The Western Canada trip kicked off on Tuesday night, after an All Star break that hopefully gave the Blue Jackets the chance to find some measure of recovery from the dings and bruises received over the first 50 contests -- both physical and psychic. Edmonton's latest Chosen One -- Connor McDavid -- made his long-anticipated return to the lineup after a long absence due to a fractured clavicle.
In the end, the scoreboard reflected that the Blue Jackets fell 5 -1. However, if you assume that you know what kind of game it was by the score, you would be wrong. Read on.
Period One -- Rusty Nail
Technically, the Oilers have had the longer layoff between games, but you could not tell by the first 11:30 of this one. The Blue Jackets won the opening face-off, forced an icing from Edmonton immediately thereafter, and thus enjoyed the only offensive zone face-off they would have for many, many minutes. Edmonton predictably came out on fire, sporting fresh legs, a sellout crowd and the return of prodigy Connor McDavid.
Not that the Oilers needed help, but they were abetted by a tripping penalty by Ryan Murray just 26 seconds in, a penalty resulting from obvious surprise at the speed of the onrushing Connor McDavid. Edmonton proceeded to establish base camp in the offensive zone, registering five shots on the power play, all of which were rejected by an aware and agile Joonas Korpisalo. The Blue Jackets would not register their first shot until more than eight minutes had elapsed, and by that point, the Oilers had eight shots of their own. Their spacing was poor, their timing was off, and they could manage no extended time in the offensive zone. Pure rust.
However, a rusty nail can do as much damage as a new one, and frequently more. With the clock moving past the midpoint of the period, the Oilers were fully committed to an offensive onslaught, firing pucks from every direction, pinching at every opportunity and creating tons of traffic in front of Korpisalo, who was quite simply amazing throughout the period. However, these all-out assaults also create vulnerabilities to counter-attack, and so it was here. After registering their 12th and 13th shots of the period from point-blank range (thank you Jeff Rimer), Scott Hartnell corralled the puck and led a nice 2-on-1 break with Matt Calvert. Coming down the right side, Hartnell sold Cam Talbot on the shot, and floated a perfect pass to Calvert, avoiding a sprawling Adam Clendening. Calvert wasted no time in putting the one-timer away, and the Blue Jackets had the all-important opening goal, with Scott Hartnell earning the lone assist. By the way, that happened to be the Blue Jackets' second shot on goal, making for a nice shooting percentage, but little else.
The final eight minutes of play featured improved play by the Blue Jackets, but only in spurts. Edmonton would end up with 18 shots on goal for the period, and an SAT/Corsi approaching infinity, while Columbus could muster only eight. Sometimes the spoils go not to the team who plays the better game, but to the squad who makes the plays. Such was the case in the first, and it is a principle that would come back to haunt the Blue Jackets.
Period Two -- Turnabout
After undoubtedly receiving an informative discourse on the level of desirable play from John Tortorella (also returning from injury) at the break, the Blue Jackets came out as if a blow torch was being applied to their hindquarters. They skated, exerted pressure and fully occupied Talbot's attention. Talbot was equal to the task, matching the intensity and skill that Korpisalo showed in the first. After the Blue Jackets spent 2:15 in the offensive zone, without benefit of a power play, Edmonton worked the puck behind Korpisalo's net. Zack Kassian nudged the puck around the boards, where Eric Gryba gathered in in at the right point. Gryba let loose with a floater toward the net that surprised and/or fooled Korpisalo, finding the back of the net. It wasn't clear whether Korpisalo was screened, distracted or merely caught off guard. In any event, it was one he wanted back, and the game was tied. Casein and Mark Letestu had the assists on the play.
