The Blue Jackets have been busy, busy people. Thursday brought physicals and testing. Friday and Saturday included the two mile run, and arduous skating drills and scrimmages. Sunday feature home-and-home games with the Blues, while Monday had them traveling to Boston to take on the Bruins. NHL Network carried the game, providing some with an opportunity for some bonus hockey.
As John Tortorella so eloquently stated on Sunday, the pre-season “doesn’t mean a thing.” That holds true whether it is a win or loss, and the fact that the Blue Jackets garnered a victory in Beantown does not change the equation. This part of the pre-season is not about setting lines or evaluating systems — it focuses mostly on looking at individual skills to see who deserves a shot at the next level. Thus, last night’s line-up was full of guys perceived to have the best chance of being on the ice Opening night. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, Sonny Milano, Daniel Zaar and Lukas Sedlak were all on the ice, as was recent draftee Vitaly Abramov. The key veterans on the trip included Alexander Wennberg, William Karlsson, Seth Jones, Cody Goloubef, Dalton Prout, Brandon Saad, Sam Gagner and Curtis McElhinney, who made his first start in net.
This was Boston’s first pre-season game, so they predictably came out hard, and dominated the first few minutes of play. Then the Blue Jackets found their legs, and the ice began to tilt a bit in the other direction. It was definitely a feeling out process for both squads, as they acquainted themselves not only with their opponent, but with their teammates as well. The initial frame ended in a scoreless tie, with the Blue Jackets holding an 8 - 6 lead in shots on goal. The Blue Jackets were physical, but appeared to focus more on getting the puck out of their zone quickly, and into the offensive zone with speed.
The second was simply a bizarre period. The Blue Jackets were outshot 15 - 5 for the period, yet outscored Boston 2- 1. The action came quickly, as Brandon Carlo was whistled for interference against Brandon Saad just 1:01 into the period. After Boston cleared the puck a couple of times, Seth Jones led the club through the neutral zone, fed Alexander Wennberg to his left, who in turn moved the puck to Sonny Milano along the left wing boards. Milano accelerated toward the goal line, and fired a rocket from a seemingly impossible angle. The puck found the tiniest of gaps between Anton Khudobin’s right skate and the post, trickling across the line before striking Khudobin’s skate, and being covered by his left pad — which also appeared to be across the goal line. Milano raised his hands in celebration as he skated behind the net, but the referee had not indicated a goal. It took a scrum of officials to determine it was a good goal, and as Boston was not a designated venue for replay in pre-season, the call stood. Milano continued his strong pre-season play, again demonstrating that good things happen when you put the puck on net. Wennberg and Jones earned the assists.
Boston evened the score just 1:22 later when the Blue Jackets got caught in a partial change. That gave the Bruins the advantage in numbers, which was exacerbated by McElhinney coming too far out of his net, creating an easy tip-in for Jimmy Hayes. McElhinney almost got burned a few times by coming out too far, but appeared to narrow the gap as the game wore on. Jake DeBrusk and Austin Czarnik had the Boston assists.
Not to be outdone, the Blue Jackets responded just four minutes later. Sam Gagner took the puck deep into the right corner below the line, and when two Boston defenders followed him, he zipped a pass to the tape of Daniel Zaar, who lasered a one-timer into the back of the net. It was a pretty play at both ends, and the Gagner acquisition is looking like a stroke of genius at this point.
That ended the scoring in the second, but not the bizarre events. The Blue Jackets took three consecutive penalties between the 16:20 mark an the 18:55 mark, putting them on the PK for an extended period, including two extended stretches of 5-on-3 play. The PK was solid, and McElhinney responded to the challenge. They ended up killing all of the penalties, which extended 55 seconds into the third.
Just seconds after the last power play expired, Danton Heinen drew the Bruins even with a beautiful deflection of a Brandon Carlo shot from the point. Heinen drifted across the crease, and made a perfect tip. McElhinney never had a chance. Tie game, with Seth Griffith getting the other assist.
Off to OT we went, with the clubs trading opportunities — and finding a way to squander them. Alexander Wennberg had a wide open net on a 2-on-1 break . . .and passed the puck instead of shooting. You could hear Tortorella groan. Off to the shootout.
Boston led off, and the first two shooters (Riley Nash & Jake DeBrusk) cleanly beat McElhinney. Fortunately, Darryl McPipe was wearing CBJ colors this night, as both efforts clanged harmlessly off the right post. Meanwhile, Zane McIntyre snuffed out the Blue Jackets’ first two shooters — Alexander Wennberg and Oliver Bjorkstrand — with Wennberg likely being sent first in penance for his failure to shoot in OT. After McElhinney made the save against Peter Mueller, the stage was left to Sam Gagner. Gagner did not disappoint -- throwing a forehand-backhand-forehand move on McIntyre that had the goalie stumped and frozen. Easy as pie, and the Blue Jackets had their initial victory of the season.
Again, the temptation to draw too many conclusions from pre-season efforts has to be resisted. However, the efforts by Gagner, Milano and Zaar in particular were worthy of note. Gagner was obviously not kidding when he indicated he had been working hard all summer — it clearly shows in both his skating and puck handling. Milano has also been a consistent contributor thus far, both with his skates and his stick. He is making it hard for management not to find a spot for him. Zaar is probably the biggest surprise, in terms of being able to extend his AHL scoring touch at the NHL level. We’ll see if it lasts, but on an objective basis, if the final cuts were made today, he would be on the team.
Defensively, McElhinney was very good, making a few tremendous saves down the stretch and in OT. He had his share of good fortune in the shootout round, and was also fortunate that his wandering from the net did not come back to bite him. Still, a good effort, particularly for his first outing. Cody Goloubef looked sound, and Oleg Yevenko had his moments as well.
On the down side, Dalton Prout looked slow and out of place during several shifts, and was clearly outplayed by the likes of Yevenko and Harrington. Josh Anderson was absolutely invisible, registering a minus-2 with just over eleven minutes of ice time, better only than Mike Brown.
From a team perspective, the Blue Jackets narrowly one the face-off battle, but trailed badly in shots 34 - 24. This was partially due to the extended penalty kill time at the end of the second and beginning of the third, but they were still overly reticent to shoot (see Wennberg, Alex). Sonny Milano showed that good things can happen when you shoot, and you are guaranteed not to score if you don’t. Penalties were also a problem.
Overall, a good win, with many of the youngsters posting efforts they can build on. Next up is Nashville at home on Thursday. Stay tuned.