In the wake of the Blue Jackets' thrilling 2 - 1 OT victory over the Washington Capitals, my Senior Hockey Advisor (my wife, Anne) and I were discussing what was different about this year's club. We both agreed that it was more than personnel, as while the play of Zach Werenski, Nick Foligno and Sergei Bobrovsky has been stellar, you can rattle of the names of others who are still struggling to find their games. It was Anne who hit upon the word that was eluding us — pace. Neither of us could remember a Blue Jackets team that played at this type of tempo on a consistent basis.
This is not to say that Columbus is a "run and gun" team, because it isn't. Instead, what is emerging is a squad that can consistently use their legs to gain advantage . . . and can continue doing it. This is in almost direct opposition to the fears of many fans, who foresaw a Tortorella club long on grit, and short on creativity. What they have seen, instead, is a club that uses its back-end structure as a launching pad for its speed. That speed, in turn, is used to exert pressure and create time and space. Not exactly rocket science, I know, but it's a different concept in Columbus, where neither the talent nor the coaching were entirely conducive to a game premised upon up-tempo play. Even a mention of the concept would have had Ken Hitchcock and Todd Richards breaking out in a cold sweat. As for Scott Arniel? Well, that would just be piling on . . .
Referring to "pace", rather than speed, is appropriate to this club. Make no mistake -- the Blue Jackets have plenty of speed, some of it in unsuspecting places. Against Washington, Markus Nutivaara outraced two Washington forwards across two zones to reach an errant puck. Werenski made the Capitals' forecheck look silly in escaping pressure and leaving the defenders in the dust while exiting the defensive zone. That's all part of it, but what we are seeing is the ability to consistently move the puck quickly in a North-South direction, whether it comes from intercepting a pass in the neutral zone, dumping a puck deep or entering the zone as a unit. It gives the opposition little time to breathe, and ultimately results in chances . . . frequently good chances. Consider the fact that the Blue Jackets rank dead last in the NHL in shots -- even adjusting for having played fewer games — but are near the top in Goals per Game. Sure, their shooting percentage is high, contributed to by a couple of substandard goaltending efforts from the opposition, but so is the quality of the chances they are seeing. Columbus wasted some wide open chances against the Capitals, but kept the pressure consistent.
Sometimes, it doesn't look like the club is playing particularly quickly. The first two periods of the Washington game were more chess match than track meet, but the pace was almost insidious. It was the ability to use the feet to get into defensive position, put a stick on the puck or keep a puck in the offensive zone, increasing possession time. It's here where optics come into play, as the Blue Jackets frequently rack up more zone time than a Corsi figure would reveal. The effect on the opposition, however is cumulative.
A big part of the pace equation is the ability to maintain it over three periods of play. How many years have we watched Blue Jackets squads gasping for air in the third period of games, playing the dreaded "prevent" defense in their own zone? Credit Tortorella's conditioning program for a big part of that. Washington is one of the faster clubs around, and at no time did the Blue Jackets look outmatched in terms of speed or quickness. To the contrary, it was Washington that began to wilt on the vine as the game wore on. In the overtime frame, the Blue Jackets won both face offs, out raced the Capitals' players to loose pucks, and never gave Washington a look before Cam Atkinson ended it with a sniper shot.
Another related part of the puzzle is the ability to roll three or four lines with alacrity. The TOI numbers for Foligno, Wennberg, Atkinson, Saad and Dubinsky are within 37 seconds of each other. Calvert, Jenner, Karlsson and Gagner are within 2 minutes of each other, and every player on the roster has an average TOI over 10 minutes. Factor in the elimination of morning skates on game days, and Tortorella is clearly creating a system designed to foster sixty minutes of maximum effort.
Clearly, the concept is working. Foligno ranks 8th in the NHL in points per game, and Wennberg is 11th. Atkinson, Werenski and Saad are all in the top 50, with Werenski #1 among defensemen — as a 19 year old rookie. Moreover, the club is seemingly able to find that other gear when it needs to. They did that against Washington, and showed the same ability against Anaheim, Dallas and others thus far in this young season. That's a necessary attribute over an 82 game schedule, and being able to demonstrate how it works early just serves to breed confidence. Confidence breeds success, which breeds more confidence, etc. Again, that's something that has not been in over-supply in recent years.
It's all fun to watch, and will be even more interesting to see develop over time. Stay tuned.