The Blue Jackets have been caught in an awkward sort of nether world during the recent losing streak. They have played, for the most part, some technically sound hockey, but have just been unable to crest the hill that divides defeat from victory. Such is life in the NHL in late March and early April, particularly when facing teams who are either battling for a playoff spot or are ramping up for the post-season. You can play with all of the character in the world, but the playoff gear is tough to overcome. The Carolina Hurricanes are teetering on the precipice of playoff relevance. Could Columbus push them off the ledge? Let's see.
Period One: Same Song, Different Day
Entering this game, everyone talked about the need for the Blue Jackets to come out hard, fast and strong. Bill Davidge talked about it. Jeff Rimer talked about it. The players talked about it. So, what happened? Thud. After with seven minutes gone, shots were 6 - 1 Carolina, and the ice was tilted sharply in their direction. The Blue Jackets' game consisted of of entering the offensive zone, rimming working the puck around the boards for 5 -10 seconds, then surrendering possession. There was a scant forecheck, and the defensive zone saw the Blue Jacket be accommodating guests -- providing plenty of room for their hosts, and standing with backs to center ice, watching the puck. It was the stuff from which nightmares are made for coaches.
Inevitably, the Hurricanes broke through at the 8:53 mark, on a seemingly innocent play. The puck was nudged in the general direction of Jeff Skinner high in the Canes' offensive zone. Cody Goloubef stepped up to challenge the play, making a stab at a poke check. Unfortunately, he missed, and Skinner stepped around Goloubef, and had a clear path to the net. His uncontested wrister cleanly beat Joonas Korpisalo, and the home team had a 1 - 0 lead, with assists going to Victor Rask and Jaccob Slavin. It came on Carolina's 9th shot of the game, contrasted with two for Columbus. While Goloubef -- whose faux pas was his last ice time of the evening -- was the immediate goat, it was the predictable result of too much standing, too much looking and no offensive pressure.
At the 10:35 mark of the first, the unthinkable happened. Alexander Wennberg was called for a penalty. Babies cried and the rafters shook just a bit . . . It was actually a rather fussy, marginal holding call, but a call it was, ending his perfect season at game 78. The penalty kill was stout however, as Carolina did not manage a shot on goal with the extra man. Two minutes later, the Blue Jackets got the equalizer.
At 14:17, the Hurricanes were looking to establish possession high in the offensive zone. Dean Kukan (who would end up a gaudy +4 on the evening) was pressuring along the boards, so Jay McClement elected to funnel a half-hearted pass toward the center of the ice, away from trouble. Unfortunately for McClement, trouble was waiting in the guise of Brandon Saad, who intercepted the puck at the blue line and was off to the races. He parked a perfect wrister in the high glove-side corner. Eddie Lack had no chance, and the game was tied, thanks to a great individual effort.
At the team level, the play remained lackluster. Dalton Prout took another of his obligatory cross-checking penalties at the 15:37 mark, while Elias Lindholm was whistled for tripping at 18:55. Both extra man situations were neutralized, and the teams went off in a 1 - 1 tie, which was absolutely the best result Columbus could have hoped for, given the caliber of their play. Shots were 16 - 6 in favor of the Hurricanes for the period, and two of the Columbus shots came in the last 20 seconds of the period. The second had to be better, didn't it.
Period Two: Same Day, Different Song
The simplest way to wrap your head around this one is to simply forget that the first period ever happened. How else can you account for the fact that the same group of guys turned around and outshot the home team 13 - 2 in the second, scoring three goals, while allowing none?
The Blue Jackets turned to their pool of young skill to make the difference, and what a difference it was. Columbus skated, skated and skated some more. They played as a unit in all three zones, and were acutely aware of the situation on the ice. They exerted pressure through speed and skill, and it was fun to watch.
The party kicked off at the 6:36 mark, with as pretty a play as you are likely to see. Alexander Wennberg carried the puck at full speed into the neutral zone, then fed Sonny Milano, more than keeping pace on his right wing. Wennberg kept driving the middle, while Milano protected the puck and circled behind the net, without breaking stride. This time it was the Hurricanes who were caught mesmerized by the puck. Milano emerged to Lack's right, and backhanded a beautiful pass to Saad, who had maneuvered his way into the middle, behind the spectating Hurricanes. The puck was on the blade only a fraction of a second before it found the back of the net. As Milano approached Saad to congratulate him, lip-readers could see Saad smile and say "What a pass!" Indeed it was. Saad with his second of the night, from Milano and Wennberg. Get used to that combination.
The entire period was consumed with the Blue Jackets carrying the play and tipping the ice sharply in their favor. Every line contributed to the pressure, and there was nary a threatening moment in the Blue Jackets end. Korpisalo deflected the only two shots directed his way, and otherwise sat back and watched the fun in front of him. A high-sticking penalty by Ryan Murphy at 9:36 bore no fruit, but coincidental roughing minors to Prout and Nathan Gerbe at 17:36 set the stage for a wild final 144 seconds.
