Fresh off their worst performance in recent -- or distant -- memory, the Blue Jackets sought to right the ship by facing the best team in the NHL -- the Washington Capitals -- on their home turf in the Verizon Center. Oh, by the way, the Capitals are healthy for the first time in a while, and need only one point to clinch the President's Cup. What could possibly go wrong?
Period One: Who Are These Guys?
The team that came out onto the ice in the white sweaters tonight bore no resemblance to the befuddled scrum of hockey impersonators that skated on Saturday in Nashville. They skated, appeared unintimidated by the Capitals, their record or their skill. They played structured, disciplined hockey, featuring zero penalties for the period, and looked like the club we started seeing last month. Things were not perfect, mind you. The passing was still a bit ragged, and there was too much puck watching in the defensive zone, which abetted Washington's only score of the period. But it was a much, much better looking squad on the ice.
Early on, John Tortorella seemed to be keeping the shifts shorter than usual, keeping the pace up and the attention focused. After Sergei Bobrovsky turned away a couple of prime chances, the offensive momentum began to build for Columbus. At the 2:43 mark, Tom Wilson took a tripping penalty, which led to a Blue Jackets power play. That, in turn, led to a Capitals breakaway opportunity shortly thereafter, which was deftly stymied by Bobrovsky. That was a key moment in the frame, as yet another short-handed goal would have been deflating to the Blue Jackets, and would have served as blood on the water for the opportunistic Capitals. Instead, the Blue Jackets grabbed the opportunity and kept some pressure on for the duration of the kill, including one near chance that required a big save from Brayden Holtby.
While the Blue Jackets did not score on the power play, their biggest loss was Boone Jenner, who was sent to the locker room with a badly bleeding mouth, after taking a deflected puck in the chops. He had 1:49 of ice time, and fingers were crossed for his ultimate return.
The middle part of the period was largely characterized with back and forth action, both teams having opportunities, but both goalies rising to the challenge. Ultimately, Washington broke through first, at the 16:30 mark of the period. After working the puck up high, John Carlson shot the puck from the left point, through two inadvertent screens provided by the Columbus defense. Bobrovsky made the save, but surrendered a rebound back to his left. Justin Williams was waiting, unmarked, to deposit the puck in the back of the net. This is an ongoing issue for Columbus -- guys away from the play getting free while everyone else is watching the puck. It needs to stop. Nate Schmidt picked up the second assist on the play.
The Blue Jackets did not hang their heads, and in fact increased the pressure. Just 90 seconds later, they would equalize the score. Rene Bourque made a nice play by knocking an exit pass out of the air, where Gregory Campbell nudged the puck forward to Cam Atkinson, who fired a one-timer past the surprised Holtby. Actually, the goal should be credited to "Cammy" Atkinson, as that was how Jeff Rimer called it on the air. Let's have a moment of silence for Rimer, who likely will be pummeled to death by Atkinson's stick as soon as he catches wind of that call. I fear a new nickname may be in the offing . . . It was a terrific response on the road, and provided some much-needed momentum.
The clubs traded opportunities for the remainder of the frame, which ended in a 1 - 1 tie. The Capitals edged the Blue Jackets in shots, 13 - 12, but had everything they could handle. Could Columbus repeat the effort in the second?
Period Two: Status Quo
After being shut-out in their last home game by the St. Louis Blues, and being handed all they could deal with by Columbus in the first, it is a safe bet that there was an "Attitude Adjustment Seminar" in the Capitals' locker room between periods. True to form, they came out clicking on all cylinders, skating hard and putting a few early shots on Bobrovsky. The heat was turned up when Cody Goloubef went off for tripping at 2:55 of the period. Despite having Alexander Ovechkin camped in his customary location near the left dot, the Blue Jackets' penalty kill was more than up to the challenge, denying passing lanes, keeping Bobrovsky's sight lines clear, and jumping on any bobbled or misplayed puck. The Capitals garnered no shots for the power play, and the Blue Jackets seemed to gain energy from that, equalizing the pressure.
