The San Jose Sharks, defending Western Conference Champs with a healthy chip on their shoulders, swam into Nationwide Arena Saturday night. Just like their namesakes, the visiting team smelled blood, and was quick to attack.
This isn’t to say that the Blue Jackets didn’t try to put up a defense - in fact, when you look at the CORSI and game flow charts, this was a closer game at times than the shot clock or score indicated, particularly in the first period where the Jackets came out firing, but couldn’t put pucks reliably on Martin Jones, with quite a few attempts going just wide or being stopped by defenders putting themselves in position to logjam passing lanes or block shots.
The tide didn’t really turn in favor of San Jose until Oliver Bjorkstrand was called for a double minor high sticking penalty against noted lumberjack Brent Burns.
The Jackets PK actually did exactly what they needed to do, shutting down the Sharks for the distance and clearing the puck when given good opportunities, but just over a minute after the successful kill Sergei Bobrovsky came out to challenge a shot from Mikkel Boedker after the Danish forward had gone across the ice to chase his own rebound. Bob flared his elbow and caught the puck on his arm, but rather than sending it safely up or out with a deflection, the shot rode the side of his sleeve and found its way into the back of the net to give the Sharks the 1-0 lead.
After a brief flurry of follow up chances from the Sharks, the Jackets pushed back hard - in particular the fourth line of Matt Calvert, William Karlsson, and Josh Anderson, who nearly tied things up when Anderson tried to stuff the puck through Jones on a goal mouth play, only to be denied by a quick leg save.
The line of Nick Foligno, Sam Gagner, and Brandon Saad was also showing good chemistry again tonight, but the first one of Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky, and Cam Atkinson that drove play so consistently against Boston found themselves misfiring badly, and one of those mistakes lead directly to the second San Jose goal late in the period.
A miscommunication on a pass in the offensive zone sprang the Sharks on a breakout, with Joel Ward chipping the puck past the defense and getting it over to Brent Burns, who was given too much space by a retreating Jenner. As the Jackets attempted to get fresh legs on with a line change, Burns saw an opportunity to thread a pass back to Ward, who had gotten clear of Jack Johnson, and the veteran forward cranked a one-timer as soon as the puck hit the tape of his stick for the 2-0 lead.
Badly outshot and in a hole, the Jackets were still giving a good representation of themselves, and the advanced stats reflected that, giving San Jose just a 53% to 47% edge in Corsi and faceoffs at a 7 to 6 coinflip advantage to the visitors.
With a little luck and momentum, this was very much a winnable game going into the first intermission, but unfortunately Columbus found neither in the second period.
The Sharks were not able to extend their lead, in no small part due to Bob standing on his head for a sizable portion of the frame, but the Blue Jackets found themselves outmaneuvered constantly, never able to regain their footing. If a lot of fans decided to save themselves some aggravation and go watch the NLCS instead after that period, it was hard to blame them, particularly with the Jackets trailing 29-14 on the shot clock when the period came to an end.
The third period, on the other hand, came with some flashes of what I can only call hope, combined with a couple of big personal moments for some of the newest Jackets.
San Jose found themselves on the penalty kill early in the third after Burns was whistled for an interference call drawn by Foligno, and the second power play unit went over the boards.
Alexander Wennberg battled for the puck after the initial faceoff, eventually kicking it back to Zach Werenski at the right point, who drifted in looking for a lane. Firing on net in what he probably expected to be a shot that generated a rebound, the puck slipped under Jones and found itself in the back of the net for the power play goal, and the San Jose netminder was kind enough to grab the puck and skate it over to the linesman so it could be turned over to the Columbus equipment staff and taped up to celebrate Werenski’s first NHL goal.
That goal energized the Columbus bench, and combined with a healthy bit of turtling from San Jose, it tilted the ice sharply in the home squad’s favor. Unfortunately, though they put rubber on Jones from all angles, the netminder had answers for every single attempt, until a late (and frankly, somewhat bizarre) tripping call against David Savard put San Jose on the power play with just over two minutes in regulation.
The Jackets’ PK did good work getting the puck away and even managing to put it deep into San Jose territory, so Coach Tortorella made the call to pull Bob for an extra skater to even odds and try to find a tying goal despite their disadvantages - but unfortunately it would be Patrick Marleau who tallied the next goal, popping it into the empty net for a 3-1 lead, and sending most fans towards the exits.
Fans who would be quite surprised to hear the goal horn suddenly sound just as they reached the main concourse.
Shuffling lines for the faceoff after the goal, Torts sent Josh Anderson out with Scott Hartnell and Boone Jenner, and Anderson’s strong hustle was rewarded. After Hartnell took the puck behind the net, he flipped it up to Anderson as he crashed the net, who backhanded it home to bring things back to a one goal game with just over twenty two seconds left in regulation.
The Jackets tried to make magic happen again to force OT, but it wasn’t to be - the Sharks would swim off with the victory, while Columbus sank to 0-2 on the young season.
While some are already starting to call for panic, there are positives to this game - despite getting into a hole and digging it fairly deep, the club found a way to pull themselves back into it not once but twice, and the young players being given a chance to find their legs in the NHL were a big reason for it.
Werenski’s first NHL goal was a moment to treasure for him, and a positive sign of what he’s capable of for the fans - and once again he was one of the leaders for ice time, showing how much trust the coaching staff is already placing in the rookie.
Anderson’s constant buzzing around the net shows promise, and the pleasant results from a straightforward “back to basics” forecheck could be a sign that the team is “getting it” after their collapse against Boston.
In his postgame presser, Torts said he wants the team to “get away from the game” on Sunday and come back to the rink with a fresh mindset. They’ll have four days to look at what worked, try to fix what didn’t, and then hold onto your butts, because they’ll be ending their brief break with a visit from our old friends the Blackhawks on Friday.