For the past six weeks, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been stealthily climbing their way back into Western Conference playoff race — at least as stealthily as one can manage with a Civil War cannon as its “goal horn” and battle standard.Actually, the numbers Columbus have posted in this run demand attention, and likely would garner more public discussion were they a larger market team, and had they not had a precipitous tumble in December and early January. They are 8-1-1 over the past ten games, tied with New Jersey for the top mark in the NHL, and 11-3-3 for the last 17 games. They have 68 points after 60 games, have games in hand over every team ahead of them in the standings, and sit only two points out of the eighth slot, and seven from the fourth place position. (It is at this point in the conversation that Columbus fans will point out that they would be solidly above the playoff cut line in the Eastern Conference, and that Atlanta technically lies to the West of Columbus.) Be that as it may, the Blue Jackets are poised to be a significant factor in the playoff stretch drive, and that fact is due as much to the way they are playing as it is to the numbers they are stockpiling. The last two games provide vivid cases in point.
On Tuesday, Columbus hosted Nashville — the perennial thorn in the Blue Jackets’ side, once dubbed “Darth Vader” by former Columbus Coach Ken Hitchcock. Despite transitions in players, coaches , systems and styles, the Blue Jackets could boast only a .500 home record vs. the Predators, and have a catastrophically woeful record at Nashville. The Predators have historically played a tight, edgy game that Columbus has had trouble matching up with, and this night proved no different — except in the result. For two periods, the contest was a taut, restrictive affair. Columbus came out of the box strong, outshooting Nashville 13 – 6 in the opening frame, but was stymied by Pekka Rinne. While Rinne kept the puck out of the net in the first, there were signs of chinks in his armor. He seemed to be having trouble picking up the puck, as a few mediocre efforts appeared to handcuff him. He stumbled badly attempting to play a puck behind the net, and in general seemed uncomfortable in the crease. In the second, the tables were turned a bit, as Nashville tested a resurgent Steve Mason — outshooting Columbus 11 – 4 in the second stanza. The Blue Jackets have shown a disturbing tendency to take a bit of a nap in second periods, and this night proved no exception. However, unlike other occasions, while they generated few offensive opportunities, they posted a strong defensive effort. The clubs entered the third period scoreless and even in shots.
For the Blue Jackets, playoff viability and their buyer/seller status at the trade deadline were at stake. With the razor-thin gaps between clubs in the Western Conference, even a momentary lapse can be lethal, particularly when your club is below the playoff cut line with only two dozen games left on the schedule. These are the times that make young clubs like the Blue Jackets grip the sticks too tightly and grow tentative. Certainly, this was the trend shown last season under Ken Hitchock, and as the final period began, the anxiety in Nationwide Arena was palpable. However, instead of a tentative, tight affair, the assembled crowd was treated to what was likely the finest single period of team hockey the Blue Jackets have played since their debut as a franchise ten years ago. While that may sound like hyperbole, considering all that was at stake on this night, the recognition is appropriate. While their third period comeback effort on the road at Chicago in April 2009 was more significant, as it clinched the team’s first playoff appearance, this one involved a more comprehensive display of skill, energy and domination.
bodies and finding paydirt behind Rinne just 1:11 into the period. Just three minutes later, Rinne misplayed a bad bounce behind the net (as foreshadowed in the first), and Matt Calvert obligingly parked the puck in the back of the net. (Remember that Calvert name . . .it will come up again . . .soon). Now it was 2 – 0, and a pivot point was reached. In the past, with a two goal lead in the third period, the Blue Jackets would go into “prevent defense” mode. The forecheck would stop, the puck would linger in the middle third of the ice, and reliance would be placed upon goaltending and defense to get them through. As in football, this prevented victories more than it prevented defeats. Coach Scott Arniel, however, has brought a new philosophy to town, backed by a staff of NHL veterans, and enforced through an equal-handed willingness to place rear ends on benches or in press boxes, regardless of status or salary. So, on this night, there was no backing off.
At approximately the halfway point of the period, the Blue Jackets scored on a play that was a consummate display of skill and players fulfilling their roles. Defenseman Kris Russell, who experiences crises of confidence from time to time that reduce his effectiveness, used his agility to find open space along the left wing. Antoine Vermette took up residence in the crease, accepting the punishment that accompanies that location. Russell accepted a pace from Grant Clitsome, fired a laser onto the stick of Vermette, who steered it into the back of the net. That doused comeback hopes, and with the addition of another Nash tally, the 4 – 0 victory was complete. The Blue Jackets scored more goals (4) in the period than the Predators had shots (3), and completely dominated play. Their special teams, much maligned over the past two years, continued solid play, with the power play unit converting two of five opportunities, and the penalty extinguishing both extra man chances for the Predators.
