Blue Jackets Beat: Coyote Ugly, But Streak Extends to 10

blue-jackets-logo twitterIf you had polled NHL scribes prior to this season, and asked which clubs were most likely to post a ten-game point streak in this shortened season, chances are overwhelming that Columbus would not have made the top 25 in that list.  Yet — 29 games in — the Blue Jackets are the proud owners of just such a streak, which is still alive thanks to a befuddling 1 – 0 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night — the club’s first-ever 1-0 shootout win.

Beating The Gas Crisis

To be sure, this one was not a pretty victory, but signs were there that some ugliness was due.  In the twin shootout losses to Vancouver and Chicago, the offense had been limited to single goals, and much of the crispness that had been evident in transition began to fade.  Ditto the ability to maintain possession in the offensive zone.  The club surrendered 40 shots to the Blackhawks, 38 to the Canucks, and posted a combined 21 shots fewer than the opponents in those games.  So, the fact that Phoenix managed a 39 – 23 shot advantage last night was a logical extension of recent events.

It was particularly cruel that the opening frame against the Coyotes was a relatively wide-open affair, with stretch passes abounding and each team seemingly trying to channel their inner Pittsburgh Penguins identity.  Each club put a dozen shots on goal, but that effort exhausted what little fuel was available to the Blue Jackets’ skaters, who managed just 11 shots the rest of the evening.  The effect was exacerbated by the fact that referees Greg Kimmerly and Stephen Walcom apparently had early flights, and did not want to be bothered by stoppages in play.  The lone penalty of the initial stanza went against Matthew Lombardi, for being too aggressive in voicing his objection to being tossed from the face-off circle.   Only three more minors were handed out the rest of the game, despite some rather blatant high sticks and goaltender interference instances — on both sides — and Mike Smith’s mugging of Vinny Prospal — none of which were called.

After the Chicago game, coach Todd Richards observed that the quality to leave a player’s game when fatigue sets in is the mind.  This was apparent as the game wore on last night, as the frequency of questionable puck decisions increased, and the few offensive opportunities that were presented were foiled by the inability to connect squarely with the puck — either shooting or passing.  The club had difficulty getting the puck deep with consistency, and when they did, lacked the legs to convert that to offensive opportunity.

Despite all of this, the club won, and ironically appeared the most dangerous in the 4-on-4 overtime, when Columbus was clearly the superior club.  This speaks to a level of intestinal fortitude across all lines and pairs that is unfamiliar to Columbus faithful.  Despite allowing a 2-on-zero rush on a bad change in the second period, and some mad scrambles in front of its own net at the end of regulation, they found a way to make the play that needed to be made, at the time it was needed.  As has been occurring throughout the streak, the players communicated, covered for each other, and managed to replace legs with tenacity.  The blue line bent, but did not break, and at the end of the day, Anisimov and Letestu were able to display the skill required to beat Smith in the shootout, providing an unlikely two points to a team that simply refused to wave the white flag.

Certainly, the Blue Jackets have a legitimate claim to fatigue.  Only Detroit has played as many games as Columbus in the West, and nobody in the NHL had played more as of last night.  Nine of the ten games in the current streak — dating back to February 26 — have gone to overtime or the shootout, accounting for an additional 37:52 of ice time.  That’s the better part of another game — not something you want in an already crowded schedule.  Still, the Jackets found a way to get it done.

Let’s see . . . have I neglected to mention anybody? Oh, yeah . . . him . .  .

Sergei Bobrovsky/Columbus Blue Jackets
Sergei Bobrovsky/Columbus Blue Jackets

The Big Bobrovsky

I wish I could take credit for that heading, but Blue Jackets’ play by play maestro George Matthews beat me to it last night, and it could not be more appropriate. [Warning: If you are a Philadelphia Flyers fan, you may wish to avert your eyes from this section and move on to the conclusion. We disclaim responsibility for any damage inflicted should you ignore this advice.]  The young (24) Russian netminder — obtained for a few picks from the Flyers in the off-season — was the NHL’s 1st star for his effort last night, was the NHL’s 1st star for last week, and has been the 1st star in the last five Columbus home games.  He has deserved every accolade he has received — and then some.Consider that in the last six games, Bobrovsky has faced 205 shots in regulation and overtime — and has stopped 200 of them.  That’s a .976 save percentage.  His overall .932 save percentage is second in the NHL among starters, and leads the league for those with 20 or more starts.  His overall 2.00 GAA is fourth among starters, and second only to Rask’s 1.92 average among those with 20 or more starts.  However, beyond the numbers is the fact that this youngster is making the key saves at the key times — and is looking as cool as a cucumber while doing it.  He seldom leaves a dangerous rebound, casually steers pucks to a benign corner, and has overcome an earlier vulnerability to shots from the point.  While he modestly deflects most of the credits to the team around him, those teammates are effusive in their praise — both of his performance and his work ethic.   It is clear that the guys on the ice have confidence in their netminder, and he is more than happy to oblige their trust.

This is quite a transformation for a position that has been The Black Hole for the organization over the past few years.  That these performances are coming at a time when, for the most part, the offense has been struggling to produce, is both fortuitous and a harbinger of good news for the future.  While the season started with the blue ice being shared by Bobrovsky and Mason, Bob has firmly seized the starting role, and shows no signs of surrendering it any time soon.

Climbing the Ladder

So, the club is 6-0-4 over its last ten, earning 16 of a possible 20 points — an .800 clip. Only Anaheim has done better (17 points) over the same stretch, and only Montreal, Pittsburgh and Chicago have equalled that mark. That’s pretty heady company.  Not counting games in hand, the squad is tied for 10th in the West. However, what does it really mean?

From the negative perspective,  much of this success has been earned at home, and that 12 of the final 19 are on the road, where the club has not had success this year. Columbus cedes games to most of the competition, so the improvement in the standings is not as significant as it might otherwise be.   While these are undeniably true, it also a fact that the club is playing a vastly different caliber of hockey than earlier in the season, so the road record is not necessarily a gauge of what is to come.  Next, while there is a game differential, we are again in a situation where there is extreme compaction of the contenders, with six points separating fourth place from eleventh place, and six teams within four points of each other.  Unlike prior years, there are no out-of-conference games to skew things, so all of these contenders will have to play each other, which reduces the impact of the “games in hand” issue.

Also consider that the Blue Jackets are done playing Chicago — which is a bonus going down the stretch.  They have a home and home series remaining with Anaheim, but otherwise will be playing clubs in similar standing. Nine of the final 19 — just shy of half — are versus clubs tied with or behind the Blue Jackets today.  Finally, while the success the Blue Jackets have had has come at home, it has also come in the course of one of  the most arduous schedules in the NHL to date, with significant injuries complicating the picture further.  So, there is plenty of ammunition for both optimists and pessimists as this race runs down the back stretch.

Whether you adopt a positive or negative view toward the playoff prospects, one thing is abundantly clear:  opportunity is knocking, and the Blue Jackets have put themselves in a postion to be masters of their own destiny.  That’s a good problem to have, and certainly nothing to make you to chew your arm off .