The woeful Columbus Blue Jackets offense has been a much-discussed topic over the last week, with the team scoring just nine goals in the previous six games. So if I told you that the Jackets would record 55 shots on goal, you’d probably feel pretty good about it. If I said they scored just three goals off that, perhaps you’d be a little disappointed but still confident that could beat the struggling New Jersey Devils. Those same Devils should have been even worse on paper, with captain Andy Greene traded before the game to the Islanders and center Blake Coleman held out of the lineup (he was traded midgame to the Lightning).
Alas, a really strong team effort in the first and third periods was undone by a rocky second period and overtime and the Jackets fell in a shootout, earning just the one point to remain the first wild card position in the East.
FIRST PERIOD: Peeke-a-Boom!
You can partially blame commenter Flanny911 for that heading.
Before the game, I said that I wanted to see the Sonny Milano/Pierre-Luc Dubois/Emil Bemstrom line have a good game. Dubois has been in Torts’ doghouse lately (Or, whatever the negative equivalent of a doghouse is for Torts, since I’m sure he has some really nice pens for his rescue pups). I did not expect that they would make an impact on their very first shift. Dubois made a great play to keep the puck in the offensive zone. Milano carried the puck all the way to the doorstep, and a trailing Andrew Peeke pinched up to score off the rebound.
This was the rookie’s first NHL goal. That makes him the seventh Blue Jacket to record their first career goal this season. That ties the 2004 and 2008 seasons for the Jackets’ franchise record and leads the league this season, over Philadelphia’s six.
Less than four minutes, the Jackets struck again with another goal from a defender. After an icing, the offensive zone faceoff was won by Riley Nash, with Markus Nutivaara recovering. Nuti dished it to Eric Robinson along the right boards, who fired it around behind the goal. Zach Werenski was all by himself at the left circle, and he fired it from there for his 18th of the season to expand his lead among NHL blue liners.
Goal #18 for #8 pic.twitter.com/kAE81hGQYF— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) February 16, 2020
The rout was on...or so we thought.
SECOND PERIOD: What the hell just happened here
In the early minutes of the period, the Devils showed that they weren’t going anywhere. This was a really nice 200 foot play by them: Kyle Palmieri received a pass in the neutral zone, then centered it to Kevin Rooney, right past Emil Bemstrom. Rooney carried it in, trying to split Werenski and Peeke. Werenski was late getting over because he had been preparing to defend Palmieri’s zone entry before he passed instead. Peeke cheated over to challenge Rooney, which left Joey Anderson open on the right side.
It appeared the Jackets responded on the next shift, but the refs correctly ruled that Dubois had kicked the puck in.
The tying goal was the result of a complete defensive breakdown following a turnover. Peeke had the puck behind his own goal line, but lost it and also lost his feet when challenged. Boone Jenner came down below the goal line to help, but that left the “home plate” area without any white jerseys besides Scott Harrington. Nick Foligno and Nathan Gerbe were way too high to help out. Harrington - left to his own devices - challenged a Rooney shot, which left the back door open for Nicholas Merkley. This was Merkley’s first NHL goal as well. He was playing just his third NHL game, replacing the soon-to-be-traded Coleman. Merkley was acquired by New Jersey in the Taylor Hall trade.
Surely this would wake up the Jackets, right? Dear reader, it did not. Instead, another defensive breakdown with eight minutes remaining in the period gave the home team the lead.
The play started with David Savard whiffing on the puck at the blue line as he tried to intercept an errant entry pass. Vladislav Gavrikov played Jesper Bratt’s entry as well as he could, but had no help. Kevin Stenlund could not get back in time to defend the pass to Nico Hischier, who then passed to a trailing Palmieri. Stenlund and Savard flopped like a pair of fish to block the shot, but it was in vain as Palmieri’s snipe found its target.
The Jackets did get some good looks late in the period, but Mackenzie Blackwood stood strong in net. This would continue.
THIRD PERIOD: Why not build the whole game out of this period
I hope that whatever Torts said during the second intermission tore paint off the wall. Whatever happened, it worked, as the Jackets came out on fire from the opening faceoff. An early shift by the Jenner line created multiple shots on goal. The one good breakaway opportunity for the Devils was stopped by a great defensive effort from Werenski.
I have spent a lot of time over the years ripping on Scott Harrington. Usually this is justified. So it’s only fair that I give full credit where it is due when he does make a great play. In this case, he made a great effort to keep the puck in the offensive zone. This led to Gustav Nyquist passing down to Oliver BJORKSTRAND, and he centered it to Stenlund for the equalizer.
Stenlund’s fifth goal of the season is a big one! pic.twitter.com/zgCV0PoHzq— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) February 17, 2020
The Jackets kept the pressure on for the remainder of the period. The Devils had no shots on goal in the final ten minutes. The Jackets led shots on goal in the third period 21-2. Did I mention Mackenzie Blackwood was good? He had 52 saves in this game.
OVERTIME/SHOOTOUT: Well at least we got a point?
A five game losing streak sounds bad, but not quite so bad when you know that you get points in three of those games. That being said, those three overtimes have all been really, really bad. While Torts was pretty positive about the overall play in the game, he was visibly frustrated with the play in overtime. He felt the team needed to be more aggressive when they had the puck. Too often they were trapped in their own zone when they had possession. Elvis Merzlikins was huge in the extra frame, with three saves.
Dubois got the one Columbus goal in the shootout, in the second round. Unfortunately Nikita Gusev scored immediately to keep the shootout going. Bratt got the winning goal in the seventh round, with Milano unable to answer. He had a wide open look at the net, but the puck rolled off his stick. It was that kind of night. Both BJORKSTRAND and Gerbe hit iron with their shots.
Even with the absence of Seth Jones and Cam Atkinson, and two of the games being on the road, the Jackets should have earned at least four points from this 3-in-4 against non-playoff teams. Instead they settle for just two points. When all is said and done, we may look back at this week as a huge missed opportunity.
Though they did not score, the CBJ power play looked much better tonight. Torts was pleased with their pace of play. I still think the passes could be faster and crisper, but I’m pleased with the seven shots on goal they produced, and 12 shot attempts overall.
Very encouraging to see Dubois respond well to coaching. In addition to the message sent by his reduced minutes in the previous games, Torts said Dubois spent time before the game going over video with Brad Larsen.
Speaking of improving centers, how good has Kevin Stenlund been this week? He looks very comfortable out there between the skilled, experienced Nyquist and BJORKSTRAND. Stenlund doesn’t completely solve the question of center depth, but he does provide another possible answer. At least, he seems a more viable option at 2C than he did a month ago. Combined with Liam Foudy’s imminent arrival next season and it could be a very interesting position battle in camp next season, with veterans Jenner, Nash, and Alexander Wennberg in the mix as well. Perhaps Stenlund’s recent play makes one of them expendable this summer.
Up next are two critically important games against the Flyers, Tuesday in Philadelphia and Thursday back in Columbus. The Jackets are merely one point ahead of those Flyers for the first wild card