, the quality of the problems is improving, and the speed with which the puck is moving in all three zones is a good sign.
- Some will argue that all the last two games mean is that the club will play itself out of a top draft pick. That might be the case, but over the long term its far more important for the club to find its legs, get its mojo back and see who can step up, and who can't.