In what was certainly a “Good New, Bad News” experience, the Blue Jackets dropped a 3 – 2 decision to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night, a result that appeared to have the fans, team and coaches scratching their collective heads. Ultimately, it was a game where a combination of missed opportunities, timely saves, and a few momentary lapses conspired to allow the Wild to hang around, and ultimately notch the extra tally and the two points.
Consider that the Blue Jackets outshot Minnesota 37 – 24, and missed on another 11 opportunities, many of which were teed-up, prime scoring chances. Rick Nash, by himself, had eight shots on goal, and missed on another two. The entire Wild team managed only three shots on goal in the second period, and none until after 15 minutes had elapsed. Truly, the tone for the evening was set in the first two minutes, when Nash and Derick Brassard started a 2-on-1 break, with Nash feeding Brassard for a one-timer that Jose Theodore stood on his head to stop. Such was life in the offensive zone for Columbus on this evening.
With Minnesota playing the back half of a consecutive night string, the message was clear — jump on them early. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, neither team could mount any sustained momentum for the first ten minutes of the contest. Play largely was confined to the areas around the blue lines, and was characterized by missed passes, pucks bouncing off of sticks and general ragged play. However, as grips loosened on the sticks and the flow became established, Columbus began exert considerable pressure at even strength. Unfortunately, they did not stay at 5-on-5 hockey the entire time, and after Kyle Wilson went off on a goaltender interference call, Brent Burns skated harmlessly down the right wing as Matt Cullen carried the puck into the zone. Chris Clark made the mistake of watching Cullen, and not his man. Cullen angled left while Burns kept going, behind the unsuspecting Clark. He gratefully accepted the feed from Cullen, skated across the crease, and deposited an unmolested backhand behind Garon. Garon, who had his scoreless streak snapped by the Burns goal, was good, but not great in this one. He surrendered more than the customary number of rebounds, and seemed to lack focus at times.
Columbus evened the score on a play that epitomized the solid nature of the even strength effort in this one. Just as a penalty to Filatov (a very questionable holding call) was winding down, Klesla took a pass from Methot in the defensive zone and skated it unmolested down the right wing and into the Wild zone. He left a drop pass for Brassard, who threaded a breathtaking pass across to the left post, where Nash was cruising in from the left wing. Puck met stick at the crease, and the slam dunk evened the game, extended Brassard’s scoring streak to seven games, and provided the assembled gathering with further indications that Mr. Brassard is the real deal. Brassard was strong all night long — making some deft passes, amassing 4 shots, a blocked shot, a hit and winning 53% of his faceoffs.
The second period was entirely a Blue Jacket affair for the first 14 minutes. At the 5:45 mark, Kyle Wilson took a feed from Methot on the right wing, skated into the
middle in tandem with MacKenzie, and snapped a wicked wrister behind Theodore to give the Jackets a 2 -1 lead. It should have been far more, as the Blue Jackets put on a clinic of defensive responsibility and offensive possession, keeping the puck in the offensive zone for extensive periods of time. The Vermette-Filatov-Umberger line had a ridiculous shift of over a minute where they maintained pressure and kept the puck in the offensive zone. Another shift was a picture perfect portrayal of how Arniel envisions his system working. Nash, Brassard and Voracek entered the zone with speed, three abreast, maintaining spacing, against three Wild defenders. Anton Stralman entered the zone down the middle, giving the Jackets the extra man, and accepted the feed from the wing . . .but missed the net. As coach Arniel said after the game ” . . . it wasn’t a matter of effort, it was a question of execution.” Indeed, that was the downfall for Columbus on this night.
