It what some were referring to as "Tank Fest", the Blue Jackets faced off against the Maple Leafs on Wednesday evening, playing consciously for pride, and maybe sub-consciously for draft position. Justin Falk and Josh Anderson were the latest call-ups, enabling John Tortorella to get a look at prospects and "fringe" players before the season ends, while enabling Lake Erie to remain competitive as they head into the playoffs. (Milano was returned after playing well in his outings.) And no, the rumors that Columbus intended to leave David Clarkson behind in Toronto are totally baseless.
Let's see what happened.
Period One: Seriously?
I'd like to think that Mike Babcock and John Tortorella sauntered over to one of the taverns near the Air Canada Centre before the game, traded war stories over what has been a head-shaking season for each of them, and then proceeded to down a few shots. Those would likely have been both greater in number and more potent than the shots seen on the ice in the first period. The best performance of the frame may have been Craig Hartsburg keeping a straight face while telling Dave Maetzold that "we are not dictating the pace of play." No kidding . . .
In all seriousness, there was little to see here. There was fairly continuous skating, but little in the way of truly dangerous chances for either side. Of those that did exist, most were directed Sergei Bobrovsky's way, and he came up with a very solid effort in the opening stanza. He looked much more confident in the crease, and had much better rebound control than in recent efforts. Good to see.
Other than that, the "flow", such as it was, was interrupted by only one penalty, a holding call against Ryan Murray, which was summarily dispatched by the penalty kill unit. The Blue Jackets were soft on the puck in the neutral zone, turning the puck over with alarming consistency. Usual suspects involved there. Boone Jenner and Oliver Bjorkstrand were notable for their hard skating throughout the frame.
Nothing else to report. The second has to be better, right? By the way, shots were 9 - 6 in favor of the home team.
Period Two: Better
Both clubs appear to have cleared the cobwebs at the intermission, as the pace of play quickened noticeably from the drop of the puck. Good fortune smiled on Columbus just 44 seconds in, as Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau (bet you always wondered what that "P.A." stood for, eh?) zipped the puck over the glass from his own zone for a delay of game call. However, halfway through the power play, fortune took a nasty turn. Toronto gained control of the puck deep in their own zone, and instead of simply clearing the puck, they brought it up the ice with pace, carried by Brooks Laich accompanied by Morgan Reilly and Frederik Gauthier. While David Savard and Alexander Wennberg were in good position, Scott Hartnell was tardy coming back (and may have been planning to change). That allowed just enough time and space for Gauthier to drop a pass to Reilly, who took advantage of a partial screen by Wennberg, Savard and Laich to park a perfect shot into the far corner. Bob never saw it, and the Maple Leafs had a 1 - 0 lead on the shortie -- an alarmingly frequent occurrence this season, as Columbus has surrendered eight shorthanded goals.
Notwithstanding the faux pas with the extra man, the Blue Jackets started to claim more of the ice as their own, and proved effective in denying time and space in the neutral zone. At the 11:13 mark, it paid off. Wennberg denied the entry into the Blue Jackets' zone, and Oliver Bjorkstrand took the puck away. He nudged the puck forward to a streaking Brandon Saad, who outraced the defenders, and parked the puck squarely through the five-hole of young Garret Sparks. Bjorkstrand earned the lone assist, and the game was squared up.
Columbus clearly took the equalizer as an incentive booster. Slowed down only briefly by a Boone Jenner tripping penalty at 13:46, the Blue Jackets put pucks at the net, skated hard, and kept their heads up. It paid dividends at the 17:31 mark, and again neutral zone play was the key. Matt Calvert denied the Toronto exit near the blue line, and backhanded the puck from the boards to Cam Atkinson in the middle, who in turn deflected the puck into open ice in the zone to his right. Brandon Dubinsky, who just came on the ice, was presented with a pristine puck and nary a defender as he moved in and beat Sparks high. Atkinson and Calvert had the helpers, and the Blue Jackets carried a 2 - 1 lead into the locker room. Shots were 12 - 8 for Columbus, and there was a confident air to the Blue Jackets' game. However, given the Jekyll/Hyde nature of the first two frames, what would the third hold?
