And the Clock Struck Midnight . . .
The clock ran out on the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, dropping a 4-3 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who move on. However, Columbus left its mark -- on the Penguins, the fan base and the NHL at large, serving notice that there's lots more to come.
The enduring image from this one is a series of tableau-like snapshots. The scoreboard, reflecting the grim truth of a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The players skating randomly, bent over in the waist in equal measures of exhaustion and profound disappointment. The crowd -- 19,189 strong -- on their feet, roaring their appreciation for a club that came stunningly close to pulling off the most incredible comeback in recent NHL history. It was simultaneously a disappointing and invigorating end to the 2013-2014 season. Disappointing in both the result and the sense that if the game had lasted just 30 or 60 seconds longer, the result might have been quite different. Invigorating in that it is clear to all who observed this series -- and particularly the ends of Game 4 and Game 6 -- that the Blue Jackets are an emerging and significant threat. More on that later.
This was two separate games -- a 50:21 contest dominated by the Penguins, 4- 0, and a 9:39 sprint the Blue Jackets commandeered, 3- 0. Then end result, of course, was the familiar 4-3 outcome that prevailed in five of the six games in this series. On to the details.
The Space Time Continuum
Coming off of a Game 5 loss that featured 50 shots on goal by the Penguins, one would have expected a more challenging defensive scheme, designed to minimize the volume of rubber directed toward the Columbus net. One would have been wrong. The Blue Jackets were in full retreat from the opening puck drop -- refusing to press at the offensive end, while collapsing dramatically at the defensive end -- leaving ample room for the Penguins to work their puck possession magic. Instead of forcing Pittsburgh to make plays, Columbus extended an engraved invitation to the Penguins to make those plays, and the black & gold were only too happy to oblige.
Coach Todd Richards made some defensive adjustments coming into this one -- some by plan, some by necessity. Nikita Nikitin was sidelined by injury, which meant that either Dalton Prout or Nick Schultz would draw in. Richards went with Schultz, apparently opting for experience and versatility. Not a bad call, in my book. Perhaps the more interesting adjustment was pairing Schultz with James Wisniewski and Ryan Murray with David Savard. Wisniewski has had a rough series, and the hope was likely that the veteran Schultz would have a calming effect on Wisniewski, while Savard had demonstrated the ability to hold his own, potentially making the pairing of the youngsters a shot in the arm to a rather lackluster offensive series from all blue-liners not named Johnson.
Unfortunately, there were no pairings available to the Blue Jackets that could make the collapsing defense work against an experienced, talented Penguins team. It was unclear whether the retreat was part of a strategic plan to prevent odd man rushes, or simply a young team being intimidated by a skilled veteran squad. Whichever was the case -- it failed spectacularly.
By definition, retreating involves moving backward, which is really the opposite of what is desirable for a hockey team, particularly a team facing playoff elimination. Nonetheless, the Penguin's first goal exemplified the problems that would plague the Blue Jackets for the bulk of the first two periods. With 11:00 minutes left in the period, Sidney Crosby took the puck from the right wing, behind the net and to the left wing boards, with Nick Schultz in pursuit, pushing Crosby in the back, but making no attempt to divest him of the puck. Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson joined the fray against the boards, while Matt Calvert carefully guarded a large patch of empty ice high in the zone. That left James Wisniewski hovering in front of the crease. Crosby shoveled the puck to Chris Kunitz at the left half wall, and as Kunitz moved toward the goal line, he sent a pass through Wisniewski's legs to Evgeni Malkin, perched at the base of the right circle. Attempting to atone for his mistake, Wisniewski succeeded only in screening Sergei Bobrovsky as Malkin ended his series-long frustration, beating Bobrovsky stick side for a 1 - 0 lead. Maybe the "first goal curse" -- prevalent in this series -- would come home to roost.
Then again, maybe not. Just four minutes later, after a questionable roughing call against Nick Foligno for engaging Jussi Jokinen in an overly aggressive manner, the Penguins struck on the power play. After Bobrovsky made a nice save on a wicked Sidney Crosby effort, the puck bounded to Derek MacKenzie, who made a solid clearing effort up the middle. Except that it went directly to the stick of Matt Niskanen, instead of clearing the zone. Niskanen worked the puck to Martin, then to Crosby, who found Malkin in a seam between Mark Letestu and MacKenzie. Malkin was on target again -- zipping a laser over the right shoulder of a heavily screened Bobrovsky. 2 - 0 Pittsburgh, and they were frankly making it look easy.
