Blue Jackets Beat: A Thief in the Night

The Columbus Blue Jackets earned a hard-fought 3 – 3 tie with the Chicago Blackhawks last night at Nationwide Arena.  They earned it . .  .but did not receive it, thanks to a horrific, inexplicable “no-goal” call with 7:25 left in the second period.  Trailing 2 -1, the Blue Jackets were on the power play, and Derick Brassard fired a laser from the point.  Nick Foligno deftly deflected the puck past Corey Crawford, sending the sell-out crowd into a frenzy over the tying marker. Referee Dan O’Rourke disallowed the goal, claiming Foligno interfered with Crawford.   This was a case of call being made upon reputation, not observation, as video clearly shows that Crawford was not limited in his ability to respond to the puck.   Judge for yourself:

Almost immediately, tweets from around the league supported the views of those in Nationwide — that this was a garbage call.  If this sequence represents goaltender interference, then Tomas Holmstrom should have had the penalty box furnished for his personal use, as he would have spent the majority of his career there.  If you want the definitive “tell” on this one, just watch Crawford after the goal is scored.  Not a move, not a protest.  Just the usual “grab the drink of the top of the net because a goal is not a big deal” goalie reaction.

Of course, any time a referee’s call becomes the focus of   a game, the offended parties are portrayed as whiners, whose club should have taken care of business on their own, so that the call

(Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports)
(Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports)

would not have mattered.  Perhaps, but some calls, made a certain times, change the fabric of the game, and this one fell into that category.

A tie game is vastly different than a deficit, and when the Blackhawks converted an errant Mark Letestu pass for their third goal, it created a two goal gap, instead of one.  When Artem Anisimov converts a rebound with Mason pulled, and 2:19 left in the contest, that becomes the game tying tally.  These are big differences, particularly in a compressed season, where every point takes on magnified significance.The real shame, however, is that the officiating fiasco overshadowed a stellar Blue Jackets performance on the ice.

Entering the game, most fans would have grudgingly acknowledged that they had chalked this one up as a loss.  The Blackhawks sport a roster with speed, talent, and  — most importantly at this point of the season — familiarity.   It is no accident that they are undefeated, and at this early state are clearly the best team in the conference, if not the NHL.

The Blue Jackets are searching for chemistry, as befits a young club with a host of new faces.However, if the fans were concerned about the outcome, the players were not listening.  They turned in their most complete performance of the young season, from the opening drop of the puck until the final horn.  They dominated the early parts of the game, limiting the Blackhawks to a single shot deep into the period.  They took the lead on an aggressive scrum in front of the Chicago net, with Letestu notching his first.

They skated hard, played tight defense, reduced turnovers and penalties, and generally played a taut, skilled game.  They equalled or bettered the Blackhawks in virtually every statistical measure, dominated the physical game, and showed that when they play as a unit, they can compete at any level.

The same fans who pre-saged doom were likely not heartened by the announcement that Steve Mason would be starting in goal.  Mason did his best to alleviate their concerns, turning in a

Steve Mason
Steve Mason

much improved performance over his debut in Phoenix.  He displayed a sharp glove for the first time in memory, and made some important saves when he needed to.  He made a valiant effort on Toews’ unmolested opportunity in the third, and can’t be faulted for the fact that the Blackhawks captain managed to sneak the puck past Mason’s outstretched arm.  Similarly, Chicago’s second tally was an unstoppable deflection off of a Hjalmarsson shot from the point.  He still has a tendency to look surprised when a shot comes his way, and his rebound control remains a sore point.  The defense did a great job of coming to his aid by clearing the pucks, and exit passes were far crisper than on the road trip.

Offensively, Foligno and Anisimov are proving to be monsters — dangerous on virtually every shift.  Johansen and Dubinsky are playing well, but just are not getting rewarded for their efforts as yet.  Those rewards will come.  Ditto for Brassard, who made some great passes to guys who just didn’t have their sticks on the ice, and was deprived of another assist by O’Rourke’s call.

Brassard has a great shot, but needs to use it more.   Calvert is showing energy, but is prone to fundamental errors.  Umberger showed more energy last night, but still is not making the key plays with the puck.   Overall, the forwards are  a bit too quick to get below the goal line in the offensive zone, leaving nobody in the crease to create opportunities.  Still, it was a much improved effort against a formidable opponent.

A second consecutive sell-out was another highlight of the evening.  While many were skeptical of the Opening Night turnout, given the 2-for-1 deals and other incentives that were offered, but this was a “legitimate” full house, which was terrific to see.  The crowd was engaged from the drop of the puck, and while the Chicago fan contingent was strong, it did not dominate as in past years.  If the team can be rewarded for efforts like the one given last night, the Blue Jackets will establish that symbiotic relationship, where the club and the fans feed of each other’s energy, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, there were no rewards last night — they were stolen by a thief in the night.