With 5:50 left in the second period, Klesla went off for high sticking. It took the Wild ten seconds to convert on the opportunitiy. Koivu found Burns at the point, who let loose a shot that somehow found twine behind Garon. It wasn’t tipped, and there didn’t appear to be a direct screen, but Garon simply appeared to never see the puck. That was the Wild’s first shot of the period, and was again emblematic of the fact that fortunes were not with Columbus on this evening. Earlier, while on the power play, R.J. Umberger took a high stick to the face from Nick Schultz, which should have given the home team a 5-on-3 advantage. Alas, the infraction went unseen by any of the on-ice officials, and the Wild were able to kill the opportunity. As with their even strength play, the Jackets looked dangerous on the power play, unleasing several shots and maintaining possession admirably, but were simply unable to convert the opportunities into goals.
The third period was more competetive, but by no means were the Blue Jackets outplayed. The winning goal was simply Cal Clutterbuck taking things on his own shoulders, and being in the right place at the right time. He pounded Jake Voracek below the net as Voracek was looking to move the puck out down the left side. The puck came free to Koivu, with Clutterbuck drifting back out to the left post area. Hejda, who was bumped in the Voracek collision but never lost his feet, was late getting back in front. The puck glanced off Nystrom’s blade, across to Clutterbuck, who accepted the reward for his hit and jammed the puck into the largely empty net. The Jackets continuted to exert pressure for the remainder of the game, but remained frustrated, as Theodore was up to the challenge.
In the post-game briefing, Arniel bristled at the suggestion that there was somehow a lack of effort. “I thought our effort was very good”, Arniel said. “We certainly had enough chances . .we just didn’t find a way to bury one. . . . We have to find the hammer.” Both Captain Rick Nash and surprising Kyle Wilson echoed Arniel’s sentiments. Nash gave credit to Theodore, noting that “he made a lot of big saves.” Such is life in an NHL where the difference between first and last, between winning and losing, is slimmer than ever.
While it is easy to take pot shots at individuals when a game like this slips away, it largely an unproductifve exercise. There were no massive failings or shortcomings in play at either end. The defense was solid for the most part, and the play in the offensive zone was, at times, breathtaking. To use a baseball analogy, the Blue Jackets are hitting line drives at people right now. Just as in baseball, those line drives will start falling for hits — they just need to keep making solid contact. While much is being made of the lack of scoring from the Filatov, Vermette, Umberger line, keep in mind that this is just Game 3 for that group. The top line took several games to find their chemistry, and this one will come. They took a big step with their possession game, and despite some ragged play early, looked better as the game progressed. As Arniel observed, if the club was not getting chances, not able to get shots on goal and was otherwise not showing progress, it would be a cause for greater concern. That is not the case. To the contrary, the last three games have shown that the club is integrating the system more quickly and effectively than most could have anticipated.
On the defensive end, many positives are evident. Stralman is much improved at using his feet and anticipating the plays in the defensivee zone, and Tyutin has played strong games over the last stretch. Klesla has been good, and Methot continues to show the critics (including me) that he intends to be the guy on the blue line. Russell is rounding into shape nicely after his injuries. While the offensive aspect for the blue liners is still a work in progress, it too will come. Ironically, it the biggest questions may exist with the two defenders who were the shutdown #1 pair just two years ago — Hejda and Commodore. While Hejda has not been bad, he has also not been as dynamic or as much of a difference maker in his own zone. On the game winning goal, while Hejda was bumped by Voracek, he nonetheless had plenty of time to get back in front and be part of the play. Instead, he played spectator, leisurely drifting out as the winning tally was scored. Perhaps “passive” is the best adjective for the caliber of his play thus far. Insofar as Commodore is concerned, there are rumblings that he is not pleased at all with his status. It will be interesting to see how Arniel and Howson handle these issues. However, in the overall scheme of things, this internal competition is a good thing. With youngsters like Russell, Methot and Stralman stepping up, and talented players like Holden, Moore and Goloubef in the wings, there are no breathers for those wanting jobs on the blue line. That sense of “healthy competition” is something that you see on all good teams, and its existence in Columbus is a positive, not a negative.
Columbus will take a few days to work out the kinks, hone their shooting eyes and prepare for the St. Louis Blues, who have been exceedingly stingy in allowing goals thus far in the 2010 – 2011 campaign. This will be a great time for those line drives to start falling .