Blue Jackets Tame Wild . . . and Weather
While a snow storm curbed the numbers -- but not the enthusiasm -- of the Columbus fans, the on-again, off-again Blue Jackets ignored their Mr. Hyde personality and put together a dominating victory over the Minnesota Wild.
As this game was preparing to unwind, fans from Minnesota (and other more northern climes) had to be chuckling at the images and descriptions on their televisions. A snowstorm that deposited several inches of snow in central Ohio hindered the attendance at Nationwide Arena. Schools were closed, traffic was at a crawl, the usual drill. Meanwhile, back in St. Paul, it was minus-4, with considerably more snow, schools were in session and life proceeded as normal. At the 30 degree temperatures prevailing in Columbus at game time, Minnesotans contemplate donning shorts.
Such is the difference between regions, but this was the last opportunity Wild fans had to smile, as the Blue Jackets came out of the gate hard, and kept the pedal to the metal for sixty minutes in notching a dominating 4 - 0 victory. For those who have been following the articles and discussions here, it was an embodiment of the fast, free and hard style of play that we have been advocating, but have seen only sporadically. There were no passengers on this night, from the blue paint to the opposing crease.
Solid Start Unrewarded
Skeptics will note that the Wild were at a disadvantage in this one, having played a tough affair on the preceding evening against the Chicago Blackhawks, but such is life in the NHL. In case you haven't been following the West this year, Minnesota was 17-8-5 coming into this contest, with 39 points. That's only good for 3rd in the Central, but would be tied for 2nd in the entire Eastern Conference. This is a solid club, playing well, and the trick is to jump on clubs when you have the chance. The Blue Jackets did just that.
From the opening face-off, the Blue Jackets skated hard -- in all zones. They gave the Wild little breathing room, provided each other with ample support in the defensive end, and likewise gave Curtis McElhinney clear lanes of vision, and quickly cleared any rebounds that wandered into areas of danger. The exit passes were crisp and quick, but the Minnesota neutral zone defense stymied early attempts to establish extended offensive zone presence.
To the Blue Jackets' credit, they were not dissuaded, but simply relied upon their structure, and continued to press. Soon, the cracks began to open, and the continued pressure created opportunities. Only some other-worldly saves by Niklas Backstrom kept this one scoreless, as neither team could convert on singular power play chances. Still, Columbus held a 9-7 lead in shots after the 1st -- an unaccustomed position of late. In fact, it was only an end-of-period flurry by the Wild that kept the tally reasonably close. So, while no blood was drawn, the Blue Jackets had done a sound job of softening the defenses with some body blows, and the stage was set for a knockdown or two.
What 2nd Period Curse?
The second period has not been kind to Columbus this season, but on this night, the Blue Jackets were having none of that. They again jumped on the Wild from the beginning, using a stifling forecheck and speed through the neutral zone to maximize the pressure.
Just over a minute into the period, Matt Calvert pressured Jared Spurgeon along the left wing boards, forcing him to blindly dump the puck to the neutral zone. Brandon Dubinsky gratefully accepted the gift, and entered the zone with speed, with Cam Atkinson on his right and Calvert on the left. He fed the puck to Atkinson, who wasted no time in firing a wrister from the right circle, beating Backstrom over the right shoulder. This was a huge confidence builder for Atkinson, who has mirrored the club's inconsistency thus far this season.
Having the early lead did not lead the Jackets to let up on the pressure. They continued skating and pressing, ultimately forcing Matt Cooke to take a hooking penalty against Dubinsky. The Blue Jackets maintained possession in the ensuing power play, ultimately working the puck to Umberger, low and to Backstrom's right. Not seeing a clear lane, Umberger did the smart thing -- he put the shot on net. Johansen gathered the rebound and tried a backhand, which Backstrom managed to get a pad on. However, Nick Foligno was also down low -- on the back side, and he dutifully pushed the puck into the net for the 2 - 0 lead.
It's an old adage that a 2-goal lead is the most precarious position in hockey, and Columbus almost proved its validity. Just 48 seconds after Artem Anisimov went off for hooking at the 6:15 mark, Dubinsky was whistled for slashing, providing the Wild with 1:12 of 5-on-3 time -- the perfect recipe to narrow the gap and rejuvenate their energy. Not tonight. Fedor Tyutin made several key plays, and Curtis McElhinney made some outstanding stops to stymie the Wild for the duration. If you're looking for a true turning point of the game -- this was it. It represented the single best chance Minnesota had to make a contest of it, and the Blue Jackets simply refused to let it happen. Instead of the Wild receiving a boost, the Blue Jackets absorbed the energy from the enthusiastic crowd, and continued their speed skating exhibition.
