I resisted the significant temptation to post an exalted, praisworthy piece after the Blue Jackets’ opening win at Nashville. I wanted to see the club in person, up close — where the speed & intensity, the strengths & flaws are more apparent than on a televised view. I frankly also wanted to see how the organization and the fans handled the return of NHL hockey after a 30th place finish, the eventful off-season transactions, and the contentious lockout. Let’s take a look at all of it.
Facing the Demons
While all NHL clubs face daunting schedules over the next 99 days, it seemed particularly cruel that the league schedule gurus would choose to have the Blue Jackets
make their debut at Nashville, on Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Columbus’ legendary struggles in the Volunteer State — complete with Darth Vader references — are legendary, so throwing a young, new roster at the Predators for their home opener was a selection that appeared on the verge of sadistic.
Well, we learned a few things from that evening. First and foremost, this is a club with tenacity and resilience. After the first fluke goal got by Bobrovsky before the last strains of the National Anthem had died down, you could hear the “Here we go again . . . ” mutterings from fans everywhere. Certainly, that was the prevailing mood at my venue. However, Columbus bounced back with Foligno’s tip-in, withstood a bizarre Nashville goal that was shoved past Bobrovsky as he struggled to retreive his stick, and rode a strong goal by Anisimov to get the game to OT and the shootout. There, Bob was solid, Brassard made a terrific move, and Columbus emerged with two points. As many have said, this may not be your parents’ — or even your older brother’s — Blue Jackets squad.
We also learned that Bobrovsky has the tools to get the job done in goal, and appears quick, positionally sound and emotionally unflappable. Those are qualities that have been missing in the blue paint for a few years, so it was good to see in a hostile environment. Sure, that first goal was awful, but it looks like it was deflected high, so we’ll give him a pass on that one — at least for the time being. Bobrovsky’s ability to shake off a couple of bad breaks, gain focus and make some big saves at key times was a reassuring sight.
Another eye-opening revelation from the Nashville contest was the skill of the newcomers. Dubinsky showed both speed and skill, though he did not tally. Foligno channeled his inner Tomas Holmstrom on the first Blue Jackets’ tally, and Artem Anisimov showed both strength and skill on two nasty backhands — one in regulation and one in the shootout. Observe:
So, at the end of the evening, the club had earned two points “by committee”, as expected. There were no fancy plays to speak of, but the squad did show some crisp exit passes to negate the Nashville forecheck. A road win accomplished with lots of character and just a dash of flair.
The Dreaded Winged Wheel
The home opener vs. Detroit hit on very similar themes to those found in Nashville, only with the variations you would expect for Game Two after a six-day training camp. While some characterized the Blue Jackets’ play over the first 30 minutes as “flat”, that’s not what I observed. I saw a well coached Red Wings team, still smarting from the 6- 0 shellacking from the Blues, using their skating ability to exploit the fact that Columbus was fielding a large number of new faces. While Nashville exerted a moderate forecheck in Game 1, it was easily defeated through some quick exit passes. Not so with Detroit. The Wings’ forecheck was tenacious, not providing room to breathe, let alone move or pass. For guys that had not played together, this kind of pressure generates uncertainty, which in turn breeds hesitation. Hesitate against Detroit, and you are in for a long evening. Such was the case for the first period and a half against the Red Wings. That the first period ended in a scoreless tie was attributable primarily to the theatrics of Bobrovsky, who quite literally stood on his head at one point to make a flailing save.
The Red Wings’ first goal should have been a non-event, as Bobrovsky’s stick was kicked out of the way while the shot was on the way, but no call came. In general, the officiating was really poor, with inconsistent (and incorrect) views of goaltender interference, and equally bizarre non-calls in what were pretty blatant interference situations. Ironically, the one call that attracted the greatest ire — the negation of Cam Atkinson’s opening shootout effort — was correctly called, as Cam put the puck in after it had already hit Howard’s pad. The players may have only had a six-day camp, but the officals had no exhibition games to work this season. We’ll adopt a “wait and see” posture on this one.
