The Columbus Blue Jackets have played three home games on Fridays this season. The results? Three losses — 16 goals against, 5 goals scored. The only other Friday night contest was a 3 – 2 loss to San Jose in Stockholm for the season opener. Do you sense a pattern here? And no, none of these games fell on Friday the 13th.
The latest installment of this bizarre phenomenon took place last evening, with the Colorado Avalanche serving as the obliging opponent, dealing the Jackets a 5 – 1 defeat at Nationwide Arena in a continuation of a series that has been characterized by domination. The Avalanche historically owned the Blue Jackets, until the 2008-09 season, when Columbus swept all four matchups with the Avs. Since then, Colorado has resumed its winning ways, coming out on top in the last six contests, including a similar 5 – 1 drubbing in Colorado just two weeks ago.
Both teams entered the contest having been bitten by the injury bug. For Columbus, Rick Nash and Derek MacKenzie were sidelined with lower body injuries sustained in the Jacket’s 8 – 1 rout of St. Louis on Wednesday. Winger Nikita Filatov was also injured in that contest, but was healthy enough to answer the bell against the Avalanche. Andrew Murray (playing his first game of the season after a knee injury) and Michael Blunden (an emergency call-up from Springfield) filled in. While missing Rick Nash would be a notable absence at any time, involuntary line-up changes have a bigger impact upon this young team, which is working hard to develop chemistry and fully implement Scott Arniel’s dynamic system.
The Jacket’s started lethargically, but nonetheless took the lead 5 minutes in,
when Filatov placed a laser on the stick of Antoine Vermette, who needed only to direct the puck past a surprised Budaj. The Vermette, Filatov, Umberger line was by far the best performing line for Columbus, and Filatov was consistently good. He put several stunning passes on the tape of his teammates’ sticks in scoring territory, but to no avail. While Filatov has been challenged in goal scoring, watching his skill level and awareness in all three zones blossom has been gratifying to those who continue to believe that the youngster has a bright future in the league. To be fair, Derick Brassard also worked hard, with 5 shots and a 67% winning percentage in the faceoff circle. However, the line clearly missed Nash, as Kyle Wilson was clearly overmatched on the top line, and all three suffered in the +/- category.
Unfortunately, that was to be the lone highlight for Columbus on this night, who could not get any bounces to go their way in the offensive zone, and were guilty of standing around and serving as spectators in the defensive zone. Post-game, a befuddled Arniel noted that were “at least 10 guys who didn’t show up tonight.” He more specifically observed that “ . . .top five defenders had a tough time out there.” Arniel was quick to point out that he was referring to “defenders”, not “defensemen.” A quick look at the scoresheet validates his assessment: Methot, Klesla, Pahlsson, Clark and Dorsett were a collective minus-13 on the night, and as a group they played worse. Klesla and Methot were a non-factor in the offensive zone, and all five played poor fundamental hockey in all three zones. Where the Blue Jackets had been good at denying space on defense, and creating space on offense, they did neither on this night.
While Colorado is a team that undeniably has both speed and quickness, this loss was not a question of the Jackets being overmatched by speed. Rather, it was more of a collective lethargy and key mistakes that sealed their doom. An inability to clear the puck led directly to Jones’ first goal, just two minutes after Vermette’s goal. An inability to properly defend a 2-on-1 break hung Steve Mason out to dry and allowed a shorthanded goal at the 10:57 mark of the second period. Surprisingly, Columbus had dominated much of the early second frame, outshooting Colorado 7 – 2 just five minutes in.
To the extent that the shorthanded marker didn’t deflate the team, what followed most certainly did. Dupuis placed a shot on net, which Mason saved. The accumulated scrum pushed Mason back into the net, and the on-ice officials called goal. Now, as Arniel pointed out in his presser, no replay showed the puck, and the official’s claim that he saw the puck enter the net is highly suspect. No question that Mason was pushed into the net, but given the call on the ice, and the inability to see the puck on replay, there was no basis for reversal.
Notwithstanding the seemingly bad call, the Jackets responded with energy from Vermette’s line, with Vermette crashing the crease with a wide open net — but he missed. That juxtaposition of events signalled the death knell for any comeback hopes, as you could hear any remaining energy being sucked out of the building. Stastny extended the lead to 4 -1 just before the end of the second, as the CBJ defense stood idly by while the puck bounced around the crease, ultimately getting kicked to Stastny who knocked it into a largely open net and past an exasperated Mason. Jones added another in the third, clanging it off the post as Methot screened his own goaltender.
Saturday brought an intense practice at Nationwide, and more of the same can be expected before the team leaves on a west coast swing through Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose. Consistency is the theme of the day, as Columbus has demonstrated some terrific play in wins over the Blues, Thrashers, Blackhawks and Flyers. However, they have had meltdowns against Calgary, Chicago and Colorado — twice, and all but one of those have taken place on a Friday. While Columbus has been resilient — they haven’t lost two in a row this season — they have also appeared mentally fragile when they can’t bury opportunities and some random misfortune goes against them.
The Blue Jackets are 4 – 1 thus far on the road, and it is a good sign that the aversion to travel all to apparent in seasons past appears to be disappearing. Ethan Moreau will make the trip out west, and his leadership and skill will be helpful. Assuming that Nash and MacKenzie return by the opener of the road trip on Wednesday, Columbus could be posed for success. The Jackets had been struggling to score before the St. Louis explosion, and they should now know that they have the capability of putting some big numbers on the boards. They need to keep their feet moving, stop reading their own press clippings, and put rubber on the net.
Of course, they need to put together all of the wins they can. There are 14 Friday games left on the schedule — time to end the freakiness.