Well folks, you knew it would happen some time. Last night the Canucks returned to town and ended the Blue Jackets’ 5 game win streak although the boys in union blue were able to keep their point streak alive. Overall the game difference came down to a slow first period and the fact that this team still has some talent gaps that are the difference between good and great. Well and there were some questionable calls. So on to the recap.
The first period showed a slower, seemingly less motivated Jackets team than recent match ups. Perhaps the boys were tired, perhaps this is the reality of a young team learning to deal with pressure when the league’s collective attention turns their way, but we didn’t look as fired up as we have in previous match ups. Vancouver dominated puck control so I was surprised to see shots on goal relatively equal at the end of the first. But closer inspection (as one should always do with stats) reminds you that Columbus blocked a total of 16 shots last night (compared to Vancouver’s 5). I’d wager more than half of those came in the first period.
The second period seemed to return some of the fire in the Jackets’ belly and the energy appeared to seep back into the team culminating in a goal from Mark Letestu beautifully assisted by Vinny Prospal and Derick Brassard. The guys seemed to get their feet under them, and demonstrated their return to dominance on the penalty kill until, after a brilliant series by the PK unit including Bob seeing the puck like a beach ball apparently, Vancouver struck literally with Jason Garrison scoring as the clock wound down to the final seconds of the penalty. It was an omen of things to come.
The third period brought us back the Jackets’ style of play we’ve come to enjoy this year. Fast, strong, urgent play returned to the ice but Vancouver seemed to learn something from their visit last week. They countered play for play and also were playing a very VERY physical game. I’d wager Matt Calvert spent some serious time in an ice bath last night from all the hits (even those that weren’t called) he took. I found myself whispering “get up get up get up” after he fell to ice time and time again. You could also see the fatigue in Brandon Dubinsky on his first game back. His skill and eye for the game were sharp but he too, was slow to get up a few times, and also took to the bench looking quite exhuasted as the third period wore on. The third period certainly got chippy and ended with one of the more egregious non-calls we’ve seen in Blue Jackets land in a while. Daniel Sedin seemed to think that it is perfectly legal to spear Sergei Bobrovsky in the mask. Bob fell to the ice, clearly in discomfort and after a delay returned to play. I’m sure the refs from last night have what they consider to be a perfectly logical explanation for the non-call, but I will simply point out two key things: first, Daniel Sedin is simply too talented as a hockey player to do that without intent; second, if he wasn’t going after Bob, his motion with the stick makes no sense – what the heck was he trying to do otherwise?
The period and the game ended with the two teams knotted at 1 goal a piece. And we went to bonus hockey. Play continued through the bonus time as it had started and we went directly to the shootout. Columbus ordered up Ryan Johansen, Matt Calvert and Mark Letestu. Ryan showed a good look for the goal but Roberto Luongo simply didn’t bite on the move. The shot withered as it approached Luongo. Bob was able to turn away Chris Higgins (to the relief of those worried after the earlier hit) and then Matty hustle took to the ice. Matt couldn’t convert either and we saw the Canucks send Mason Raymond to the center dot. In a play that will be highly disputed for some time, he executed a highly debatable spin-o-rama shot that was deemed legal after it confused Bob just enough to make it into the net. Many are debating rule 24.2 this morning, and I am not a hockey rules expert, but I will offer this. There was clearly a fly of snow from Mason’s skates as he finished his turn – that to me implies stopping. He also lost the puck off his stick and reconnected to it after his turn. The NHL’s official stance is that the shot was reviewed real time. I was disappointed to see no movement by the game officials to the scorebox as they usually would to receive word from Toronto that the call was legitimate. I asked Aaron Portzline about this last night and he shared that Mike Murphy was supposedly on a headset with the video goal judge in Columbus. Puckrakers also shared that the NHL stated that Letestu was not allowed to take his shot until confirmation was received of a good goal. This all may be true, but sitting in the arena you saw very little interaction between the officials and headsets and the benches. Our bench in particular was irate and players were quite emphatic in their displeasure. It is what it is and the goal stood. Mark Letestu couldn’t convert and while Columbus gets the point, the win streak is over.
Some overall thoughts on the night. We didn’t seem to come out as strong as we have in our recent games. I guess that’s to be expected. The style of play this team has demands relentless energy and the compressed schedule certainly doesn’t help. And while enjoyable, “free hockey” in the form of overtime and shootouts again and again does nothing for resting up the bodies for games in another 48 hours. I’m in no way saying that the lackadaisical start is acceptable but again, it is what it is. Further, it’s worthwhile to consider that we are still an organization building an identity and culture. We’re not used to being the team to knock off the block. Learning to deal with that pressure and perform at an elite level is still something we need to improve. As teams start to notice us, we’ll no longer be the guys you roll out your backup goalie for – as we raise the bar, so too shall the bar be raised against us. Which brings me to talent. For a few games now you can see the inches of difference that our talent gap costs us. Shots that can’t be finished, players being disrespected on ice. This team is doing well for what it is – but it will take the addition of more skilled players to this roster to push us into the long term success that we desire.
Finally, kudos to the fans. The last four home stands have brought out a healthy crowd. I can’t help but wonder if bringing in the start of a winning tradition finally unlocks the throats (and wallets!) of Blue Jacket fans to come out and support their team. As is always said, winning fixes everything. It would appear we’re experiencing benefits of that right now in attendance and I hope that folks are enjoying the games and considering a long term commitment to attending hockey games in Columbus.
Thursday brings the Blackhawks to town and my what a difference a few weeks makes. No longer the team to knock off, Chicago is looking to return to their dominant (as far as their record) form. I’m hopeful the Jackets will return to their high energy level and bring us a good match up and the opportunity for two more points!