A few days ago, someone asked America's Most Popular Statistician Nate Silver, "What's the hardest sport to predict?"
"I'm not sure that hockey is that much different than random," he answered.
With all due respect to Mr. Silver, sometimes you have a pretty good hunch. Sunday's game saw the return of Brandon Saad and a hopefully-rust-free performance of Sergei Bobrovsky, but it also pitted a team nearly 20 points ahead of Columbus in the standings featuring a transcendent hockey talent and two wins already this season. Sometimes you know how these things are going to go.
To be fair, the post-game numbers would suggest flipping a coin would've been a fair predictor: Each team posted 37 shots, Tampa won a slim faceoff edge (51 percent), neither team cashed in on any of their many power plays (three for Tampa, five for Columbus) and each side blocked about 10 shots apiece. Jackets amassed nearly double the penalty minutes (Dalton Prout accounted for 12 of those, we'll talk about him later) and threw four times as many hits, but Columbus is playing at home and what would you expect?
Columbus chased a one-goal deficit from early in the second period until the doors blew off midway through the third, resulting in some ugly fisticuffs and some uglier play.
After surrendering a 13-5 shot advantage in the first and taking a boneheaded penalty on the game's first shift (hi, Scott Hartnell), the home side held the dangerous Lightning scoreless through the opening stanza, with Bobrovsky showing a sharpness absent on Friday and the offense fighting off early malaise. As the period wore on, stretch passes started to connect for sustained zone time and Jackets defensemen consistently harassed Lightning near the Columbus net. It looked like Alexander Wennberg scored on a loose puck, but officials waved it off immediately as Boone Jenner got tangled up with Ben Bishop (how much of that was...organic...is up for debate and resulted in loud boos for Bishop for the rest of the game).
No score and the Jackets were probably lucky for it.
The second period resulted in a Lightning score and an energized Jackets team. After an injured linesman left the game, Fedor Tyutin fell down in his own end for a giveaway that Steven Stamkos fired from the dot for a 1-0 visitor lead, his 30th of the season. He's pretty good. Bobrovsky lost his stick when Brandon Dubinsky skated by and bumped it out of his hands by accident, something that happened in Friday's game as well.
Tempers began to flare in the first and continued in the second. Nick Foligno and Bishop collided behind the net, resulting in a sizeable scrum. Dalton Prout will get a call from the League office about an indefensible (literally) punch on Nikita Kucherov in the second as well that prevented the Lightning forward from returning for the third.
Columbus showed skill in creating some plays but lacked the ability to finish. Nick Foligno toe-dragged his way to a great chance before sending the shot wide, shortly before Seth Jones fired a low shot hoping in vain for Boone Jenner to deflect. All resulting in a stronger period and a one-goal deficit to show for it.
And then the the third period happened.
The less said about the third, the better, but some highlights:
- An ill-advised Dalton Prout giveaway—one of several ill-advised moves from No. 47 on Sunday, albeit one that probably won't earn him a suspension—and Tyler Johnson found Vladislav Namestnikov alone in the high slot for a 2-0 visitor lead.
- Two shorthanded goals from Tampa Bay, the first coming on a two-on-one that Ondrej Palat fed to Stamkos and the second coming during a double minor that saw the goal-assist order reversed and some Columbus backcheckers trying their little hearts out.
- Two slashing penalties and an instigator in the final 39 seconds in a regrettable display. Columbus has a rep with other fanbases for unskilled, boorish play (putting it nicely) and pure frustration penalties when you're getting the living crap kicked out of you in your own barn sure don't help it. Reputation's not something to get hung up on, but supplemental discipline may keep some of these million-dollar men from suiting up, and that's gross.
Bobrovsky looked much, much better than he did on Friday. Seth Jones turned in an improved performance and Ryan Murray showed some life before finishing -3. Brandon Saad skated fast again (though he was one of six Jackets with -2).
It seems stupid to say now, but the fourth line played a more noticeable role through the first two periods, too. Jared Boll and Gregory Campbell made their presences felt when Rene Bourque wasn't busy racking up 10 minutes in penalties. They didn't play much, and that's fine.
Columbus played a team much better than it and lost by four goals. When things started to head south, Jackets hacked and slashed and punched and never scored. You can look at recent improved play, the return of key players and a strong home record as reasons why a coin flip looks appealing, but sometimes the other team is flat-out better. The end of the weekend can come far too quickly.