The Columbus Blue Jackets desperately needed a win Friday night against their rival the Pittsburgh Penguins. Thanks to a dominant performance in special teams, they got just that.
Gus Nyquist recorded his first hat trick with the Blue Jackets and captain Nick Foligno added two goals including a power-play goal to power the Blue Jackets to a decisive 5-2 win. The game really wasn’t as close as this score might indicate.
The Blue Jackets recorded 30 of the first 35 shot attempts of the game. They came out with energy and purpose and took the game to the Penguins. Nyquist scored his second goal of the game at 2:52 of the second. After that goal, the shot attempts were 30-5 in favor of the Blue Jackets.
Although the Penguins evened shot attempts up by the end of the game, the Blue Jackets were well in control and really weren’t threatened that much. Kris Letang scored in the third period to make it 4-2 but that’s as close as the Penguins would get. Nyquist capped his hat trick with an empty-net goal, the Blue Jackets first of the season.
Special Teams Dominance
The takeaway from this game however was just the complete dominance of special teams by the Blue Jackets in this game in both aspects. Their power-play scored twice in the second period and their penalty kill was a perfect 4/4.
If you’ve followed the Blue Jackets for any length of time, you know special teams especially the power play has been a pressure point for several years. Their penalty kill was awesome last season but their power play struggled. You rarely see times when both units are clicking at the same time.
Friday night at Nationwide Arena, you saw a game where both units clicked together. Ultimately, the Blue Jackets got a desired result against a division opponent. But it was how they did it that could be a good sign of things to come.
Finally Some Power Play Success
Let’s start with the two power-play goals. The first of which came from Nyquist to make the score 3-1. Zach Werenski shot the puck and it went to the boards. Pierre-Luc Dubois retrieved the puck and found Nyquist. Nyquist did the rest. He saw an opening in the slot and was able to get a backhander past Tristan Jarry. Full marks to Nyquist but full marks to everyone involved for making simple plays. Werenski shot it. Dubois retrieved it. Nyquist finished it. The Blue Jackets need more of this.
Then on the second power-play goal, Foligno did the work from the bumper. Seth Jones found Alex Wennberg. Wennberg’s attempted shot ended up in a scramble which Foligno won. Foligno then shot the puck while falling and scored to make it 4-1 Blue Jackets. There’s a ton to like on this goal.
Josh Anderson got the puck behind the net and was able to work it up the wall and it got back to Jones. After a reset, simple plays were made. Then a puck battle was won. It resulted in a goal from the bumper. Coach John Tortorella gave credit to the “middle-man” on their power play success on the night.
“I think the key tonight was we used that middle-man, you guys (the media) like calling it the bumper,” Tortorella said. “I’ll call it the middle man. I thought we used that really good tonight. I thought Gus was really good at that. Some other people jumped in. I thought Andy retrieved pucks well, was in that middle part of the ice. I felt that was important. Pucks are finding ways to the net and a couple went in tonight.”
A couple did go in Friday night. That makes seven power-play goals in their last 18 tries, a conversion rate of 38.9%. That corresponds with Paul MacLean joining the Blue Jackets’ staff. So is this a MacLean thing or something else? According to Werenski and Jones, it’s a little bit of both.
“I think both,” Werenski said. “Talking with him (MacLean), he makes things a lot more simple for us. We go over the boards and we have a game plan and it’s just on us to execute. Since he’s been here, we’ve done a good job of executing and found a way to score some goals. Tonight the goals were kind of unorthodox a little bit. Fliggy falling down, shooting five-hole. Gus showing great patience on the backhand. But we’re finding ways and that’s the most important thing.”
“We’re just playing more simple,” Jones said. “Obviously he gets credit for coming in as well and tweaking some things with the same personnel we’ve had this whole time. You probably wouldn’t even believe that but it is. We’re just playing a little more simple, a little more direct. He’s tweaked a few small things here and there. He’s letting us make plays. The execution is there.”
This is the best the power play has looked in a long time. After a 2/4 night, the Blue Jackets now boast the 10th best power play in the NHL at 20.7%. What a turnaround in such a small period of time. But that wasn’t the only good thing on the night in special teams. Did you see how dominant the penalty kill was?
Dominant Penalty Killing
The penalty kill had to be good especially late when the Blue Jackets took needless and dumb penalties. But that clip with Foligno and Wennberg shows the kind of night it was.
The Blue Jackets were aggressive and at times, dictated the play despite being a man short. They killed all four Penguins power plays including one at the end of the second period that kept the game 4-1 at the time.
Overall the penalty kill is 81.3%, which is 17th in the NHL. Considering how it started the season though, this is a vast improvement and they’re starting to look more like themselves on it. In the month of November, their penalty kill has killed 33 of 38 for 86.8%. If you take out the first St. Louis game, the Blue Jackets kill is over 91% in their last 12 games (31 for 34.)
Both units are clicking together in a way the Blue Jackets haven’t seen in a long time. They have a 38.9% power play since Nov 21 and a 91.2% kill since Nov 2. You won’t sustain this pace over a full season, but you can win important games with numbers like this. What was a huge liability is now a big asset for the team at a critical time in their season.
The Blue Jackets now focus on Saturday’s game against the Islanders. They need to continue demonstrating strong special teams while their other stars are looking for their game.
Friday’s game is a self-portrait of what dominant special teams look like. The Blue Jackets have always had the talent but now they have made some important adjustments and they’ve unlocked amazing recent results. There’s still plenty of hope for this season yet and special teams are the reason why.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.