Game 73: That Old Familiar Feeling

Even in the "new" NHL (which isn't actually that new anymore, but let's forget that), a team that scores four goals in a game is generally safe.

Sunday, after the team had been shut out 3-0 by the Devils, a frustrated Steve Mason called out his team in post-game comments, talking about the "embarrassing" effort and the need for everyone to play better.

After Tuesday's game in Colorado, the shoe is on the other foot, and I rather suspect it pinches.

Things actually seemed to get off onto the right foot for the Blue Jackets, playing their final game this year in the Pepsi Center. Just past the two minute mark, Kris Russel shifted the puck loose at the boards, springing Rick Nash and Derrick Brassard out of their own zone and up the ice. Nash and Brassard played a brief game of catch as they crossed the Colorado blue line, and then the Captain drove in and slammed an up close and personal backhander past (almost through) Brian Elliott to give the team a 1-0 lead.

The Avalanche, however, were able to respond a few minutes later when a bad clearing attempt by Pahlsson was intercepted in the middle of the Jackets' defensive zone and reversed by Kevin Porter, who threaded the puck past a prone Derek Dorsett. Steve Mason tried to make the first diving save, but kicked the puck directly to Ryan O'Reilly with the rebound, who deposited it into the net before Mason could recover.

The Jackets would be outshot 13-5 in the first period, and things were looking rather dim until midway through the second period, with Marc Methot in the box for interference. After being a shorthanded threat all year, Derek MacKenzie had his first career NHL shorthanded goal when Derek Dorsett intercepted a Colorado pass in their own zone and slid it over to D-Mac, who tapped it past Elliot.

In an even stranger moment, the Jackets' next goal also came shorthanded, early in the third period, with R.J. Umberger breaking up the Colorado power play, chipping the puck off the boards and over to himself, and rushing up ice with MacKenzie. Faking the pass to fool both Elliot and Erik Johnson, Umberger pulled up and fired from just above the faceoff dot, giving the team a 3-1 lead, and probably had most fans wondering if the Jackets were actually getting to be more effective with four skaters on the ice than five.

Unfortunately, the team's problem with closing out games would rear it's ugly head at the worst possible time. Less than a minute after taking the 3-1 lead, the Jackets would surrender a goal to Matt Duchene off an ugly stuff attempt with seemingly the entire defense (I counted no less than four white sweaters around the crease) standing there, unable to take the puck away, while Mason could not get his left leg pad to seal against the ice.

On a side note, no less a personage than The Goalie Guild was checking out the game last night, and brought up that Steve Mason was debuting new pads in the game - a set of Vaughn V4 7900s. He also noted that Mason was the first NHL goaltender to use them in live game action.

So, with Mason giving up a weak goal through his legs, am I the only one wondering if A) the new pads were a factor and B) Why, in god's name, was Mason putting on pads that had never been used in the NHL before? If Vaughn is giving you new equipment to test out, that's great, but that sounds like something to work out in practice, not to strap on when there's two points on the line.

That said, when Colorado tied the game with just over five minutes to go, I cannot blame Mason's legs, or even Mason himself, so much as pure bad luck - a rush by Colorado saw the puck bounce over Mason and onto the back of the boards, and Matt Duchene collected his second goal of the night when he chipped the puck back over the net, bounced it off the back of Mason's mask, off his legs, and into the goal. It was a 1 in 1,000 shot, and impossible for any goaltender to stop, but it still put the Jackets behind the 8-ball.

R.J. Umberger, however, seemed to have nothing but a win on his agenda when he unleashed a furious bullrush up ice, dragging the puck from the boards, across the goal line, and through Brian Elliot before wiping out over the crease. It was the singlehanded, fully committed effort that has made fans across Columbus fall in love with the OSU product, and a welcome return to form after his long dry spell.

With two minutes to go, the Jackets looked like they simply needed to shut down the Avs and walk away with a bit of relief, but a mistake by Jan Hejda at the worst possible time sent the puck over the glass with under 20 seconds to go, putting him into the box, and Colorado pulled Elliot with 20 seconds to go for the 6 on 4 advantage.

