The Columbus Blue Jackets lost to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night by a score of 5-2. It’s hard to sugarcoat a three goal loss, though I do want to lead out by pointing out something that went well: the Jackets had a season-high 47 shots on goal, and per Natural Stat trick, they led the expected goal battle 3.48-2.82. So what went wrong? Two former Blue Jackets made the difference.
Sergei Bobrovsky was celebrated before the game for reaching the 500 game milestone last season. It’s appropriate the celebration came against the franchise whose uniform he wore for 374 of those games. There was a video featuring tributes from family, fellow Russians, and former coaches and teammates including Nick Foligno, Joonas Korpisalo, Vladislav Gavrikov, Artemi Panarin, ex-goaltender coach Ian Clark.
Proud to celebrate you tonight, Bob!— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) April 3, 2021
Here's a few people who love you ❤️ pic.twitter.com/TWI6PFpDJ5
During warmups, the Panthers wore special jerseys featuring the number 500 and name plates written in Cyrillic characters. This was pretty cool to see.
Tonight’s warmup threads— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) April 3, 2021
Every player’s nameplate will reflect their last name written using the Cyrillic alphabet! pic.twitter.com/vksWAfxPHx
Also, the Florida road whites are so much nicer looking than their dark blue Reverse Retro uniforms that they wore during the game. Blegh.
Bob was in vintage form, stopping 45 of the 47 Columbus shots, while facing 14 high danger shot attempts against.
I would call Alex Wennberg an unlikely hero, except I highlighted him in the preview as the player to watch. He had already scored more goals this season than in the last two seasons combined. He added to that total with a hat trick in this game. The first one came less than a minute after MacKenzie Weegar opened the scoring in the second period. Frank Vatrano pounced on a sloppy pass between Dean Kukan and Boone Jenner, which Patric Hornqvist recovered and passed up ice to Vatrano in the neutral zone. Vatrano passed across the Royal Road to Wennberg, who one-timed it top shelf. It was initially waved off by the official despite the goal horn sounding, but video review confirmed it as a good goal.
Four minutes after that, Wennberg scored on a long range shot. This is one that the Savard/Gavrikov pairing should have blocked, or Elvis should have saved.
Weegs to Wenny for a Wonderful one pic.twitter.com/l8zhg654jJ— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) April 4, 2021
After a strong first period that carried over the effort we saw in Tampa, the game got away from the Blue Jackets with those three goals in less than five minutes. Elvis Merzlikins made 22 saves on 25 shots faced and was replaced by Joonas Korpisalo to start the third period.
Before we move on, I wish people would stop freaking out about the Wennbergssaince this season. As I pointed out in the preview, he is not shooting significantly more than he did before. Instead he’s just making a lot more of his shots than he ever did in Columbus, and that’s restoring his confidence. His individual expected goals per 60 each full season under John Tortorella: 0.34, 0.33, 0.32, 0.32. His ixG/60 this season: 0.32. He’s the same player he always was, which is better than he generally got credit for while he was here, and not as good as people think right now. It’s quite possible that Joel Quenneville has unlocked some secret to restoring Wennberg’s comfort and confidence that Torts couldn’t figure out, but I don’t think Torts is to blame for the finishing struggles Wennberg had here. Those are on Wennberg himself, or on the lingering effects of the concussion suffered at the hands of Tom Wilson in 2018.
Oh right, I almost forgot to mention that he added an empty net goal in the waning seconds to complete his first career hat trick:
First career hatty for Wenny!! pic.twitter.com/gGGvFGcisW— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) April 4, 2021
The play you can’t let happen
After the Jackets got one goal back in the third period (more on that in a bit), Florida got an insurance goal on a great play by them and a horrible play by the Jackets. It featured lazy passing and skating from the Jackets at a point in the game where there is no excuse for that. Owen Tippett picked Max Domi’s pocket during an offensive zone possession, and raced down the length of the ice. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski trailed but not fast enough to catch up. Meanwhile, Vatrano trailed the play as well and went unnoticed by both defenders, and scored off the rebound, unmarked and untouched.
Oh a big Frank Vatrano goal in the third period? Who knew! pic.twitter.com/GI2r4NcvzB— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) April 4, 2021
Werenski at least managed to make up for it with a goal near the end of the game:
Nice pass by Riley Nash.
11 + 7 = Confusion
The first bit of confusion is my own, as I just can’t figure out what the advantage is to playing 11 forwards and seven defensemen. It seems to me you’re better off sticking with a set rotation of consistent lines and pairs. In this specific case, it’s even more confusing that you would put the mediocre Michael Del Zotto back in the lineup when he was not missed in the last two games, and that you would leave Kevin Stenlund as a healthy scratch. The other player scratched was Jack Roslovic, but that makes sense. Torts has had issues with his play for a few weeks now, and his line was invisible on Thursday. But if you’re going to scratch a center, why not put another center (Stenlund) in his place?
The other bit of confusion is among the players. This team already has an issue due to constantly shuffling lineups and lines, from game to game and shift to shift. For the last two games, they got better play from all players and the lines were starting to settle. Playing with 11 forwards practically guarantees that there will be more shuffling. To what end?
Silver Lining: The Line of the Future
In that shuffling, however, Torts may have accidentally found a line that works really well. The first Columbus goal came from the combination of Oliver BJORKSTRAND, Alexandre Texier, and Liam Foudy. BJORKSTRAND is signed long term, while Texier and Foudy also have years of team control ahead of them. Both Texier and Foudy can play center (maybe). Let’s go ahead and let this one ride for a few more games, at least.
Bjorky on the doorstep— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) April 4, 2021
The play started with Foudy making a great play to keep the puck in the offensive zone. After that, he went right to the net as the puck cycled around. Michael Del Zotto fired a good shot at the net, where BJORKSTRAND was waiting on the doorstep to score off the rebound after Bob’s kick save. Foudy was also right there creating traffic.
This play will probably be enough to keep Del Zotto in the lineup. Dean Kukan was benched for the last half of the game, so I assume he’ll be scratched on Sunday.
These teams are back at it on Sunday at 5 p.m.