The Columbus Blue Jackets started well in the first two games of the series, but needed to get better results in front of their home fans. Boy, they got it:
The forward lines were reshuffled due to the suspension of Matt Calvert. Torts started with a Nick Foligno/Brandon Dubinsky/Cam Atkinson combo. Just 11 seconds into the game, they struck first with Cam reaching to his right to redirect a deflected Brandon Dubinsky shot.
The celebration was short-lived as just three minutes later the game was tied up. Jake Guentzel fired a tight angle shot and it happened to bounce past Sergei Bobrovsky. Bob made a few nice saves tonight, but so many of the goals allowed in this series are on the types of shots we’re used to him blocking.
Fortunately the offense came to play, and was not content to settle for another one goal game. This second goal was all Cam, as he forced a turnover in the offensive zone and scored the kind of goal he scored so often in the regular season:
In general, I thought the Jackets had very active sticks tonight and were very successful in creating turnovers. Not enough to win, obviously, but enough to stay in the game.
Shortly after Cam’s second goal, the Jackets found themselves on the power play. At first, it seemed to be another frustrating one. Pittsburgh won the faceoff and cleared the puck. Then when the Jackets got the puck back into the zone, they struggled to regain possession and get settled into their positions. When they finally did, however, it looked like the PP of old. Zach Werenski fired from the point and the shot was so hard the puck got caught in the top of the net.
The official initially waved it off because he could not see the puck, but once it dropped the ruling on the ice was changed to a goal, and review confirmed it. The Jackets had scored more in this period than in the first two games combined.
They led 3-1...Uh oh.
Five minutes into the second period, Bryan Rust scored to cut the deficit in half. Earlier in the possession it appeared that Phil Kessel took down Seth Jones behind the net, but it went uncalled.
SIDEBAR: Many of you in the gamethread were complaining about the refs. I also get frustrated with shoddy officiating, but I don’t think they were a problem tonight. They were a little inconsistent, but there’s no bias there. They didn’t want Columbus to lose; they didn’t want Pittsburgh to win. This season, Columbus had the fewest penalties drawn of any NHL team in over 30 years. I’m more inclined to believe it’s a function of their style of play rather any any leaguewide grudge against the franchise. Hopefully as these young players gain experience they do better at playing in a way which draws the refs’ attentions when they’re fouled. They drew more penalties when they were playing much faster as a team. About halfway through the season the pace of play appeared to decline significantly.
Bottom line: the refs didn’t help tonight, but they’re also not the reason the Jackets lost.
Back to the game: Later in the second, Zach Werenski blocked a shot with his face. The puck hit right below the visor and left a gushing wound on his right cheek. He was slow to get off the ice and was in obvious distress as he slowly skated off. As his linemates were left shorthanded, they were unable to gain possession of the puck and therefore the refs could stop play. Presumably, Werenski’s ability to get up and skate off indicated he was not in sufficient danger or injury to warrant an immediate suspension of play.
In the confusion, there were a flurry of shots on goal and it was Rust again who scored. After all that, the game was tied.
In the third, play was more even to start. Halfway through, there was a pileup in front of the net, and Dubi got called for cross-checking. In the ensuing power play, who else but Guentzel scored again, to give Pittsburgh their first lead of the game.
At that point, I thought it was over. I didn’t see much urgency from the Jackets. It looked like the third period of the first two games, where there chances but nothing that made you think the tying goal was coming.
My father is not a hockey fan, and rarely watches the game. He is doing the snow bird thing in Florida and I had no reason to think he was following this series. He texted me out of the blue during the third period:
So why do we let penguin stand in front of our goal?
They are dominating us physically.
Can’t say that I disagreed at that point.
I’m happy to say I was wrong. There was some confusion as the puck appeared to deflect off of the open door on the Columbus bench during a line change. Columbus took possession and the puck found itself deep in the zone on the stick of Oliver BJORKSTRAND. After some nifty moves to buy time and create space, he passed to Dubinsky in the slot. As in Game 4 of the 2014 series, it was Dubi with the tying goal to send it to overtime.
Overtime was they typical insanity that we all love about playoff overtime hockey. Both goalies stood tall against a barrage of shots (7 for each team). The Blue Jackets were down to 5 defensemen, as Werenski (who returned in the third period with a full shield on his helmet) was unavailable, due to the swelling in his right eye making it impossible to see:
Ouch. Hockey players are crazy.
Anyway, fatigue appeared to set in for the Jackets defense. David Savard and Jack Johnson played over 30 minutes a piece. Among the forward corps, Torts rode the Fligs/Dubi/Cam and Boone/Lars/Andy lines almost exclusively in the extra frame. With the JJ/Savard pair and Dubi line on the ice, who else but Guentzel scored the game winner of a pass from - who else? - Sidney Crosby. That line has OWNED the Jackets all series. That was Guentzel’s first career hat trick, and it came in a critical playoff game.
- Seeds will have a post later today about Torts’ lineup decisions. It will be a struggle for any of us to figure out why he did what he did. The decision to play Scott Harrington and Gabriel Carlsson has been beaten to death already. (Harrington was on the ice for an unsuccessful PK again, but had a better game overall, I think. Carlsson was not on ice for a goal against, finally, but still looked like a rookie with a week of experience.) What needs to be discussed now is the limited use of the bottom 6 forwards. Sonny Milano has obvious skill...why not play him more on the power play? Or in OT when you need to score? Scott Hartnell was acquired for his playoff experience...why hasn’t he been given more minutes?
All season, Torts has given late game minutes to whatever forwards are the hot hands. Sometimes this means limiting which lines he uses. Other times it involves line shuffling. There is logic to this: when you want to score, go with the guys who are scoring. Don’t rely on someone snapping out of a cold streak when you are desperate. But the downside to this approach is that it takes away a Columbus advantage. The strength of this team when they played well is that they had scoring depth. All four lines could cause damage. That balance also allowed each line to get equal time, which kept them fresher for late game scenarios. Just like the scenario we found ourselves in last night, yet Torts insisted on keeping half the team nailed to the bench.
Torts still deserves a portion of the credit for this franchise’s turnaround, but he is being thoroughly outcoached by his protege and friend Mike Sullivan in this series.
- Compared to the previous two games, the Blue Jackets earned more quality shots tonight. Go figure, that more quality shots lead to more goals! The problem is they still allowed too many chances to Pittsburgh.
- Finally, let us not lose site of the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins are a very good hockey team. They are the defending Stanley Cup Champions. They had the second best record in the league this season. If you make mistakes against a great team like this, they will make you pay. That is what has happened in this series. Pittsburgh’s star power and their playoff experience have been the difference. The Jackets were underdogs on paper, and that is how it has played out. My only hope is that this experience benefits this young roster next year. Most great teams have playoff disappointment before breaking through.
- Columbus faces elimination on Tuesday night in Game 4. Let’s hope for the fans’ sake that they can avoid the sweep and get at least one home win.