Daniel Winnik would score the tying goal with just under four seconds left, after R.J. Umberger was unable to block a point shot from Erik Johnson, and Steve Mason knocked the puck out of the air with his glove, perhaps expecting Fedor Tyutin to take it from him, but Winnik would sieze it instead, skating past Tyutin and putting the puck past Mason stick-side.

The Jackets would force Elliot to make some impressive saves in OT, including a dramatic glove stop on a charging Rick Nash, but despite outchancing the Avs 2-to-1, they were left unsatisfied, and headed into the shootout.

Milan Hejduk would score on the opening shot of the shootout, and though Mason stopped the remaining attempts by Duchene and Ryan Stoa, Umberger, Nash, and Brassard would all come up dry, with the final insult appearing in the form of Brassard's shot which beat Elliot cleanly, but caught the post and bounced out, rather than dropping into the net as he'd hoped.

Final Score: Jackets 4, Colorado 5 (SO)

Standard Bearers:

  • R. J. Umberger - Umberger did everything you could ask of him, trying to drag the team into the victory, and had more ice time than any other forward, including almost three and a half minutes shorthanded.
  • Derek MacKenzie - His shorthanded goal and assist now marks his second NHL multi-point game, and his first NHL shortie to go with it. What puzzles me, however, was that he only was given ten minutes of ice time.
  • Rick Nash - Another player clearly making efforts, Nash's goal was a pure power moment, and his attempts in OT were notable.

Bottom Of The Barrel:

  • Killer Instinct - Remember how the year started, when the Jackets won their first five OT or shootout games? Since then, the Jackets haven't won a game in the shootout since January. In fact, despite seeing the shootout 14 times this season, they've only won four of them. Then there's the matter of a fourth or fifth two goal lead blown in the last seven or eight games, yet another point slipping past them that could have been a chance to move up, even if only to 11th in the standings. It's a situation where the team doesn't close out games so much as they invite the other team over for warmed crumpets and conversation - great for baked goods, bad for winning.
  • Steve Mason - As I said, that third goal was pure bad luck, but on the other hand, it was the THIRD goal of FIVE he would allow. I've been in Mason's corner for a lot of this year, arguing that a better goaltending coach and / or a different backup were the fix for the goaltending situation in the offseason, but performances like this are starting to make me wonder if perhaps offering Ilya Bryzgalov a big money deal isn't such a bad idea after all. Mason -is- just 22 years old, and I believe he will get better, but on the other hand, maybe that means that it's time to stop relying on him the way we would an older and more experienced netminder and give him real time to develop.
  • Sammy Pahlsson - -2, which was bad enough, but winning only 8 faceoffs all night? Including losing the faceoffs that lead to both tying goals? Brassard, with a busted hand that's still healing, still managed to win five faceoffs last night. Think about that.
  • Jan Hejda - Admittedly, Hejda also had two assists last night, continuing a strong offensive push in the late season, but that penalty was the very definition of a boneheaded play, and it couldn't have come at a more ill-timed moment.
  • Scott Arniel - Regardless of the decision to stick with Mason in the net, which I will simply say was his discretion, I'm confused why MacKenzie, who was clearly a bright spot for the offense, wasn't given more opportunity to play in OT. Same for Matt Calvert, who might have some rough edges in his defensive game, but still has shown a fair bit of flair in 4 on 4 hockey. Why no attempt to use your time out to try and settle the team down before having to kill the Hejda penalty, or to promote a plan for dealing with the 6 on 4 attack? Arniel has been a good coach for this team, but the last two games he's been unable to find the right buttons to get this club moving.

The magic number for the Jackets is 10 points. So is their "tragic number". They're stuck in this strange limbo where they're neither dead nor contending, and even a tilt against the worst club in the West wasn't enough to shock them back to full life.

The Jackets continue to search for answers as they fly to Phoenix today, and will take on the surging Coyotes Thursday night before returning to Columbus.

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