At 18:43, Saad struck again. Entering the offensive zone, David Savard arced the puck high down the right wing boards. Wennberg retrieved, and carried it below the line to Lack's left. Saad was driving hard down the middle, and Wennberg zipped a perfect pass, which found Saad's blade in the blue ice. Lack was DOA, and in one stroke, the Blue Jackets had a two-goal lead, Brandon Saad had his first hat trick -- a natural one to boot -- and Blue Jackets fans had a glimpse of some high-skill hockey, courtesy of a group led by the "elder" Saad . . . who is 23.
The Blue Jackets were not done. With Carolina becoming clearly frustrated at the imminent disappearance of their playoff hopes, Victor Rask took a slashing penalty at 19:18. Just 33 seconds later, Slavin put the puck over the glass, earning a delay of game penalty, and providing the Blue Jackets with a two-man advantage with just nine seconds left in the period. Columbus would only need 8.95 of those seconds.
Gaining possession off the face-off, Seth Jones walked the puck in from the left side, and put a solid shot on Lack, who made the save. The rebound went to Cam Atkinson, who quickly found Jenner, parked at the top of the crease. Jenner needed only to deflect the puck into the wide-open net as the period expired. Replay showed the puck crossing the line. with 0.1 left, and the Blue Jackets took a 4 -1 lead into the locker room. It was as dominating an appearance as you have seen all year. Atkinson and Jones earned the assists on the play. It was Jenner's 30th goal of the campaign, and few could think of a more deserving guy to reach that benchmark.
Period Three: Mopping Up
The third period was a mere formality, but it was rendered a formality by the way the Jackets played. They were structured, disciplined and took no unwarranted chances, while continuing to exert offensive pressure. There were no penalties in the period, shots were fairly even -- Carolina held a 9 - 8 edge for the period -- but the Blue Jackets structure, and solid play from Joonas Korpisalo, negated every threat.
The lone marker of the period came at 9:21, courtesy of yet another youngster, Oliver Bjorkstrand. The line of Matt Calvert, William Karlsson and Bjorkstrand did a good job of establishing possession in the offensive zone. Calvert took the puck deep behind Lack, then turned around and skated it out to Lack's left. As he crossed the goal line, he fed Bjorkstrand, coming toward the net on the right. Bjorkstrand let the puck go without hesitation, and found a hole at the near post, while Karlsson was harassing Lack from in front. It was Bjorkstrand's third NHL goal, with Calvert and David Savard earning helpers. That made it 5 -1, and the last half of the period simply cemented the deal, and put the final stake through the heart of Carolina's faint playoff hopes
Wrapping it Up:
The tendency with this kind of game is to either overstate its significance or dismiss it entirely as two teams playing out the string. A middle approach is probably more prudent. While the Carolina squad in the third was clearly a disinterested and defeated team, that was not true in the first, as they were fighting for their playoff lives. They dominated the initial frame, and were a bit unlucky to only come out with a tie. However, the Blue Jackets simply took the second period from the Hurricanes, playing only for pride. That says something, and is a positive sign, particularly given that it was the youngsters leading the way.
Clearly, this was one of those nights where all of the skill plays worked. Passes found sticks, sticks found pucks, pucks found nets. There are plenty of nights where those plays don't work, and we have seen many of them this season. However, what this one demonstrated is that there are some fast, skilled youngsters on the squad who can make those kinds of plays. Columbus has been victimized by speed often enough, and tonight they used it as their own weapon. You can't teach speed, and some of the displays by the likes of Saad, Milano and Bjorkstrand were eye openers. Combined with the rapid maturation of Wennberg's game, and the quiet effectiveness of Karlsson, quite a young core is developing.
Whether or not the skill plays work on a given night, the fact is that those plays -- or even the threat of those plays -- change the way opponents approach your club. We've seen how cautious and collapsing the Blue Jackets can get when faced with a team they perceive as unduly quick. Same thing here, but in reverse. If you have the speed and skill to make those plays, other clubs have to respect that capability. That tends to create more time and space at the perimeter, which allows for other plays to be made, and maximizes the time spent in the offensive zone. Those are all really good things.
With Jenner reaching the 30 goal mark, and Atkinson earning his 50th point, some other milestones are within reach as the club enters the final four games. Saad, Jenner, Dubinsky and Hartnell all could reach 50 points, with Saad and Jenner the most likely. Hartnell is still looking for his 300th goal. Atkinson (27) and Saad (28) will also be looking to cross that 30 goal line.
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the continued solid play by Korpisalo, and the surprisingly good play of Dean Kukan. With Goloubef deep in John Tortorella's dog house, Kukan pulled over 21 minutes of ice time, without any power play time. That's more than Dalton Prout, and on par with David Savard. He does not look intimidated by the challenge, and is making some good plays. Another name entered in the Blue Line Sweepstakes.
Regardless of the long term significance, it was a lot of fun to watch for this one night. Enjoy it. The Rangers invade Nationwide on Monday. Stay tuned