The final shot tally for the first was 16- 7 Pittsburgh, and it really was not that close. The Blue Jackets finally managed some offensive possession time toward the end of the period, notching a few shots , and eventually earning a power play of their own, when Lee Stempniak was called for hooking with just 1:32 left. That created a bit of momentum, and the hope that the extra man situation would stem the tide. The Blue Jackets came up empty in the 92 seconds remaining in the first, but still hoped that the remaining portion of the power play would give them a jump start in the second.
More of the Same
The Blue Jackets power play did provide a jump start at the beginning of the second -- for the Penguins. Just as the extra man situation was ending, the puck came to Wisniewski at the right point. He fumbled the opportunity, and while he was looking down to locate the errant puck, Brandon Sutter challenged the puck and was off to the races down the left wing. Joined by the freshly-released Stempniak in a 2-on-zero break, Sutter was able to use Stempniak to decoy Bobrovsky, while Sutter finished the play himself, with a backhand to the stick side. 3 - zip, and The Fifth Line was . . .subdued.
The Blue Jackets fared slightly better in the second stanza, actually out-shooting the Penguins, 10-7. Nonetheless, there was an almost complete absence of sustained offensive pressure, though the defensive zone coverage was more aggressive and less inviting to the Penguins offense. Their skating seemed labored and ambivalent, seemingly hesitant to risk making this one a blowout, but also wanting to somehow find some spark to fan a flame, however small.
That flame almost emerged at the 11:56 mark, when Wisniewski was subjected to a scary check into the boards at the hands (or shoulder) of Tanner Glass. Wisniewski went down hard, and did not move for a few scary moments. He ultimately went off on his own power, remained on the bench, and miraculously returned to the game. In the meantime, the crowd was howling at the fact that Glass received only a minor penalty for boarding, instead of a major and a game misconduct. To be candid, a review of the film suggests that Wisniewski was actually the aggressor on the play, looking to make a check on Glass, whose response propelled Wisniewski into the boards. A scary hit, but probably not a major, as much as I'd like it to be.
Just a few minutes later, the Penguins struck again. Fedor Tyutin took the puck at the right point, and dumped it to MacKenzie along the right wing boards. Apparently convinced that MacKenzie had the puck and would be heading deep into the zone, Tyutin took a step forward, as if to pinch. That was all it took. The puck caromed of MacKenzie to Jussi Jokinen, who immediately funneled it to the sprinting Malkin behind the stranded Tyutin. Malkin led a 2-on-1 down the left wing with James Neal filling the center, again providing a source of distraction for Bobrovski. Malkin kept it and beat Bobrovsky on the short side, completing Malkin's second playoff hat trick. At the time, it seemed like just another nail in the Blue Jackets' coffin. Little did anyone realize that it was, in fact, the most important goal of the Penguins' season.
The Blue Jackets gamely tried to work their way back into things, but were unable to capitalize on the exceedingly rare penalty to Sidney Crosby (slashing), and were forced to kill a frustration interference penalty taken by Ryan Johansen at the 18:34 mark. As the teams filed out, the fans were supportive, but understandably restrained, as the prevailing view was clearly that the final 20 would be more of a dirge than a march toward a Game 7.
Never Say Never Again
The Blue Jackets came out of the tunnel to a roaring standing ovation, and the now-standard "C-B-J" chant that reverberated through the arena. It was a heartwarming display by a fan base that aches for victory, but appreciates sincere effort and the realities of a hard series against a seasoned, talented opponent.
Whether it was the ovation from the fans, a heart-to-heart chat between periods, or just a "throw caution to the wind" attitude, the Blue Jackets came out with speed and determination for the final frame. An early power play produced some solid chances, but no results. An ensuing tripping call against Brandon Dubinsky was killed efficiently, and the balance of possession was slowly creeping to the Blue Jackets' favor.
A momentum killer appeared to come at the 8:36 mark, when Wisniewski was whistled for roughing Beau Bennett. However, as they have done so many times this year, the Blue Jackets refused to let the flame be extinguished. After Fedor Tyutin disrupted a pass to James Neal in the Columbus zone, Black Comeau gathered the puck and found Jack Johnson along the left wing boards in the neutral zone. Johnson carried it in, pulled up high, and moved the puck to Calvert along the left wall. Calvert skated the puck behind Fleury, emerging to his left. He found Fedor Tyutin at the right center of the right face-off circle, and Tyutin parked a laser over Fleury's right shoulder, for yet another shorthanded goal. 4 - 1, and the appreciative Fifth Line was once again engaged. Too little, too late, to be sure, but a bit of salve on the wound.