Period Three: Floodgates
The Blue Jackets came our for the third ready for anything. They generated a few point-blank chances early on, and Sparks did a great job to keep the wolves at bay, as his defenders had apparently checked out for the evening. The forwards had not, however, and they mounted a credible counterattack, requiring some nifty saves from Sergei Bobrovsky.
At 5:13, Sam Carrick was called for tripping on a Columbus odd-man rush, and the Blue Jackets resisted the temptation to decline the penalty. The power play saw a couple of chances -- for Columbus -- and resulted in no goals for either side. A partial victory under the circumstances. However, the even strength floodgates were about to open.
At 8:43, Wennberg won an offensive face-off to Saad, who tipped the puck back to Bjorkstrand at the top of the circle. Bjorkstrand immediately let loose with the shot -- while backing up -- and beat Sparks through the five hole. Sparks did not see the puck until it was too late -- the death error for any young goalie. We've seen a few similar tallies against Joonas Korpisalo this season. They youngsters have to learn that this is the NHL, and a goalie can't afford the idle thought about the girlfriend when the puck is anywhere near the zone. The puck can and will come from anywhere, and this one was a perfect example. It was Bjorkstrand's fourth goal in a limited schedule, and validates his credentials to become a permanent fixture next year.
Less than a minute later, Columbus scored again. Matt Calvert hustled after a loose puck in the middle of the ice in the offensive zone, looped to the left circle, and fired a shot on goal. The rebound caromed to Cam Atkinson, who fed the puck back out in front to Calvert, who had just kept his trajectory toward the net. Calvert backhanded the puck past the overmatched Sparks, and the rout was on.
It took just over three minutes for the final tally of the evening. Calvert took a stretch pass down the right wing, then angled toward the net, posting up with the puck at the top of the blue paint, in the middle of four Toronto defenders who seemed surprised to see him. With inexplicable time to select his options,Calvert found Brandon Dubinsky sneaking in from Sparks' right, and Dubinsky did not miss. Assists to Calvert and Ryan Murray, and the 5 -1 final was secured.
If you had asked me in the first period, I would have predicted a scoreless tie heading into the shootout. Full marks for turning it around and getting the legs moving. Of course, the Toronto defense were on their phones booking tee times, but you can only control your effort, and that was good to see. A few noteworthy observations:
- Congratulations to Sergei Bobrovsky on becoming the all-time leader in goaltending wins for the franchise -- earning his 97th victory tonight. Fittingly, it was a very solid effort on his party, with much better presence and command. It's been a rough year for Bob, and getting a couple of strong efforts under his belt before the off-season would be huge.
- Brandon Saad is finishing with a flourish, showing that his drought was more a matter of being snake-bitten than anything else. One more goal gets him to the 30 mark, which would be the first time Columbus has had two thirty goal scorers in the same season.
- I'm not a fan of the plus/minus statistic, particularly for defensemen, but Dean Kukan was +4 tonight -- the second time he's done that since joining the mother ship. I can't confirm, but it may be a first for a rookie defenseman.
- The Dubinsky, Atkinson, Calvert combination was a force to be reckoned with tonight. (I hesitate to use the word "line", because the combinations shifted early and often). They have historically been good, and this was just another example.
- Oliver Bjorkstrand continues to impress -- a goal and an assist tonight, plus some very smart plays in all zones.
- William Karlsson was 69% in the face-off circle in his 100th NHL game. He has been a real diamond in the rough find for Columbus, and has frequently struggled in the circle. Another off-season of working on his game, and a training camp where he puts the puck on net more frequently, and Karlsson could be poised for a breakout season.
- Scott Hartnell seems intent on finishing with a whimper instead of a flourish. He was a big factor in the Leafs' only goal, and was otherwise invisible, with two giveaways. Obviously peeved by his healthy scratch, he has not reacted the way you would want one of your veteran leaders to handle the situation. More on this later.