BLUE JACKETS ‘LEARNING TO WIN’
It may be a good thing that Ken Hitchcock’s hair is already a steely shade of grey, as the twists and turns the young season has taken would surely have otherwise accomplished the task. Just two days after surrendering a 2 goal third period lead en route to a shootout loss to Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets repeated some of the same miscues, but found the way to win that had been lacking during the recent streak that had the club going 1-4-1 after a 5-1-0. The result: a gritty 5 – 4 overtime win in the Verizon Center over a skilled Washington Capital club that had not lost in regulation since October 12.
In recent games, Columbus had shown a disturbing trend of being unable to control leads and shut down games in the third period. The absence of defensive stalwart Jan Hejda , combined with the need for injured Mike Commodore to get back into game shape, had disrupted the rhythm of the play in their own zone, resulting in tentative play, turnovers, and a plethora of wide open opportunities for opponent’s snipers. The club overall was going through a crisis of confidence that led Hitchcock to note that this team of youngsters was still “learning how to win.”
Against Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets had a solid 3 -1 lead, but stopped playing the aggressive style they had displayed during the first two stanzas, allowing Pittsburgh to dictate the play. Turnovers in their own zone and the neutral zone resulted in two Penguin goals in the last three minutes, sending the game to OT and the SO, where Nash and Vermette missed the net, while Crosby’s shot appeared to be stopped by Mason, but just trickled over the line for the difference maker. Johnson grabbed the tying effort of the stick of Huselius, and the Penguins walked off with the two points.
Facing Pittsburgh, Washington and San Jose in consecutive games is not normally a recipe for success when trying to work your way out of a crisis. Still, Columbus managed a point against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and could look back to last season for support, when Mason posted home and road 3 -0 shutouts of the Capitals. Mason had also been victimized by the recent tentative approach in the defensive zone, and had displayed little of the high-in-the-crease bravado that helped him earn the Calder Trophy last year.
Both teams came out strong, putting a combined 25 shots on net in the first, with both a rejuvenated Jose Theodore and Steve Mason putting on goaltending clinics. The lone tally of the period came when Backstrom and Fleishmann executed a nifty give and go, leaving Backstrom all alone in front of Mason for an easy goal.
The second period belonged to the Blue Jackets, although was perhaps even more notable for the absence of Alexander Ovechkin, who disappeared from the Washington bench after a single second period shift, and did not return. Unconfirmed reports specify a shoulder injury, with his status being day-to-day. Steve Mason turned away eleven shots, and captain Rick Nash brought the game even on a highlight reel move from the left wing around a helpless Mike Green. With just 59 seconds left in the period, and the Jackets on the power play, Nash came down the right wing, fired the puck wide of the net. A crazy carom of the backboard put the puck back in the crease, where a grateful R.J. Umberger was waiting to deposit it into a wide open net. Columbus withstood a Capitals flurry, and entered the third period with a 2 -1 lead.
Given recent events, the casual observer would have assumed that Columbus would have done anything to avoid a third period letdown. However, intentions and actions do not always coincide, particularly when you have a young team facing one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. Early in the third, Columbus eased off of the offensive pressure, and fell back into their zone too quickly. Gaps between defender and forward were cautiously wide, and Washington was able to perpetuate possession in the zone for long periods of time.
Inevitably, the Blue Jackets’ scrambling led to a penalty, and Brooks Laich parked a rebound without interference from the defense to tie the score. Less than two minutes later, Laich took advantage of the Blue Jackets’ inability to clear the zone, and slammed a wide open wrister from the slot past a fully screened Mason.
As the period progressed, to non-believers it appeared that the result was ordained, and that another Blue Jackets lead had gone by the wayside. This team, on this night, was not going to go gently, however. With 6:26 remaining, Raffi Torres cashed in on a wraparound to tie the score and bring life to the bench. However, less than two minutes later, Torres turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Washington capitalized (pun intended) – with Quintin Laing knocking home a loose puck in front of the cage past a helpless Mason. Again, to the uninitiated, hope seemed to disappear.
With just 2:24 left in the game, Mike Knuble, who had re-ignited the quiet Washington crowd with a one-pan penalty kill early in the period, committed a slashing penalty on the Jackets’ Derick Brassard. Brassard left cradling an obviously injured right hand, seemingly adding insult to injury. The Jackets kept the pressure on, pulling the goaltender and returning Brassard to the ice. Fittingly, just as the penalty expired, Brassard lasered a cross-ice pass to Raffi Torres at the left post, who notched the tying goal to substantial celebration by all concerned.
With the momentum having shifted yet again, Columbus took control of the overtime, and forced Brian Pothier to take an ill-advised interference penalty at the 1:33 mark. With the 4 vs. 3 advantage, the Blue Jackets took only 12 seconds to convert, with Rick Nash finding R.J. Umberger on the doorstep for his second power-play goal of the evening, and the game winner.
This was an unlikely, cathartic victory for the Blue Jackets. Despite again failing to hold a third period lead, they found a way to win and made crucial plays when they were desperately needed. Despite surrendering four goals, Mason looked very sharp, and with Hejda scheduled to return in their next game against San Jose, the ship appears to have been righted. While the youth of the roster will provide more roller coaster rides as the season progresses, they have learned some valuable lessons over the recent stretch. Hitchcock hopes those are lessons that will not need to be re-learned.