BLUE JACKETS STUN CANUCKS
Vancouver has historically been an unfriendly venue for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and this opener of a three game road trip did not figure to be any easier. Vancouver was sporting an 0 – 2 record for the first time in recent history, and to say they (and their fans) were angry would be a substantial understatement. Factor in that this was the home opener at General Motors Place, that Roberto Luongo was in net, and Columbus was missing first pair defenseman Mike Commodore to a minor groin tweak, and the tea leaves were not sending out favorable vibrations.
So much for omens. Columbus came out strong, shrugged off a first period Vancouver goal, and drove Luongo to the showers with a three goal flurry, in 3:44 of the second period, ultimately posting a 5 – 3 victory. The Blue Jackets thus reach the 2 -0 mark for the first time in club history, while Vancouver falls to 0 – 3 for the first time since 2001.
Despite tallying five goals, the Blue Jackets owe this victory to Steve Mason, who stopped 40 of 43 shots, including some truly amazing glove hand stops of point blank opportunities. In contrast, Columbus was the model of efficiency – tallying five goals in just 24 shots, including goals on three consecutive shots in that second period flurry.
This one began as a “heavy” game, as Ken Hitchcock would say, with tons of hitting on both sides, in all parts of the ice. Midway through the first, Jackets’ enforcer Jared Boll absorbed a brutal check into the boards from Darcy Hordichuk, catching his chin on the ledge of the boards, and was out for the count. He did not return. Columbus displayed a lot of patience in the offensive zone, and was not permitting the Canucks any extended time in their own zone. Still, Vancouver scored first, with Henrik Sedin parking a rebound of a Bieksa shot on a diving sweep, after defender Fedor Tyutin got caught in No-Man’s Land. Undaunted, the Jackets evened the score with just 42 seconds left, on a pretty tic-tac-toe play between defender Mathieu Roy, Rick Nash and Antoine Vermette. Nash ultimately put a laser on Vermette’s stick in the crease, and he bumped it into a wide open net.
The Columbus transition game was on full display in the second. Just 2:09 into the period, Huselius took a drop pass on the right wing from Nash, who drove to the net. Huselius floated into the top of the circle, looked off to Nash, then fired the puck into the far upper corner for a 2 – 1 lead. At the 5:29 mark, Huselius left the puck for Rostislav Klesla, who took advantage of traffic in front and beat Luongo high for his second goal in as many games. Just 22 seconds later, rookie phenom Nikita Filatov one-timed a feed from Vermette through the five hole, giving Columbus a three goal lead, and Luongo and early shower.
At this point, the gas went out of the Blue Jackets engine. Their legs got heavy, they abandoned the patience they had shown early, and became sloppy with the puck. Enter Mason, who allowed two lasers from the point, one by Ehrhoff and one by Mitchell, neither of which Mason saw. Nothing else got past him, as he maintained an aggressive position high in the crease, and showed the glove work that was evident last year before the bout with mononucleosis. Fedor Tyutin was credited with a closing power play goal (though it appeared to carom off of Raffi Torres in the crease) played an extremely strong games on the blue line, as did Mathieu Roy. The checking line of Pahlsson, Chimera and Umberger was good at both ends, with Umberger drawing a couple of key penalties, including the last one, which provided the gap that enabled Blue Jacket fans to catch their breath.
While Hitchcock was not pleased with the letdown in the second half of the game, which allowed Vancouver to ring up the prodigious shot total, he has to be quietly thrilled with the skill and chemistry shown across three lines. Nash had three assists. Vermette, Klesla and Huselius all had a goal and an assist, and the team as a whole showed the ability to play in a heavy game on the road and come out on top. Being able to do it while giving some youngsters some playing time is a bonus.
For Vancouver, the fan base is in full panic mode. While Luongo has historically been a slow starter, he has not had a streak like this in recent memory. While a true goalie controversy is a long way off, some of the more radical fan elements are likely to call for Raycroft to start, though he looked anything but solid. The blue line is proving suspect for the Canucks as well, so some shakeups may be forthcoming. However, Vancouver always seems to find a way to end up at or near the top, and this year will likely be no different.
For Columbus, they move onto San Jose, where they will play on Thursday for the Sharks’ home opener, then to Phoenix for a Saturday game that also serves as the home debut for the Coyotes. Newly acquired defenseman Anton Stralman will make his debut in San Jose, and should add further offensive support and power play leadership. Boll has “some kind of concussion”, according to Hitchcock, and may not even be cleared to fly with the team to San Jose. Hitchcock vows that newly-acquired backup netminder Mathieu Garon will get a start on this trip.
This contest had a little bit of everything – heavy hitting, dynamic transition game, amazing goaltending, and some real offensive talent. Hitchcock’s challenge will be to keep his young club on a short leash, as he does not want them to abandon his “defense first” system in favor of a wild back and forth track meet. All things considered, however, this is a problem he likely loves to have.