Over the course of the past five games, during which the Columbus Blue Jackets garnered but a single point and suffered 5-0 and 7-2 thrashings at the hands of Buffalo and Pittsburgh respectively, blame was directed in a variety of interesting directions.
Calls were made for Rick Nash to be replaced as captain. Others blamed “Boomer”, the team’s new “third Mascot” — a smiling cannon with a moustache — who has been the subject of somewhat Freudian analysis over the past two weeks. In a similar vein, Blue Jackets’ new third jersey took its share of heat, as the team is winless while sporting the new duds.
Had the winless streak continued, the man on the grassy knoll would undoubtedly have fallen under suspicion as well. Fortunately for all concerned, Columbus topped the Dallas Stars in a 3 -2 shootout victory last evening, stanching the bleeding from the recent unpleasantness and simultaneously ending the Stars’ own six-game winning streak.
As the game began, there was a calmness to the Blue Jackets’ play that had been missing in recent efforts. As a matter of fact, the pace was sluggish and choppy for much of the game. In the first period, however, Columbus went back to playing the style that coach Scott Arniel has been preaching — possession and space in the offensive zone, getting the puck to the points, and 1+1 pressure in the defensive zone.
Opportunities were there, and the Jackets converted first with a nice give and go play between Voracek and Kris Russell, who deftly roofed a backhand over Lehtonen’s blocker to provide a 1 -0 lead.
Throughout the contest, Lehtonen showed why he has been duly credited with much of the Stars’ recent success, making some nice stops on prime chances. The Jackets also contributed by missing some key opportunites — most notably Jared Boll’s inability to find a wide open net on a nice push by the fourth line.
In a return to form, the PK unit was solid all night. The Jackets took two minors in each of the first two periods, but these were killed with minimal threat from Dallas, thanks to an aggressive penalty kill. Importantly, the Jackets avoided any penalties in the final frame. However, the five-on-five game regressed a bit in the last half of the second, as the club once again lapsed into the “prevent defense” mode, providing time and space to Dallas, rather than taking it away. Dallas obligingly took control, maintaining consistent pressure in the Columbus zone for a six minute stretch that saw Arniel spend the Blue Jackets’ timeout to restore order and provide a breather.
With just under five minutes left in the second, Dallas evened the score after a bad Nash turnover at the Columbus blue line. Richards took the puck across the middle and fired a wrister that Garon had in his glove, but misplayed. The puck bounced out of the glove, off of his helmet, and into the goal. At that point, most of the 10,900 souls in the building were awaiting the meltdown, but it didn’t come. The Jackets restored order, began moving their feet again, and looked confident as the second period ended.
The third began well, but once again, the Jackets inexplicably got away from pressure defense and allowed Dallas too
much space in which to operate. Dallas took advantage, as Segal brought the puck into the zone largely unchallenged, and dumped it to Daley below the line, who in turn found Ott for a one-timer in the slot that Garon had no chance on.
Garon was steady, if unspectacular, on this evening, and it seemed clear that “steady and calm” was what Arniel was looking for when giving the nod to Garon for the start. Still, despite playing a solid game for most of the 52 minutes in the books, the Jackets found themselves trailing once again.
The Blue Jackets had some prime chances down the stretch, but again could not convert. However, Dallas provided a bit of a gift when Skrastins was called for holding with 1:50 left in the game — his second minor of the period.
While many of the fans had already donned coats, scarves and hats and headed for the exits, assuming a sixth straight loss, those remaining were vocal in their support. Garon exited stage left for the extra attacker with 1:17 left in the game. However, the extra attacker went by the wayside with 51 seconds left, as Voracek was forced to leave the zone to replace a broken stick. No matter — Brassard took the puck on the left wing, swung it to Stralman on the point, who then fed it to Nash near the right circle. The captain waited for what seemed like an eternity before zipping the puck between Umberger’s legs, past a thoroughly screened Lehtonen and into the far corner of the net. Tie game, and bedlam ensued.