While the Nashville victory was undeniably important, Friday night’s contest vs. Phoenix loomed just as large. Like Nashville, Phoenix is one of the clubs the Blue Jackets are looking to pass to gain a playoff foothold. As with the Predators, the Columbus record vs. the Coyotes in recent seasons is abysmal. Poised to begin a five game road swing that will be vital in the playoff race, Columbus was looking to continue the momentum.
Phoenix, in many ways, is the antithesis of the Blue Jackets. While Columbus is an organization built on young, home grown talent, with just enough veteran presence to provide leadership, Phoenix is a squad cobbled together out of wily veterans, with just enough youth to provide energy. While the Coyotes will not stun you with speed in their transition game, they have an uncanny ability to use their experience to find open areas and exploit even momentary weaknesses in a defense. When their goaltending is solid, as it has been under the stewardship of Ilya Bryzgalov, they are a formidable opponent. This is particularly true when you allow them to get comfortable, which is precisely what the Blue Jackets did during the first twelve minutes of the game. Instead of playing the pressuring “1+1″ defense that Arniel counsels, Columbus laid back in the defensive zone, allowing the Coyotes to maintain their spacing, and giving them plenty of time to maintain possession and make plays. When you give a veteran club that kind of latitude, they will invariably make you pay, and that is precisely what happenend here. David Schlemko was left unmarked, and gave Phoenix the lead just 1:34 into the game. Radim Vrbata jammed home a puck that caromed between skates just six minutes later, and the Coyotes had a 2 – 0 margin. While goalie Steve Mason would undoubtedly like to have another shot at the Vrbata tally, the lack of defensive presence was more culpable than the netminding. The mortuary-like silence in Nationwide Arena told the entire story.
Again, however, these are not your Blue Jackets from seasons past. While prior incarnations of the squad might have folded up and quit for the evening, this club refuses to die. R.J. Umberger and Jakub Voracek cashed in on power play opportunities within a span of under four minutes, and the Blue Jackets entered the intermission tied 2 -2, with an energized squad, a re-engaged crowd and a defined sense of purpose. Enter Matt Calvert, the 5’9” ball of energy that the Blue Jackets called up from AHL Springfield to provide some spark and fill in for the injured Kristian Huselius. Calvert has demonstrated that energy and skill can reside in the same player, and drove the point home with gusto on this night. Between the 2:37 mark of the second period and the 3:27 mark of the third, he rang up a natural hat trick, including a baseball swinging, mid-air conversion of his own rebound that will make highlight shows for a long time to come. The cascade of hats from the rafters of Nationwide Arena lasted so long that a warning had to be aired to refrain from throwing any more items on the ice, under threat of penalty. For the 16,771 in attendance, it was a memorable moment.
Thanks to the efforts of Mason and the defense, the Calvert onslaught brought no response from Phoenix, except for a late “excuse me” goal off of a defensive zone turnover. No matter — the game had been definitively settled long before. The Blue Jackets had posted five unanswered goals against the Coyotes, after having put four unanswered markers on the board against Nashville. While the top line of Nash, Vermette and Voracek had dominated the Predator’s game, the Calvert, MacKenzie, Umberger line controlled Phoenix. Both games featured ample contributions from the third and fourth lines, solid goaltending, and defensive efforts that were much improved over many games this season. The ability to respond to adversity, and the tenacity to finish off victories decisively, are relatively new weapons in the Blue Jackets’ arsenal, and they could not be appearing at a better time. The Blue Jackets embark on a five game road trip, starting Sunday afternoon in Nashville — an arena that has been the Death Star to their chances in the past. Still, never before has the club been playing with this level of skill, confidence and versatility, despite the lack of center Derick Brassard (dearly missed) and forward Kristian Huselius (perhaps not so much). Nashville has lost two straight, including an afternoon affair on Saturday, so the circumstance calls for similar energy and pressure displayed in the last two contests. With upcoming games in Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and St. Louis, and with games in hand on most contenders, the oppportunity is there to grasp a playoff position. Columbus has won six straight on the road — a franchise record — so is no longer daunted by playing away from Nationwide Arena.
The recent surge poses a mix of problems and opportunities to GM Scott Howson, who is now clearly a buyer, with just over 24 hours remaining before the trade deadline. However, Howson won’t sacrifice the future for inadequate return, making the prospects for a significant addition questionabe. The waiver pickup of Craig Rivet from Buffalo adds defensive depth, but not the meaningful addition that he seeks. How much does he risk disturbing chemistry for a playoff run? He has proven to be very resistent to fan pressure to make a deal — any deal — but undoubtedly feels the pressure nonetheless. His poker playing abilities will be put to the test between now and 3 PM Monday.
That rumbling sound you here is the footsteps of always-fickle Columbus fans running and jumping back on the bandwagon, now that some victories are in hand. The players are now in control of their own destinies. If they continue playing the way they have over the past 17 games, the numbers will take care of themselves. In Columbus, it is a March of playoff-caliber hockey, and there is nothing better to experience. Strap in, it is going to be a wild ride.