R.J. Umberger -- who had one of his better games in recent memory -- spend the last five minutes of the period irritating various members of the Wild roster. Umberger got called for boarding Jonas Brodin at the 16:53 mark, and got to share the journey to the box with Ryan Suter, who went after Umberger in defense of Brodin. No sooner had R.J. emerged from the box, when he was confronted by Keith Ballard, who dinged him with a high stick. Umberger responded in kind, and returned to the box, this time with Ballard in tow, for coincidental minors.
When the dust settled the Blue Jackets had amassed 18 shots in the period, allowing the Wild only 8. Read that last sentence again. 18 shots. In a single period. That's as many shots as the Blue Jackets had put on goal in four of the previous eight games. I guess they're getting the message that putting the puck on net is always a good thing.
Bringing It Home
The third period was a reprise of the first two. Eschewing the "prevent defense" that has too frequently characterized this club with late leads, Columbus just kept on playing the pressure game. Just over four minutes in, the line of Artem Anisimov, Blake Comeau and Boone Jenner collected the puck in the neutral zone and crossed the blue line three abreast, with speed. Anisimov dished the puck to Comeau on his right, who in turn fed Jenner at the top of the left circle, who shot the puck in stride, beating Backstrom high glove. The elation on Jenner's face was only exceeded by his obvious relief at having broken a long scoring drought. He has deserved better, and to see him rewarded in this game is both gratifying and promising.
The culmination of the evening came at the 9:05 mark in the final stanza, and naturally featured Nick Foligno, who obviously enjoyed the limelight that resulted from his between-the-legs beauty against Tampa Bay. Minnesota began a breakout down the right side of the neutral zone, but was thwarted by Ryan Johansen, who used his albatross wingspan to poke the puck away. With the Wild players' momentum heading north, Foligno took the puck and headed south, with only Charlie Coyle between him and Backstrom. Foligno drove hard to the left post, pulling Coyle with him, and deftly floated a backhand drop pass to R.J. Umberger, who had a slight lead over three Wild skaters at the top of the crease. Umberger had no trouble making the final score 4 - 0.
At that point, the only question was whether the shutout would remain intact, and there was truly no serious threat. The Blue Jackets outshot the Wild 14-5 in the final period, resulting in a season-high total of 41 shots for the guys in Union Blue. The shutout extended the Columbus scoreless streak to 137:45 of ice time, the second consecutive shutout in which McElhinney participated. At this point, McElhinney is thinking this starting goalie stuff is pretty easy.
The Blue Jackets learned something about themselves in this one. They found that they can skate and use their speed and skill for 60 minutes, without sacrificing defensive responsibility. Sure, they were up against a tired Wild club, but there have been plenty of times when Columbus has squandered opportunities such as this. The fact that they put their skates on the Wild's collective throats -- and kept them there -- is a big step.
While the focus is inevitably given to the offensive contributions -- and rightly so -- the defensive corps deserves an equal shoutout tonight. This may have been the best game the entire blue line contingent has played this season. Tyutin was his steady, reliable self, and Jack Johnson even looked much better in his own zone. Wisniewski has quietly improved his defensive play, forced to keep pace with young Ryan Murray, who continues to amaze with his poise and skill. Nikitin seems to be finding his game, and Prout was much more responsible
With Jenner and Atkinson getting goals, and Anisimov playing a big role, there is the hope that this will be the spark that gets their offensive games energized. However, perhaps the best lesson on this night was that a structured, speed game could be utilized to defeat a defense that thrives on clogging the neutral zone and challenging the blue line. So far this season, when confronted with that kind of defensive pressure, the Blue Jackets have reacted in the opposite fashion -- slowing down the game, being more deliberate, dumping the puck and generally playing tentative, scared hockey. That, of course, is precisely the goal of that kind of defense. The fact that Columbus was not discouraged by their early difficulty gaining entry into the offensive zone -- and maintained their structure throughout -- is a major step.
It's only one game, but even the most jaded, skeptical fan has to admit that this was a beauty to watch. That's two in a row. Dare we wish for three?