Coyote Ugly and Other Musings
You could have made some serious money if you had placed $100 on Matheiu Garon to notch the first shutout of the year for the Blue Jackets, particularly considering that Steve Mason notched ten of them a year ago. Yet Garon played an amazingly solid game from every angle to earn the First Star and lead the Jackets to a nail-biting 2 – 0 win over the thus-far-surprising Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale.
The new regime in Phoenix has taken a page from Ken Hitchcock’s book, adopting a philosophy premised upon hard checking and defense first. The style appears to suit the current pack of Coyotes, as they have posted some impressive performances at the beginning of the season, including a stifling shutout of the Penguins. Predictably, then, this was an affair characterized by checking, intercepted passes and limited opportunities at even strength, with the occasional rush when turnovers were forced up high. The Jackets capitalized on just such an opportunity, with Nash parking a tic-tac-toe play from Huselius and Brassard, getting the all-important first goal, which proved to be the game winner.
In games like this, special teams often make the difference, and this one was no exception. The CBJ took a slew of undisciplined penalties, giving Phoenix almost 13 minutes of power play time, including a double minor and two 5-on-3 deficits. In contrast, Columbus had but two power play opportunities, and did not look overly impressive on either opportunity. The penalty kill, however, more than atoned for any perceived sins of the power play. The PK was relentless and aggressive, denying passing lanes, challenging the perimeter and creating turnovers. When the defensemen lapsed, Garon filled the void. While Klesla had some questionable moments, Tyutin and Hejda were huge. Russell showed more confidence , and Stralman showed more skill in his own zone than he had on Thursday (when few of the defenders looked good.)
While some might characterize the win as “ugly”, and others might call it “gritty”, I prefer to think of it as “promising”. While it is very early, so no conclusions about anything are yet appropriate (see points below), this was a win that teams in past years don’t win. On the road – third consecutive home opener – lots of time on the PK—last game of the road trip – these were all traditional elements of disaster brewing. We found a way to make the plays necessary to win. Did we get a bit lucky? Sure we did – but no more so than in any hockey game. Their shot off the post equaled the one Huselius clanged in the first. The point is that we played a heavy game for 60 minutes, and did what was necessary to win. Faced with a daunting road trip right out of the box, when no team is completely settled, the Jackets have posted a .750 winning percentage and have not yet played a game where everything has clicked. That is the sign of a talented club.
Next Topic: Fan Panic
To those who have followed me for awhile, this topic will be familiar. In the wake of the San Jose loss, the alarmists were out in full force – “What’s wrong with the Jackets?” “Our defense sucks’, “Bench Mason”, “Fire Hitchcock”. I never cease to be amazed at the myopic view of so many supposed fans. So, for the first time this season (but, alas, likely not the last), please take note of the following: The NHL is an 82 game season, folks, not 12, like, say . . . college football. Bad news – the CBJ are not going 82 – 0. There are going to be times when the Jackets are cold or down when the opposing team is hot and up –particularly when the team is on the road, and especially when it is the opponent’s opening night. At the beginning of the season, virtually all teams are still getting the kinks out and learning to play together. If we are having this discussion in December, maybe we have an issue. If guys aren’t quite clicking after 3 games, not a big deal, not even a small deal. This is a long distance race, not a sprint, so you will save yourselves a lot of meaningless anguish by looking at the big picture.
By the way, the panic over Mason’s performance in San Jose is particularly unjustified. First, the guy had been a star for the first two games, having had 70 shots pelted at him. Secondly, he underwent a literal physical assault in San Jose – he was hit hard several times, and had a major collision with the left post in the first period when he was reaching to freeze the puck and was driven into the metal. I was frankly surprised that he got up. I am convinced he was hurting the rest of the game, but would not admit it. Secondly, he got no support from our guys, who also helped by tipping a couple of the goals. Sure, should he have had a couple? Absolutely. Does this pre-sage Armageddon? Hardly.
As we used to say in California — chill, people.
And Finally . . .
Part of the general whining and conspiracy theorizing involves the perceived lack of utilization of rookie Nikita Filatov, and what the future holds. Opinions range from declaring him a washout, to speculating that Hitchcock doesn’t like him, to having him returning to Russia in December. How can I best put this??? How about . . . . ridiculous . . . .
Hitch is noted for spoon feeding rookies, and gauging their playing time based upon opponent, style and situation. Before the season started, Hitch told the season ticket holders that Filatov’s slot and playing time would be dictated by precisely those situations. First of all, despite limited playing time, the kid had a beautiful one-timer goal against Vancouver, which is more goals than a lot of players have at this point in the season.
More fundamentally, let’s look at how Hitch treated Voracek, another winger, last year, and see if we can compare. For consistency, we’ll only look at even handed time, as neither guy was used on the PK in the first few games, and Power Play time is something that can’t be predicted or controlled. In Game 1 last year (a 5 – 4 OT Win at Dallas), Voracek got 6:35 of ice time. Filatov notched 7:30 of full –strength ice time this year, in a nail biting 2-1 win vs. Minnesota. In Game 2 this year, a 5 – 3 road win over Vancouver, Filatov earned 6:33 of ice time. Last year, Voracek skated 9:42 at even strength in a 3 -1 loss at Phoenix. Game 3’s in both seasons were three goal losses to San Jose on the road. Last year, Voracek skated a full 10:04, while Filatov had 6:14 on the ice this year, representing the biggest discrepancy. Finally, in the respective fourth games, Filatov notched 4:49 in a nail-biter in Phoenix, while Voracek got 7:54 in a 5 – 3 win over Nashville. (By the way, Voracek only skated for about 11:00 against Phoenix on Saturday night.)
So, while Voracek got more minutes last year, it is not a disproportionate difference in terms of minutes, particularly when you factor in the variables of opponent, style, game tempo, etc. Indeed, the similarities stand out more than the differences. In both years, the shifts and minutes went down when the game was tighter, particularly if we were leading. Shifts increased either early, or later, if the game was out of hand.
Here is the point – Hitch is treating Filatov the same way he has treated others, within a margin of error. Watch for Filatov’s minutes to go up at home, in more comfortable surroundings, and after more practices and game situations have been encountered. Lines will begin to settle in, and roles will get established. Will Filatov be the Calder Trophy winner?? Who knows? He has tons of talent, and Hitch will use that talent in a way that is best for the team. Filatov wants desperately to be a star in the NHL, and will do what is necessary to get there. That is a combination that bodes well for both the CBJ and Filatov. Let’s not judge either coach or player based upon the first four games of the season.
The Jackets are 3 – 1 after a stern road test to open the season, despite not having played their best hockey. That is what good teams do, and this is a good team. Enjoy it!