John Tortorella brought an intact Blue Jackets team into Madison Square Garden on Monday night, having neither lost nor added bodies as the trade deadline came and went -- with few noticing. Undoubtedly relieved by the lack of action on the trade front, the team put forth a solid effort in MSG, ultimately succumbing 2 - 1 due largely to a late mistake and some cruel misfortune. I'll forego the usual period-by-period analysis for this one, as this game retained its essential quality throughout.
The Blue Jackets came out at a "Goldilocks"pace -- neither too fast nor too slow. They were able to maintain spacing and structure, moving as a unit up and down the ice. In the offensive end, they generated ample possession time and some key opportunities, which Antti Raanta managed to keep out of the net. Credit also the Rangers' defense, who succeeded in keeping the Blue Jackets away from the crease and depriving second chances. In the defensive end, Columbus challenged entries, kept the Rangers wide, and surrendered precious few opportunities. Those chances that did arise were quickly snuffed out by Joonas Korpisalo, intent on not being outdone by his countryman in the opposing crease.
The byword for both teams was "discipline" throughout the contest, but particularly in the first 40 minutes. The only penalties taken by either club during that span were coincidental fighting majors to Jared Boll and Dylan McIlrath, who dropped the gloves at the 10:35 mark of the second period. However, it is an unfortunate testament to the state of Boll's game that he spent more time in the penalty box (5:00) than on the ice (4:51). Otherwise, the two clubs surrendered little time and space, with the goalies dominating the equation. However, Columbus clearly had the better of the play during the first two thirds of the game, at one point denying the Rangers any shots on goal for a span of nine minutes in the first. Through two periods, the Blue Jackets held a 21 - 13 shooting advantage, and had the better of the play in all three zones.
Against this backdrop, the initial goal seemed entirely out of character. With just 2:19 remaining in the first period, Mats Zuccarello took the puck behind the net from Korpisalo's right to left. As he emerged to the left of the net, he let loose with a shot while still below the goal line. Korpisalo was in position, but was too deep in his crease, with his left shoulder actually behind the post. He also seemed unprepared for the shot, which came across his body and struck the inner part of his right arm, caroming into the net under that arm. It was one of a few softies that Korpisalo has surrendered in his brief stint in the NHL, usually arising when the opposing team shoots from unexpected areas. He'll learn that this is the NHL, and the puck can and will come from anywhere. 1 - 0 Rangers, with Miami alum Dan Boyle earning the lone assist.
After a second period with no scoring, no penalties, and few opportunities, the Blue Jackets evened it up in the third, courtesy of Cam Atkinson. Defending high in the zone, he picked off Dan Girardi's point-to-point pass, and was off to the races, with Girardi giving chase. Atkinson's first shot was stopped by Raanta, but the rebound came directly back, and Cam shoveled it into the back of the net, for an unassisted equalizer. It was Atkinson's 20th goal and 39th point of the campaign, enabling him to join Boone Jenner, Brandon Saad and Scott Hartnell at the 20 goal level, and placing him just one point shy of his career high of 40, which he earned each of the past two years.
The nature of the play became a little more wide open in the third, and that appeared to help the Rangers equalize the battlefield. The final shot differential was only 27 - 23 in favor of Columbus, as the Rangers held a 10 - 6 advantage in the final stanza. Shortly after the Atkinson goal, the Rangers had a similar breakaway, which was denied by Korpisalo. This was followed by the lone Columbus minor penalty of the evening -- a delay of game call against Brandon Dubinsky. The PK unit responded to the challenge -- as did Korpisalo. Thereafter, opportunities were traded, until Marc Staal was whistled for tripping against Matt Calvert with just 4:41 left Thus, it seemed that the Blue Jackets had gained the upper hand, and that the worst outcome would likely be another overtime. Unfortunately, the Hockey Gods had other ideas.
After starting off relatively well, the Blue Jackets' power play appeared to suddenly lose all connectivity. A puck dropped for a defender behind Korpisalo sat there unattended, until Cody Goloubef sprinted to gain possession. Two separate fumbles near the blue line nearly resulted in short-handed rushes in the opposite direction. Finally, with just seven seconds left in the power play, the puck came across the ice to the neutral zone side of the right point, where Brandon Dubinsky and Seth Jones stared at each other. In the meantime, Ryan McDonagh slapped the puck ahead to a streaking Derek Stepan, who came in on Korpisalo from the left, made an all-world deke that put Korpisalo down, then cut to the center of the ice with Saad draped on his back, and flicked the puck over the prostrate goalie and into the net. A shorthanded dagger to the heart, and John Tortorella's expression mirrored that metaphor.
The Blue Jackets put the pressure on during the final two minutes, pulling Korpisalo early -- and nearly extending the game into overtime. Early on, it did not seem that the extra man was going to help, as the Rangers gained possession, and arced the puck toward the net. Cody Goloubef extended his arm and just managed to tick the puck, which then caromed off the crossbar. With time ticking down, the Jackets stormed the crease, with Cam Atkinson putting a point blank shot on Raanta that was saved. The rebound came out to Ryan Murray, who put it in the back of the net. Unfortunately, the officials waved the goal off, claiming that time had expired before the score. Replay confirmed that the apparent tying tally came a fraction of a second too late.
So, once again, a solid overall effort was submarined by a couple of key mistakes. That's going to happen with young teams, and though Tortorella refused to comment on the winning goal after the game, he did acknowledge that he was generally pleased with the caliber of play. The Blue Jackets ended up 7-3-3 for February, earning two-thirds of the possible points in those contests. The quality of play has consistently improved, as has the quality of their problems.
Standouts on this night included Korpisalo, who kept the team in the game, and Atkinson, who is rapidly becoming a more all-around player. Boone Jenner, Scott Hartnell and Nick Foligno all carried the play in the offensive zone. On defense, Cody Goloubef was notable in his return -- without the jaw protective gear, which he acknowledged made it difficult to visualize the puck and the ice. He played a solid overall game, demonstrating good vision and outstanding passing. He will hopefully earn more time down the stretch.
The mistakes in this one were small ones, but costly. They became inexplicably lax in taking care of the puck near the blue line, and were finally burned by it. They similarly did not consistently establish a presence in front of Raanta, which enabled him to see and find the puck. Still, this was objectively a good hockey game to watch, which in itself represents huge progress since October. Raanta and Korpisalo with the first two stars, which is a testament to how difficult they made it on the scorers.
Edmonton comes to Nationwide on Friday night. Stay tuned.