Unlike the first, the second featured more calculated offensive play, and both clubs had difficulty creating even strength opportunities. The Blue Jackets' power play got another chance at the 6:38 mark, again courtesy of Tom Wilson, who went to the box for boarding Gregory Campbell. No luck in converting for Columbus, but they got a boost a few minutes later when Boone Jenner returned, sporting a full cage, 20 stitches and two displaced teeth, one of which was still the subject of a search through the ice shavings scraped and removed from the ice. Such is hockey. Not long thereafter, Brandon Dubinsky took a puck off the jaw/throat area, but did not even leave the bench. (Maybe World Cup soccer players should be forced to watch a tape of this one.)
At 12:39 the Blue Jackets' penalty kill got yet another chance to display their wares, when Jenner was whistled for slashing. No muss, no fuss, another penalty killed. The balance of the frame was relatively uneventful, with shots on goal being a meager 8 - 4 in favor of the Capitals. Thus far, the Blue Jackets had shown the ability to play whatever kind of game Washington wanted to play. In the third, it would be up to the Blue Jackets to dictate the pace and create some offense.
Period Three: Not Staying With It
Two out of three isn't bad in most things. In the NHL, it frequently isn't good enough, and such was the case on this night. The primary culprit here was the old penalty bug, which bit the Blue Jackets hard in the third. Jenner went off for holding the stick just a minute into the period. Scott Hartnell was whistled for holding at 6:29, and Brandon Dubinsky went to the box for goaltender interference at 14:18. While only Dubinsky's penalty resulted in a power play goal -- T.J. Oshie's nasty hight deflection of a Matt Niskanen point shot -- the time spent on the PK sapped the energy and flow from the offensive side of the game for the Blue Jackets. The 18 - 6 shot differential favoring Washington is really all you need to know about how the period went for Columbus.
Officially, the Capitals took the lead at the 3:46 mark, when Tom Wilson potted the rebound off of a Daniel Winnik shot from the top of the right circle. It wasn't that simple, however. Bobrovsky made the save as the puck floated through a series of bodies, but in the resulting flurry at the left post, his stick was kicked out of his hands. Meanwhile, Mike Richards nudged the puck forward from below the goal line, where Wilson, who had parted ways with Dean Kukan, skated to the far side. The stickless Bobrovsky could not track him, and the puck easily found pay dirt. 2 -1, and little did any of the Blue Jackets faithful realize, but the game was over.
Oshie's tip-in goal came just eight seconds into the Dubinsky power play to extend the lead to 3 -1, and shortly thereafter John Tortorella pulled Bobrovsky for the extra man. That resulted in a 2-on-1 breakaway, but Matt Calvert was neutralized by Matt Niskanen before he could get the cross-ice pass away. Washington took possession, and Nicklas Backstrom potted the empty netter to account for the final margin.
The first 40 minutes were precisely what the Blue Jackets needed, both to exorcise the demons from the Nashville game and to prove to themselves that they could stay with the best in the league. They played cohesively, quickly and intelligently. Sure, there were mistakes, but the overall game was a solid road effort against the best team in hockey right now. Then came the third.
Forgive a bit of a rant, but you can't have Jenner, Hartnell and Dubinsky continue to play undisciplined hockey at the worst possible times. Was the Jenner call perhaps too literal? Sure. Should Holtby maybe have gotten two for embellishment on the Dubinsky infraction? Yep. Maybe Orpik should have gone as well for parking Dubi in the net afterward. But that's not the point. As Torts has said repeatedly, you can't look to the officials for help when you're near the bottom of the league. Taking stupid penalties does not prove that you are playing harder than anybody else, nor does it show that you care more. To the contrary, it shows that you lack the discipline to play like a pro when it matters the most. Jenner I can almost give a pass to, given his evening and the consistent level of great play that he has put out there, but it's infuriating to watch, and it prevents the club from dictating the pace of play, which is precisely what they needed to do in the third.
In any event, it's on to Brooklyn on Thursday for an engagement with the Islanders. Hopefully they can build off of the first two period of this one. Stay tuned.