While watching the Blue Jackets systematically dissect the Coyotes last night, I found myself focusing more on the play away from the puck — the structure and timing of the forecheck, the play in the neutral zone and the layers of support that the Blue Jackets provide in each zone. While there were the periodic missteps, it was hard to escape the essential soundness of the structure, and the fact that the same process kept being repeated from line to line and shift to shift. Forgive my apparent awe, but fans in Columbus are not used to seeing this kind of display from the home club, and certainly not on any kind of consistent basis. For the first time in recent memory, I was relatively unconcerned when the Coyotes took a 1 - 0 lead on the power play. A bad line change and a good shot. It happens. That did not alter the sense of inevitability that continued, and was ultimately confirmed in the third period.
Quite simply, the Blue Jackets have become a relentless hockey club. Every time a Coyotes’ player even thought about receiving the puck, a Columbus player was in his hip pocket. Suddenly, it’s Columbus that is skating all the way to the puck, forcing bad decisions and taking away time and space. If one guy misses an opportunity, there is another guy ready to fill the gap, and another guy, and another guy. Watching Mike Smith’s heroic performance the other night, he was utterly exhausted from the offensive onslaught, and had no chance in the shootout. He couldn’t even muster the strength to shatter his goalie stick against the post — which he obviously wanted very badly to do. It was the same last night with Sam Gagner’s second goal. Poor Domingue did not have a chance, as one guy after another assaulted the crease. By the time Zach Werenski parked a shot from an impossible angle behind Domingue, he was psychologically done, as were the Coyotes in general.
The two game series brought to mind the movie Zulu — the 1964 British Colonial epic that launched Michael Caine’s career. A small British army contingent of about 100 souls faces thousands of Zulu warriors, who just keep coming and coming. At the end, after you are convinced that there are no more, the camera pans to the top of the cliffs . . . where thousands more await. That’s the type of feeling the Blue Jackets are engendering in their opposition these days, and the cumulative psychological impact is as important as the physical skills they are displaying. Conditioning, TOI management and pure tenacity are enabling the Blue Jackets to exert pressure as at no previous time in their history. Pressure forces mistakes, and we saw loads of those in this home-and-home match with Arizona.
Sure, Columbus is on a roll, and lots of things are going their way. This too will pass, and some unfortunate bounces lurk just around the corner. However, there is no sign that such an eventuality would derail the train. The power play continues to lead the league, but at a far more modest 24.6% — a level potentially sustainable. The PK is a positively mediocre 18th in the league. Goals For and Against each rank 3rd in the NHL, and are not being fueled by any particular player or line. The single point of vulnerability for Columbus is Sergei Bobrovsky, but that has been the case every year.
The fact is that John Tortorella has put together a masterful system that leverages speed, quickness and pressure, all within an overriding structure of responsibility. The players have clearly bought into what he is selling, and the addition of Brad Shaw has been absolutely brilliant. Zach Werenski is everything promised, and more, and Jarmo should be in jail for the Gagner signing. Nationwide Arena is a fun place to be these days . . . though it appears to be a well kept secret. No matter, this is the hockey fans have longed to see the home team play, and it’s really good to see. Stay tuned.