In the late 1960′s, Volkswagen used this ad, portraying the lunar Lander (officially the LEM — Lunar Excursion Module) as a metaphor for its Beetle — ugly but effective. Last night’s game against the Edmonton Oilers fits that description — ugly, but worthy of two points and continuation of a winning streak that now stands at three. For a young team coping with a new system and a spate of early injuries, substance is more important than style, so the CBJ will take the two points and run.
To characterize the game as lacking artistic merit is not to say that it lacked energy or excitement. To the contrary, with young Devan Dubnyk in net for Edmonton, the Blue Jackets’ mission was clear — put pucks on net in abundance. This they did with alacrity, piling up 18 shots in the first period, and 41 shots overall, including all of the shots in OT, despite spending the first 1:45 of the extra frame defending a 4-on-3 power play. Dubnyk surrendered some rebounds early, but the puck tantalized and teased the Jackets’ sticks for most of the evening. As Dubnyk settled in, he made some truly great saves, including some tough shots from Brassard, and breakaways from Filatov (more later) and Voracek.
To the Blue Jackets’ credit, they did not allow the relative lack of success in getting the puck in the net frustrate them. They carried the play throughout the first period, and once again got on the scoreboard first, on a terrific pass from below the line by Kyle Wilson, finding Pahlsson in the slot for a one-timer and a 1 -0 lead. A little over three minutes later, Edmonton tied the score when Horcoff was left alone on the backside post with 19 seconds left in the Oilers’ power play.
The next ten minutes of play was characterized by some choppy play, interspersed with some golden scoring opportunities, mostly for the Jackets. On those occasions where Edmonton mounted a threat, Mason was mopre than up to the task. Finally, with just under 2 minutes left in the period, Brassard fired a laser from the point. Clark swatted at a rebound, and Wilson put the puck home, restoring the lead at 2 -1.
The Jackets lost some of their edge in the second stanza, or as Mark Methot more succinctly stated “It was almost
an emotionless 2nd period . . .“ Both sides turned the puck over repeatedly, often during some stick batting sessions in the neutral zone. Edmonton took some energy from Columbus’ lethargy, but Mason was solid throughout, recognizing and reading the plays, and showing terrific lateral motion in the crease. That was essential, as the defense surrendered some scary chances, but the lead held into the third.
The Blue Jackets found their legs and energy in the third, but could not solve Dubnyk. He made some terrific saves, including stopping both Nikita Filatov and Jake Voracek on breakaways, after the Oilers had tied the game on an “excuse me” deflection by Taylor Hall, his first NHL goal. Filatov’s shot — a forehand -to-backhand move that would resurface in the shootout — almost found the hole under Dubnyk’s right arm, but found jersey instead of net. In the meantime, Mason was standing tall at his end of the ice, saving both some lasers from the Oilers and some accidental misdirections from his own defensemen.
One of those dreaded “Oh No!” moments came with just 15 seconds left in regulation, when Pahlsson was whistled for boarding. It was a marginal call, but consistent with the rather tight way the overall game was called. The prospect of 1:45 of 4-on-3 play to start OT was not pleasant to contemplate. However, the PK responded with aplomb and the Jackets generated some chances of their own in the OT.
On to the shootout, a omen of doom last season for the CBJ. However, this is a new staff and the changes were obvious. First, Arniel chose to shoot last, showing faith in Mason. Second, he placed Nash at the head of the line, followed by Filatov and Brassard. After the game, Arniel denied any divine master strategy (at least none that he would reveal), stating that his choices were more a matter of “feel.” Whatever works — because his feelings sure hit pay dirt on this night.
Sam Gagner came up first for Edmonton. Sam and Mason have some history of playing with and against each other in lower levels, and Mason said afterward that he knows the move Gagner used. Still, Gagner had Mason beaten, sliding to his glove side as Gagner moved the puck back to slide it in to the vacated far corner. Except . . .he couldn’t. Realizing he was beaten, Mase sprawled out, extending his stick back across the goal mouth, deflecting what looked like a sure conversion wide right, in what was quite possibly the save of the night.
That save provided a spark, and Nash was quick to cash in. Looping to the right, he wasted little time in snapping one straight past Dubnyk to give the Jackets the edge. Former Blue Jacket Gilbert Brule followed for Edmonton, and may have been disturbed by Mason coming far out and assuming a very upright posture. There wasn’t much net to see, and his wrister clanged off the right post. Enter Nikita Filatov.
To recount all of the drama that has followed Filatov in his brief professional hockey career would take volumes. Recently, he had been challenged on certain aspects of his play, and his minutes had been significantly reduced as he was shifted to the fourth line. Arniel and Filatov each acknowledged that there was work to be done, but did so in positive ways. Nonetheless, the cynics started the death watch, with a local columnist referring to the young Russian as “Zherdev II.” Quite the burden for a young man only 8 games into the season.
On this night, however, vindication was Filatov’s. He had played a solid game in regulation, and had earned back some power play time in the third. Intending to shoot five-hole on Dubnyk, Fedor Tyutin convinced him to go back to the move he used on the breakaway. Filatov did just that, skating in confidently and leaving no doubt as he roofed the backhand over Dubnyk’s arm and under the bar. Game over, and the full squad came over the boards to mob the young forward. Captain Rick Nash summarized the feelings thusly:
That’s huge for his confidence. . . He’s such a good kid in the dressing room, a guy who wants to be part of the team.
Nice words coming from the guy wearing the “C”, and further buttressed by Arniel after the game. He characterized his selection of Filatov in the shootout as “automatic”, and spoke almost reverently about his talent. The impression is that this is a kid on the rise, and fans can take some real encouragement from those signs.
Overall, this would be characterized as a technically sloppy effort, but one in which the energy, the grit and the desire was there. Good effort was seen from each line, and while the play was looser than Arniel would like, the essential mission of putting pucks on net, creating pressure and competing was accomplished. Kris Russell looked good in his return — a late minute substitution for Jan Hejda, who strained a calf late in warmups. (The unexplained scratch had trade rumors briefly buzzing among the press contingent, fueled by word that the explanation would not come until after the game.)
The Jackets are clearly a work in progress, but progress is being made. Though still far down the ladder in scoring, the shots are now being taken and are finding their way on net. The competitive fire is there for more of each game, and contributions continue to come from each line. Brassard is coming into his own, Holden is showing significant strides each game, and Russell looks like he will be back in full shape shortly. While Voracek, Nash and Vermette have yet to get untracked, that will come. There is still a chemistry process that needs to happen with the lines, and that will go far to help the Jackets “finish” better when presented with opportunities.
Of course, question marks abound this early in the season. How serious is Huselius’ injury, and what will the lines look like as he returns and Filatov climbs? Similar questions arise with respect to the defensive corps. With Holden playing well, and Commodore set to return, who sits? By caliber of play, it could be Klesla. If so, how long would Howson keep that salary on the shelf? There appear to be some logjams coming up in the not-too-distant future, and a rash of injuries around the league have created needs for players. The circumstances might be favorable for some deals to happen once Howson and Arniel have a better sense of where things stand, both from player health and performance perspectives.
In the meantime, the Jackets have a three game winning streak, and head to Colorado, with the highest GAA in the league. While style points are not strong right now, the culb is finding ways to win, which is key. Derick Brassard may have summed it up best:
I didn’t like the way we played with the puck tonight. It was like a hot potato on our stick tonight. It was not very good to watch, but like I said, we found a way to win the game, and that’s a good thing.
Indeed it is . . . a very good thing.