To their credit, the Blue Jackets did not let the goal affect them. They continued the pressure, but simply could not get the puck past Talbot. They tilted the ice in their favor from the possession perspective rather dramatically, much in the way Edmonton did in the first. However, possession does not register on the scoreboard. Brilliant plays by generational players usually do, and the Oilers took the lead on just such a play. At the 9:58 mark of the period, Connor McDavid took the puck and entered the offensive zone, with Jack Johnson and Justin Falk in front of him, and Gregory Campbell behind him. Apparently not concerned, he avoided Johnson entirely, managed to keep possession against Falk, who seemed to get his blade solidly on the puck, then accelerated away from Campbell to execute a little deke move that had Korpisalo going the wrong way. Think of the Rick Nash goal against the Coyotes, or the Nikolay Zherdev goal vs. Chicago, and you'll get the idea. The crowd was on their feet, and you simply had to tip your hat to the guy. Sure, Johnson or Falk should probably have just leveled him instead of looking down at the puck, but it was a helluva play.
Again, the Blue Jackets tried to respond, but could not draw blood. After Seth Jones went off for interference at 15:37, the Oilers extended their lead. Halfway into the power play, Andrej Sekera let loose with a point shot from the blue line, which Benoit Pouliot just managed to deflect in front of Korpisalo. He had no chance, and the margin was now 3 -1. Just 29 seconds later, they would strike again. With the puck dumped deep to Korpisalo's left, Taylor Hall beat Jack Johnson to the puck. Meanwhile, Justin Falk and Gregory Campbell were in front of the net, with their eyes focused on the puck, rather than the encroaching offensive players behind them. In a play that continually haunts the dreams of Blue Jackets fans, Hall zipped the puck to Leon Draisaitl in the high slot. He did not miss, and it was now 4 -1.
The bizarre thing about the second was that it really was a 180 degree turnabout from the first. The Blue Jackets dominated possession, outshot the Oilers 13 - 10, and yet surrendered four goals in the period. Some nights are just like that.
Period Three -- Reprise
The third period was largely a repeat of the second, but with less scoring. The Blue Jackets again came out skating hard, maintaining possession and creating the lion's share of the opportunities. Again, Cam Talbot and the Hockey Gods conspired to keep Columbus off the board. Nick Foligno had a brilliant breakaway denied through some fancy glove work by Talbot, then had a puck go off the crossbar, his back, behind Talbot, and still not cross the goal line. Calvert and Saad had similar experiences during the period.
Meanwhile, the Oiler's only goal came with over five minutes left. After Cam Atkinson went off for a very marginal tripping call, the Oilers moved the puck well, and created a magnificent chance. Korpisalo, however, read the play well and managed to get across the crease to his left to deny the goal with his glove hand. Fedor Tyutin swept the rebound away with his hand as well, Unfortunately, Korpisalo was down and out, and the puck went straight to McDavid behind the net. He fed Jordan Eberle at the opposite post, and Eberle nudged the puck in for the final margin of victory.
Again, the Blue Jackets outshot Edmonton 16 - 7 for the period (and 37 - 35 for the game), but proved again that possession and shots mean little if the opportunities are not converted. Edmonton made the most of their chances, and that told the story on this night.
The poor quality of the Blue Jackets' play early was a major disappointment, but it ended up not costing them directly. They turned things around and did a lot of good things after that, but it did not translate to the scoresheet. It was another of those nights when every mistake ended up in the back of their net. A few instances of puck watching, a brief lapse in concentration, and suddenly you're down 4 - 1 and are wondering what the hell happened. Edmonton is a very fast and talented squad, and on this night they simply made plays.
Korpisalo kept Columbus in the game during the first period, and was good thereafter. A lapse of concentration accounted for one goal, but there was no way to lay this one at his feet. Nick Foligno also merits an "attaboy" for his play in this one. He was all over the ice, making passes, taking shots, and leading by example. Ditto for Scott Hartnell.
I'm wondering what Cody Goloubef did to tick off the coaching staff. It seemed curious to field the less-than-speedy Fedor Tyutin and Dalton Prout against the very speedy Oilers. I'm hoping he returns to a steady place in the lineup soon.
This one was not a systemic failure, but rather the inability to make the necessary play at the necessary time. Meanwhile, you had a very motivated opponent who managed to do just that. Full credit to Cam Talbot and the Oilers, but the Blue Jackets need to stop gripping the sticks so tightly and simply play the game.
Vancouver is next up. Stay tuned.