You can’t support the Blue Jackets and not be ecstatic with tonight’s game. The Jackets were right there even strength with the Coyotes, were the better team on the powerplay, the better team on the penalty kill, and got the better goaltending. Don’t sleep on Phoenix either, as they are currently a playoff team in the tough Western Conference, and their 49 points would be second in the Metro division. Of course, I’ve buried the lede here, as Nathan Horton made his Blue Jackets debut. That went pretty well.
3rd Star: RJ Umberger
I have no issues with his placement here, even though he had a solid, if unspectacular game (outside of his goal of course). I tend to think of Umberger’s placement here as a vote for his entire line, which just continues to click. Foligno and Johansen were just as great as Umberger was last night, and while I’ve been hoping to see Horton take Umby’s spot on this line upon his return, RJ seems to be doing everything he can to hold onto it. He’s up to 11 goals on the year now, which puts him on pace for a very solid 22 goal, 46 point season.
2nd Star: Curtis McElhinney
A very nice rebound performance from McElhinney. And I don’t just mean that he bounced back from a lackluster effort against Colorado. He was very good at controlling his rebounds tonight, and when he wasn’t corralling them he did a good job at quickly getting into position to make the second save. What he did best tonight though was track the puck. I’ve never thought this was a strong point of his, but tonight the puck was like a magnet to his eyes. This is so vital against a team like the Coyotes that works best when they have guys in front getting in the way. McElhinney saw through the screens, tracked the puck on the rebounds, and was never caught off guard by the puck’s location. This allowed him to be where he needed to be all night long. The final result is a relatively quiet shutout, with really on the the spectacular rebound save on Ribeiro being of the highlight reel variety.
1st Star: Nathan Horton
Oh sweet goodness he was fun to watch tonight. He seemed to be having a lot of fun as well, as that grin didn’t appear to leave his face all night. His first shift was about as a good a shift a player (or line really) could have without scoring, as they just simply dominated the Coyotes for the entire minute and nine seconds they were on the ice (give or take a change on the fly). I was pleased with that, but was not expecting him to keep up that level of play the entire night. He pretty much did anyway though. There might be a little rust on his hands, but he figured out pretty quick that he should just head to the front of the net, be his unmovable self and pick up the trash. That’s how he scored his goal, and he had a shot at a few others, whether by rebound or tip ins. What a great presence he brought to the team tonight in pretty much every single way.
Dud: The USA Olympic Hockey team & their lack of Brandon Dubinsky
I’m not going to touch on the defense too much, other than to say they over thought it. Jack Johnson being left off was the right call though, although they picked about three wrong players in his place. The real issue I have is them leaving off Brandon Dubinsky. They manage to both over and under think this team. Amazing. In the most basic terms, what do you want from your depth players at a tournament like this? You want versatility. You want defensive play. You want reliability. That is what Dubinsky is. From reading the various behind the scenes posts on the selection process, it sounds like there was some serious consideration to taking Dubinsky over Derek Stepan as the spare center. The balked because if someone went down in the top six, then Stepan would be a better fit as a scorer. Wait, what? That makes ZERO sense. If a top six center goes down, Stepan would not be the guy to jump into that role, it would likely be someone like David Backes or Paul Stastny. Wait, Paul Stastny is a depth center on this team? WHAT? He’s a fairly mediocre two way player, and he’s fine offensively. I’d rather have Dubinsky as my fourth line center than Stastny, and I’d rather have the more versatile Dubinsky as my spare center than Stepan.
Note: I have only discussed Dubinsky as a center so far. That is because Dubinsky’s name seems to have never come up in the debate about the last fourth line winger spot, and the spare winger spot (given to TJ Oshie and Blake Wheeler). Ummmmm Dubinsky is just as good on the wing as he is at center. He’s right there with those guys in terms of points, is a better two way player, a better penalty killer, and is more versatile. But his name never came up, because “he’s a center”. Just wow. This whole thing isn’t really too hard. Take a look at this list; take the top guys from that group (Kane, Okposo, Pavelski, Kessel, Backes, Ryan, Oshie, van Riemsdyk, Dubinsky, Wheeler, Parise), add in Kesler, Callahan and Dustin Brown for more two way players with offensive pop, and you’ve got yourself a roster. That drops Max Pacioretty, Stastny and Stepan from the team. That’s three scorers being outscored by the guys above them. N0t rocket science.
Okay that was fun diversion, now back to the actual game tonight. We know the Umberger – Johansen – Foligno line is pretty damn good. It really looks like Dubinsky – Anisimov – Horton is going to be a very nice combination that fits well together. That’s two solid scoring lines that are pretty hard to play against. It also means Cam Atkinson, who just happens to be a super good hockey player, is on the third line. He’ll be joined there by Matt Calvert (if he could ever stay healthy). Theoretically Marian Gaborik is also on this team. If we keep the Johansen line together, reunite Arty with Atkinson and Calvert, could we then have a Gaborik – Dubinsky – Horton line? Holy smokes, that is some scoring depth! Without any real tried and true top line players, you need to have second lines that are better than most second lines (and this would be that), and a third line that can hang with most second lines (check!). So then the fourth line is filled with third line players. THAT is how you build a winning team without blue chip scorers (although Ryan Johansen is on the cusp). If I take out my contacts and squint, a healthy Blue Jackets forward corps bears a resemblance to the Cup winning Bruins squad of a few years back. Big, tough, deep, will just grind you into dust, but has enough skill top to bottom that every line can score on you. We’re still a few pieces away from seeing that full lineup in action, but hopefully tonight’s game was an indicator of fantastic play to come.