The Frozen Tundra: Jackets Disappear in Rout by Oilers

The Blue Jackets came into snowy, sub-zero Edmonton riding a five game point streak, coming off one of their most dominating performances of the year. They responded with their worst effort of this season -- and possibly one of the worst ever.

I closed my recap of the Ottawa game by suggesting that the Blue Jackets would be traveling to Edmonton in search of one thing -- consistency. Did they find it in the frozen tundra of the Alberta plains? Not even close.

Inexplicable Awfulocity

Yes, I know there is no such word as awfulocity , but the caliber of hockey displayed by the Blue Jackets in the first frame demanded coining a new term -- a fine blend of "awful"and "atrocity".  Before reading further, send the children to bed, because this one was not fit for any eyes, let alone those of young, impressionable children.

The omen was there early. Edmonton coughed up one of those beautiful in-zone turnovers that have plagued them all season. Derek MacKenzie took the gift, moved unmolested to the crease . . . and missed the net. It wasn't tipped, it didn't hit the post -- it missed entirely. By a wide margin.

That was all of the encouragement the Oilers needed. For the next 19 minutes, they skated, shot and dominated Columbus in all three zones. The final shot tally was 15-3 Edmonton, and it's tough to remember those three. As Jeff Rimer pointed out, the Blue Jackets did lead by a wide margin in hits (18-7) -- which is one of the most overrated stats ub the game. What Rimer failed to mention was that clubs that rack up large numbers of hits all share one characteristic --- they don't have the puck very much.

The details are almost anticlimactic. Jordan Eberle cashed in the only even-handed goal of the first at the 2:37 mark, catching Nikita Nikitin napping. David Perron was next on the board, with a power play goal at the 12:01 mark -- a wide open chance. Predictably, Ryan Smyth notched the final tally of the period, also on the power play, batting a goal mouth feed out of the air and into the back of the net.

This wasn't a situation where the Blue Jackets got caught in a track meet.  In truth, they never left the blocks.  Before the game, I tweeted that the one thing that the club could not do was to over-respect the Oilers' speed and provide too much room in the defensive zone.  Yet this is precisely what they did, playing a loose, collapsing defense (to the extent it could be called a coherent defense) that allowed the Oilers endless chances to skate and make plays  . . . which they obligingly did.

Bobrovsky was not the confident presence we saw in Ottawa -- struggling with rebound management.  However, the goals could not be laid at his doorstep, as all three were really wide open chances.  Bob had to feel like a duck in a shooting gallery.

On a positive note, the Blue Jackets got their bad period out of the way earlier, as they could not possibly get any worse. Could they?

Inexplicable Awfulocity -- The Sequel

Characterizing the second period as worse than the first might be an overstatement, but not by much.  At least the Blue Jackets looked like they might know how to play hockey in this frame, and kept the shots close -- trailing just 9-7 for the period.  Unfortunately for Columbus, Edmonton batted .333 during the second, posting a 6 - 0 lead after 40 minutes.

Columbus came out with more resolve, and frankly did a better job of maintaining possession early in the period. Jared Boll predictably squared off with Luke Gazdic two minutes into the period, in what came across as a rather futile attempt at inspiration. Let's face it -- if a bunch of professional athletes need another guy to get in a fight to become motivated, the issues are massive.

The floodgates opened at the 8:30 mark, when David Perron, again unmolested, made what Bill Davidge would call a "goal scorers goal"-- a nasty wrister that found a tiny hole between Bobrovsky's left ear and left shoulder, and found the roof of the net.  That was it for Bob, though you had the impression that the switch to McElhinney was more out of pity than punishment.

Of course, goal tending matters little with no defense, and Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski showed some truly awful play. The next goal -- a power play tally by Nail Yakupov -- was the culmination of an almost comical sequence by Wisniewski, who had the puck on his stick, with plenty of time and the entire rink to clear the puck. Instead, he played it up the middle, directly to the Oilers, and then skated backward, interfering with McElhinney, falling backward, and knocking the goal off the pegs while Yakupov scored. The final goal, by Justin Schultz, came on the only true odd man rush that converted for Edmonton, as Anisimov was caught deep in the offensive zone, and could not recover. Johnson played more matador than defenseman all night, and frankly looked just silly. In post-game comments, Jack Johnson showed a remarkable capacity for understatement by saying "We didn't smother them the way we smothered Ottawa." Ya think? Nick Foligno was far more concise -- and accurate: "This was disgusting."