But the Blue Jackets were not satisfied with salve. Paul Martin took a tripping penalty against Dubinsky at the 12:45 mark, and just 1:09 later, the Blue Jackets were on the board again. Dubinsky, Atkinson and Johnson entered the zone at full speed, with Anisimov filling the voids. This was something Pittsburgh had not seen all game -- and only rarely during the series -- and it clearly had a disruptive effect. Dubinsky took the puck deep to Fleury's right, and worked it to Atkinson along the left wing wall. Atkinson shoveled the puck to Johnson, who made a nice effort at the left point to keep the puck in the zone. He nudged it over to Artem Anisimov, who fired a laser of his own from the top of the left circle. Thanks to a double screen by Dubinsky and Boone Jenner, Fleury never had a chance on the short side shot. 4- 2 with 6:06 remaining. Could it be? Nah. Still, Dan Bylsma was concerned enough to burn the Penguins' time out. Meanwhile, the crowd resumed its deafening volume levels, and NOBODY was sitting down.
More excitement was just 1:19 away. After a rare Penguins foray into the offensive zone, Wisniewski gathered the puck and fired a quick outlet pass to Jenner in the middle. Jenner entered the zone with speed (sense a pattern here?), and worked the puck toward Johansen along the left wing wall. Johansen got the puck up to Fedor Tyutin who fired a low laser toward the net. Nick Foligno happened to be on an intercepting course down the slot, and he deflected the puck past a helpless Fleury. 4 - 3, and absolute delirium reigned. Seven cannons could have gone off, and they would have been acoustically invisible. The absolutely impossible had not only become plausible, it began to assume the air of inevitability.
Alas, this Cinderella story was not to be. Bobrovsky was pulled for the extra attacker with 1:52 left in the contest, and the bulk of the remaining time was spent in the offensive zone. Some solid chances emerged, including a tantalizingly close effort that arced over the net. One final clear by the Penguins, the coach became a pumpkin, and the flame finally died.
As the Penguins and Blue Jackets exchanged the obligatory handshakes, the crowd thundered its appreciation, minus only a few turncoats who valued reduced traffic to team loyalty. If the display on television was half as impressive as it was in person, the hockey world had to be impressed.
The Final Chapter
After 88 games, and a Stanley Cup Playoff series that featured six one goal games (discounting the empty netter), this one truly encompassed a bit of everything that had preceded it. While some bandwagon fans might discount this as just another blown opportunity by the Blue Jackets, such an attitude would be manifestly short-sighted and ill-conceived. While I predicted a Columbus victory in seven games, that was more hope than prediction, and we all know that hope is not a strategy. However, the fact that such hope can credibly exist speaks volumes for how far this club and organization have come in two short years. Make no mistake about it -- a Blue Jackets victory in this series would have been an upset of the highest order. Feasible? Sure. Probable? No.
No question that the hard working ethos of Columbus is a tremendous asset, and can help atone for other sins. But hard work can only take you so far, and it cannot substitute for experience and profound talent. Pittsburgh has a surplus of both, and it was the experience edge that ultimately made the difference. The Penguins have lots of experience playing with each other, and equal or greater experience in the rarified world of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Those are things that come only with time and age. Still, the Blue Jackets gave the Penguins everything they could handle . . .and more. They held the consensus best player in the world without a goal in 20 periods of hockey. They staged the most remarkable comeback in recent playoff memory, then damn near beat that trick two games later. That's heady stuff.
Equally impressive was the response of the Columbus fan base. With fears of an enemy invasion from three hours to the east on I-70, the locals took control of Nationwide Arena, and supported the club with numbers and noise at levels that stunned even the most seasoned of hockey observers. Columbus found a prominent spot on the NHL radar screen, and that in itself will pay dividends for years down the line.
We now have plenty of time to dissect the playoffs, the season, the players and coaches, and evaluate the organizational needs going forward. We'll do all of that here at The Cannon, but not now. Sure, go ahead and be disappointed that the season is over too soon. But relish the images and memories created by some truly remarkable performances during the stretch drive and this amazing series with Pittsburgh. The Blue Jackets debut in the Eastern Conference was an unqualified success, and the seeds of some profound rivalries with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Rangers have been firmly planted. The caliber of hockey in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is truly breathtaking, and your Columbus Blue Jackets had a lot to do with that this year.
Be proud of your team. Be proud of yourselves. Be hungry for more. This is only the beginning.