When the Blue Jackets found their gear against Detroit, they did so with a vengeance. Johansen made a beautiful feed to Atkinson, who finished the chance in highlight-reel fashion. Wisniewski buried a laser from the point to Howard’s high glove side. Prospal jumped on a rebound off the end boards — giving Detroit a taste of their own medicine. In short order, a 2 – 0 deficit became a 3-2 advantage, and the momentum was all Columbus. There’s that character thing again. Indeed the Blue Jackets looked to be on the verge of extending the lead when Johansen took an inadvertent hooking penalty to kill the power play. Not long thereafter, a defensive lapse force Bobrovsky to commit to the shooter, leaving Datsyuk wide open for a virtual tap-in. The balance of regulatoin and overtime were relatively without incident. The shootout was notable for the Great Atkinson Debate, the curious absence of Derick Brassard from the shooting roster, given his game winner against Nashville, and the filthy game winner by Damien Brunner. Honorable mention goes to Bobrovsky, for stonewalling both Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the skill competition.
While the SO loss was disappointing for the gathered throng, there were still positives to be taken. The Blue Jackets lodged a big comeback against Detroit, while not playing at their best. Goaltending is a strength — Bobrovsky has a .934 save percentage through two contests — which is something that could not be said last year. The club is finishing games stronger than they are beginning them — which is preferable, but can’t continue over the long term. The new guys are showing some real skill and drive, and players like Atkinson, Johansen and Calvert are demonstrating the advantage that their AHL ice time brings.
On the flip side, R.J. Umberger has not started well. He continues to rely on the drive down the wing, which he lacks the speed to finish off at the first line level. He maroons Brassard and Atkinson by losing control of the puck or getting mired in the corners, and looks slow overall. He would be better moving down a line or two, where he would have a better chance of gaining and exploiting offensive advantage. Similarly, Nikita Nikitin has looked sluggish at the outset, and will need to start hitting his stride as the club enters a seven game in eleven days stretch. However, all in all, the results cannot be debated — three points out of four possible, no injuries, and some real character demonstrated. That’s a good start — in anybody’s book.
So, your organization is coming off a 30th place finish, the 2nd lockout in its 12 year history, and massive changes in personnel, both on and off the ice. You have an impatient, but passionate fan base, an All Star Game that was nuked by the battling egos of Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, and a season requiring 48 games in 99 days. You had a six day camp, and only slightly longer to prepare from a front-office perspective. Now what?
To their credit, the Blue Jackets have grasped that opportunity, and made the most out of it. On the physical plant side, the new scoreboard is quite literally breathtaking, serving as the centerpiece of a massive, intricately choreographed electronic display capability that provides HD video, real-time statistics, scores, live tweets and texts, and myriad other information. New music choices are appropriate to the circumstance, and conducive to the moods. The new organist is on the money, and the Opening Night video was stirring. With an SRO crowd of 19,200 christening the revamped facility, the experience was . . .immersive.
Social Media has been fully embraced by the organization. Aside from the live streaming of tweets and texts, the Social Station suite makes its debut this season. Fully
equipped to support the blogging/tweeting/Facebooking crowd, the suite serves as a command post for the Blue Jackets blogosphere. I’ll be spending some time there, and will share hosting duties with Matt from The Cannon, Alison, Ken and Dan from The Union Blue , Mark from HashtagCBJ and Joel from Arch City Army, among others. I’ll also have tickets to the suit available to give away here. The point is that the organization is making a significant investment in social media — a step that will undoubtedly pay dividends, and spur imitation.
Finally, some smaller, but no less important touches are worth recognizing. The club took the ice for warmups donning #1 sweaters with “Thank You Fans” on the nameplates. Corny? Perhaps to some, but I saw a lot of nods of appreciation and approval in the stands. J.P. McConnell was brief and sincere in his remarks, and John Davidson knocked it out of the park when he took the mike. In Davidson, the organization has found that perfect middle road between the carnival barker that was Doug MacLean, and the reserved tax attorney that is Scott Howson. He is engaging, without being bombastic, and the crowd ate it up.
It’s early, but the organization is making strides, both on and off the ice. Mason will likely see some playing time in either Phoenix or Denver, and it would be good to let him make his debut on the road, away from the pressure of a skeptical home crowd. We’ll see if the club can come out of the gate harder, and play a consistent 60 minutes of hockey. But as John Davidson would say — the club is headed north and building a new foundation . . .brick by brick.