Recap #22: Finding Oxygen
The Blue Jackets found a way once again in the Mile High City — a venue historically unfriendly to their fortunes.
Historically, Colorado has not been kind to the Blue Jackets, whether referring to the state or the hockey franchise. Their winning percentage vs. the Avalanche is just .364, the worst among NHL opponents. The record at the Pepsi Center is even worse — .357. Whether it is the thin air of the Mile High City or the lingering Curse of Adam Foote, Columbus does not get a Rocky Mountain High when traveling here. (The organization refused comment when asked if marijuana laws changed that result)
This, however, is not your father’s Blue Jackets club, and past history means nothing to John Tortorella and his merry band of hockey thieves. So let’s see what happened.
The Avalanche predictably came out smoking, and perhaps the key play of the game came just 35 seconds in, when Sergei Bobrovsky went cross-crease to make an amazing glove save on Mikko Rantanen, who seemingly had a wide open net in front of him. That save seemed to provide the needed focus, and when Semyon Varlamov returned the favor on a blue paint laser from Cam Atkinson, the game was on.
As they have seemingly done at will in the recent past, the Blue Jackets got on the board first at the 4:56 mark. Jack Johnson smoked a shot/pass to Scott Hartnell on the goal line to Varlamov’s left. While Hartnell could not handle the pass, he deflected the puck into the crease, where Brandon Saad was waiting. He did not miss, and Columbus held a 1 - 0 lead for the 16th time in 22 starts this season. Hartnell and Johnson earned the helpers, and the table appeared to be set for more. However, Varlamov again proved to be difficult to solve, making some truly great saves to keep his team in the contest.
Columbus broke through once again at the 16:15 mark, when some savvy defense and good foot speed by Seth Jones triggered a 3-on-1 odd-man rush. Saad - Jones - Saad - Foligno - Goal. As pretty a play as you would want to see, and the Blue Jackets had a 2 - 0 lead, which they carried into the dressing room. They held a 13 - 7 edge on the shooting ledger, and could have had many more, but for Varlamov. A great start for a road game.
For most of the second period, the situation was similar. The Blue Jackets dominated possession for long stretches (shots were 13 - 9 for the frame), but were frustrated by Varlamov’s glove or their own mis-fires. Cam Atkinson was visibly frustrated over his missed opportunities, and Lukas Sedlak squandered a prime chance — failing to even hit the net from squarely in front. Tyson Barrie and Sam Gagner swapped roughing minors at 5:24, and after Andreas Martinsen checked Seth Jones viciously into the boards, captain Nick Foligno took umbrage, and dispatched Martinsen with a flurry of right hands. That earned both five for fighting, and Foligno and extra two for roughing, which was a bit of a head scratcher. Instigating, perhaps, but roughing? Was the beat down he delivered so complete that the officials felt compelled to compensate Colorado with an extra two minutes? The Columbus coaches were visibly upset with the call, as well they might be, as it opened the door to the only poor sequence of the night for Columbus.
With 45 seconds left in the power play, Francois Beauchemin let loose with a point shot, which appeared to be tipped by Willie Mitchell in front. Whether it was deflected or Bobrovsky was simply screened, he surrendered a rebound to his left, which Blake Comeau promptly deposited upstairs, narrowing the lead to one.
Just over three minutes later, Colorado scored again, with Samuel Henley earning his first NHL goal. This one was all Bobrovsky, as Bob was a little too lax in returning to the blue paint after playing the puck behind his net. Henley saved the puck from exiting the zone near the right boards by simply spinning and firing. The shot caught Bob by surprise, and it was a tie game. Would the curse continue?
While early versions of the Blue Jackets would likely have let Henley’s goal unnerve them, this squad simply took it as incentive. They came out smoking in the 3rd, and forced three consecutive penalties against the Avalanche, including 40 seconds of 5-on-3 play. However, the power play was uncharacteristically disorganized, and could not convert. That did not dissuade the club from keeping the pressure on (shots were 11 - 4 for the period), and it eventually paid off.
The winning sequence was not an artistic one, but it worked. Brandon Dubinsky channeled his inner Wayne Gretzky, and entered the zone with speed, attempting to weave solo through the defense. Needless to say, that didn’t work, and the puck was deflected to the corner to Varlamov’s right. Dubinsky stayed with it, gaining possession and centering the puck to the crease. Unfortunately, it went directly to an Avalanche player. However, Cam Atkinson was in the area, and picked the defender’s pocket, skated the puck to Varlamov’s left, seemingly certain to put a forehand shot on net. Instead, Cam spun counterclockwise and centered the puck to the crease, where Boone Jenner was waiting. Jenner converted, providing both the winning margin and some personal vindication.
Colorado put some good pressure on during the last few minutes, and appeared to have tied the game on a deflection by Comeau. The officials correctly determined that his stick was above the crossbar when he made contact, thus negating the goal. A few nice pad saves from Sergei Bobrovsky in the last minute, and this one was in the books.
Columbus is simply continuing to leverage speed and solid positioning to earn victories in a variety of ways, with seemingly different players carrying the mail every night. A little more focus might be in order, as they were crushed in the face-off circle (74%-26%), went 0-for-4 on the power play, and at times appeared to be looking for the pretty play, rather than the effective one. But these are minor quibbles at this point. The Blue Jackets are playing truly solid hockey, and have now climbed into undisputed possession of third place in the Metro Division, snapping at the heels of both Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers.
If I had to make one adjustment, it might be to return Sedlak to Cleveland and let him get some confidence back. He had under eight minutes of ice time on Thursday, and that’s not good for him or the team.
Columbus can use Friday to rest and heal, as this one featured a number of stinging blocked shots and some hard checking. Wennberg and Foligno will both probably be heading to the ice bath in Phoenix, as they prepare for Saturday night’s contest against the Coyotes. Stay tuned.