The Jackets built on that momentum and dominated the overtime frame, registering four shots while surrendering none. Still, nothing could be converted, and the crap-shoot that is the NHL Shootout ensued.
Arniel continued to provide surprises, choosing to shoot first instead of last, leading with Nash and ending with young Kyle Wilson. Nash cashed in on his opportunity, zipping one stick-side past Lehtonen. Garon stuffed Neal, and Lehtonen returned the favor on Filatov, snagging the glove-side attempt. Richards evened it for Dallas on a filthy move, setting the stage for the final round. Wilson, who Nash characterized as a “quick learner”, followed his captain’s example, beating Lehtonen to the stick-side, in almost the same location as Nash’s shot. That left it up to Matthieu Garon against Jamie Benn, who retreated to somewhere near the locker room, accelerated full speed to the red line, then slowed to a crawl as he traced a meandering path to the goal. Garon held his ground, and when the shot finally came, stopped it with his right pad to secure the victory.
While there was relief all around for both the victory and the end to the losing streak, what was perhaps more significant this night was the way the team won. The recipe for frustration and surrender was there, as the team played well but not flawlessly, missed opportunities, and watched as the opposition took advantage of the mistakes that were made. The Jackets refused to do that, however, finding a way to get the two points, and showed none of the fragility of which they have been accused.
Nash again demonstrated his ability to come through in the clutch, and the team showed what it can do when it plays with the pressure and space that Arniel preaches. The Blue Jackets held the Stars to just 18 shots for the game, including overtime, which is a solid recipe for success down the line.
There are three things in the “work to be done” category that come out of this one. First, the Jackets need to find the skill to finish their opportunities. Guys with the skill, such as Filatov, have to relax and loosen their grip on the stick. Filatov had a marvelous sequence in the first where he made a hit against the end wall on the forecheck, recovered the puck, made a pass, then had a redirection of a point shot that just went wide. He had a good power play shot go awry when his stick cracked. Still, he needs to shoot the puck. Similarly, guys like Boll need to elevate the puck when they have opportunities. When the team plays the game properly, they are getting a wealth of chances, but the need to finish is something that merits further work.
Next, they really need to internalize the fact that the pressuring “1+1” defense is the key to success, no matter who they are playing. Sure, much like a cornerback who plays a receiver tightly, there is always the risk of being beaten. However, just as the free safety can come over and help in football, so there is help in Arniel’s defensive scheme.
This is the NHL, and as last night showed, when you give skilled players time and space to make plays, they will do it more often than not. When you challenge them and eliminate their opportunity to read the play, you’re going to be successful more often than not. A corollary of this concept is the need to get the puck off of the stick quickly in the defensive zone. In the first period, the club was doing it well — making quick, accurate exit passes that got the team out of the zone in one or two passes.
When they ran into trouble, it was due in part to a frustrating tendency, particularly among the blue liners (except Russell), to take the puck, place it on the backhand, then inevitably get trapped against the boards or make a bad exit pass. It is a puzzling tendency that I can only attribute to some need to buy extra time, much as a basketball player takes an unnecessary dribble before dunking. Of course, instead of buying time, they are eliminating it, as the move provides the opportunity for the opponent’s pressure to catch up. It takes time for something like that to be internalized, but it will come, and this coaching staff will make sure of it.
Finally, something needs to be done to address the play of Anton Stralman. I have been a Stralman supporter, seeing great potential in the youngster, and was happy that he was re-signed. However, he is struggling in some very fundamental ways that show cause for concern. Not a physical, shut down type of defender, Stralman needs to rely on his puck handling skills and offensive prowess to be effective. Unfortunately, those have been lacking of late, as he has been largely ineffective on the power play, and equally suspect elsewhere. Whether he is trying too hard, or simply has hit the wall in terms of ability is difficult to say, but the situation needs to be addressed — either by the coaching staff or the GM.
Despite the wailing, grumbling and general consternation of the Columbus masses, the Jackets are off to their best start in club history, and last night’s win was a demonstration of character, more than one of skill. That’s a good sign, and it came at precisely the right time.