On the offensive end, Johansen had some chances, but was stymied. Comeau and MacKenzie worked hard, but what energy there was at the beginning of the frame had long since been sapped. Finally, to add injury to insult, Brandon Dubinsky hobbled off the ice at the end of the period, after sliding awkwardly into the boards. Another thoroughly forgettable period.

Merciful End

Dubinsky came out to the bench briefly in the third, but soon disappeared to the room.  He was joined shortly thereafter by Nikita Nikitin, who fell awkwardly while retreating in his own zone.  In an ironic twist that shows just how little was going right for the Blue Jackets , Nikitin was called for tripping.   On the bright side, the club managed their first successful penalty kill in four attempts. (Nikitin returned to action shortly thereafter)

The remainder of the third was remarkable only for how much it resembled the first two from the Columbus perspective, in terms of shoddy defense and the inability to present a consistent offensive threat. Devan Dubnyk faced only 14 shots on the night, making this shutout one of the easier efforts in recent NHL memory.

The lone highlight of the period belonged to Edmonton, of course. With just over three minutes left in the game, Derek MacKenzie blew a tire entering the offensive zone on the right wing. Wisniewski had over-committed, and Taylor Hall took the puck in all alone on McElhinney, depositing the puck through the five hole and into the back of the net. 7 - 0, and the touchdown spread was covered.

Exorcising the Demons

This loss will bring out all of the extreme positions among the fan base, ranging from calls for the firing of all concerned to demands for immediate trades to assertions that the season is over.  You'll hear lots of "unacceptables"  and "fails", but these are empty phrases that signify nothing other than the mood of the speaker.  Let's face it, every team has one or more of these games in the course of a season -- a juxtaposition of bad play & bad luck on their part and equally good play and good luck on the other side.  However, the fact that this one happened to come on the heels of a particularly good effort against Ottawa makes it particularly galling.

The good news is that there is little time to dwell on this one, as Calgary awaits tomorrow.  However, I'm not sure that this one should be lightly dismissed.  With Bryzgalov joining the Oilers and Justin Schultz returning to the lineup after an extended injury absence, it was entirely predictable that Edmonton would have a lot of jump and motivation to reverse an awful home record.  With Tim Erixon now on the roster, this seems like the ideal game to utilize his skills, and give a Nikitin or Johnson a rest.  Yet that was not done.  Why?  Coupled with the massive inconsistency, questions about the leadership behind the bench are going to grow louder and more fervent -- and perhaps there is fire behind that smoke.

At the end of the day, however, the club is left with an awful loss, but presented with the opportunity to rectify matters just 24 hours later.  They need to lick their wounds -- literally and figuratively -- and get back on the proper path.  The next three games will be telling, particularly if Dubinsky is compelled to miss any significant time, which is a blow both in terms of skill and leadership.   For his part, Todd Richards needs to show that he has the helm of this ship, can bring a club back from this type of experience and can have the club prepared to do what is necessary.  Yes, the players play the game, but there are nagging concerns about they quality of leadership they are receiving.

So, after all that, what did Richards have to say after the game? "We weren't ready to play the game. . . there's no desperation, no urgency. . . If you're not willing to battle, this is exactly what happens."  "I don't know if this is a team that can handle success."   These statements are fine, as far as they go, but they ring a bit hollow, as it's simply a variation of what we have heard after every loss.  He claimed responsibility for not having the club ready, but what does that really mean?  There is a befuddled tone to Richard's statements that is eerily reminiscent of Scott Arniel.  The club may need to find it's identity, but that starts with the coach.

Oh, by the way -- the Blue Jackets won that hit statistic, 45 - 19.

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