After earning just a single point in the first two meetings with the struggling Calgary Flames, the Blue Jackets came out of the dressing room with determination on Tuesday night, and rode that emotional commitment to a 3-1 victory before 12,443 at Nationwide Arena.
After getting off to the best start in club history, Columbus had struggled through a 2-7-3 showing in its last dozen games, which saw goaltender Steve Mason struggle mightily and the offense sputter. The Jackets could not get a bounce or a break, and the fan base was nervously recalling the disastrous spiral of last year at this time, which doomed the club’s playoff chances and put an equally final touch on Ken Hitchcock’s tenure behind the bench.
This is a new year, however, and the Blue Jackets remain in the thick of the absurdly compact Western Conference playoff hunt, despite the recent unpleasentness. Coach Scott Arniel and his staff appear determined to prevent a recurrence of last year’s mishaps.
As they emerged from the tunnel tonight, the Blue Jackets sported a new top six configuration, with the veteran lineup of Nash, Vermette and Huselius joined on the top line, and Brassard, Umberger and Voracek on Line two. Brassard and Voracek had lost some of their offensive aggressiveness of late, spending more time looking to pass to Nash than to exploit their own opportunities. Naturally, defenses simply moved to shut down Nash, and the productivity of the entire line suffered. At the same time, Antoine Vermette was not getting the number of opportunities he should be seeing, having registered only 59 shots entering this contest. Arniel appeared to recognize these factors, and sought to free up the youngsters, while providing veteran leadership at the top.
The other major change was the healthy scratch of defenseman Mike Commodore, who had struggled over the recent stretch and could be mismatched with the speed that Calgary brings to the table. Rostislav Klesla returned to the lineup in his stead.
The Blue Jackets took control of the pace of this one early, though Calgary did notch the first three shots of the game. As if on cue, Jake Voracek made Arniel look like a genius at the 5:14 mark of the opening period, cutting across the middle and zipping a wicked wrister glove side on Karlsson. That gave Columbus the early lead, something they had not enjoyed for several games.
The balance of the opening frame was typical of the rest of the contest — lots of skating, contested passes and a fair amount of physical play. The Blue Jackets were credited with 44 hits, but the game truly did not seem to support that number. Still, Columbus did successfully return to Arniel’s system of “1+1″ pressure, and limited Calgary’s time and space with the puck. The top two lines had some substantial periods of possession in the Calgary zone, and had numerous scoring chances. Nine different Blue Jackets had multiple shots, and the top line accounted for 14 shots by themselves.
Jared Boll extended the Blue Jackets’ lead to 2-0 just past the halfway mark of the second period, parking home a loose puck from a scrum in front of the crease. For the second half of the period, however, Columbus appeared to lose focus and Calgary accelerated the pace. However, the Columbus defense was able to keep Calgary to the perimeter, for the most part, and Garon successfully deflected the shots that came his way.
Calgary’s lone tally came at the 16:34 mark of the second, while Vermette was serving his second interference penalty of the period on a debatable call. Jarome Iginla held onto the puck for what seemed like an eternity, the Columbus defense collapsed too far, and Iginla found Jokinen on a cross-ice pass into the wheelhouse. Garon never had a chance on the one-timer, and the gap was narrowed to one.
Given recent history, a one-goal margin entering the final stanza did not provide much reassurance to the assembled fans. Though the Jackets were not as crisp as in the first half of the game, they found their rhythm once again and kept pace with Calgary throughout the final frame. An inauspicious penalty for too many men came at the 15:20 mark, to audible groans from the crowd, who was undoubtedly expecting the worst. Still, Columbus killed the penalty with alacrity, and iced the game at the 19:02 mark when Rusty Klesla’s clearing effort found the vacated Calgary net.
Obviously, this was a much-needed win for Columbus from both practical and psychological standpoints. The two points keeps them in the thick of the race, and the win at home relieves some of the mental burden that had accumulated over the past few weeks. The Blue Jackets amassed 37 shots on goal, and managed to stifle Calgary at even strength. The top two lines were monsters, and the bottom six forwards had their moments as well.
Some nagging issues continued to crop up, however. Ragged passing near the blue lines placed the lead in jeopardy on more than one occasion, and the puck handling down low in the defensive zone was suspect. Garon is not the most nimble goaltender with the puck, and Marc Methot showed a frustrating tendency to defend himself by holding onto the puck too long, putting himself on the backhand unnecessarily, and then committing the turnover when pressured. Fortunately for Methot, the “Giveaway” statistic is a malleable concept, otherwise he would have been tagged for a few. Kris Russell also needs to carry the puck more, leveraging his speed and mobility, and opening opportunities in the offensive zone.
Although he did not get on the scoreboard tonight, Kristian Huselius nonetheless demonstrated why he was sorely missed during his extended injury leave for a high ankle sprain. He really is a genius with the puck, and his ability to make small moves to create space is invaluable to the rhythm of the offense. If Huselius, Nash and Vermette click and Brassard and Voracek find their rhythm, the slump of December could become a distant memory very quickly. Another good sign was the improved play of Anton Stralman, who had been struggling in all aspects, but notched four shots against the Flames and looked more comfortable than he had in a long while.
In the meantime, Vancouver lurks on Thursday night before the Christmas break. The Jackets will be looking for revenge for last week’s overtime loss, and for a considerable spark of momentum leading into the New Year. For his part, GM Scott Howson will undoubtedly be mulling over his options, as Columbus still needs to boost productivity from the blue liners, and could use another pure shooter. There is lots of potential help in Springfield, but the organization appears resolute in not rushing the youngsters. There are tradeable pieces, if only Howson can find a fit.
While the Blue Jackets are not out of the woods yet, they took a big step back onto the trail tonight.