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Defense Betrays Blue Jackets

After beginning the season with a 5 – 1 record, leading the league in penalty killing, and overcoming the absence of first line defenders Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda, all was right in the Blue Jacket world.  Considering that this early stage of the season also involved two difficult western road swings, a certain amount of giddiness seemed in order.  Unfortunately, as the second of the two road trips unfurled this week, a harsh dose of reality descended.

In losses to Calgary and Edmonton this week, the Blue Jackets surrendered as many goals (12) as they had in their prior 6 games combined.  While goaltending has not been up to its normal lofty standards, to blame these two defeats on the netminders would be shortsighted.  Instead, the Jackets have simply lost sight of some of the fundamentals that served them so well in their first half dozen games:

  • Turnovers – both the Los Angeles and Edmonton games were filled with sloppy turnovers in the Jackets’ own zone.  This created mismatches and quick scoring opportunities that the opponents quickly cashed in.  In the first six games, Columbus was the epitome of consistency in trapping the puck and making quick, decisive exit passes.  The last two games have featured more indecision and ragged clearing efforts.
  • Penalties – the end of the second period in Edmonton was a perfect illustration of how unnecessary penalties can kill momentum and breathe life back into a team that is on the ropes.  Holding a 4 -2 lead, and frankly dominating play, the Jackets took three penalties in under 5 minutes, including a particularly bewildering mugging administered by defenseman Marc Methot, which directly led to a Hemsky tally on the ensuing power play, and a one goal game.  Nobody can maintain a 96% penalty kill average for extended periods, and the bubble burst last night.  The club reverted to their old, non-aggressive style of penalty killing, and they paid for it.
  • Spectating – on numerous occasions in the past two games, opposing forwards have been able to gain significant time and space, unchallenged by Jackets defensemen or forwards.  In Calgary, Dion Phaneuf’s coast to coast effort featured a lackluster skating effort by forward Derek Dorsett, and inexplicable inaction by the rest of the defense as Phaneuf entered the zone, and fired a laser past Mason.  Numerous variations on this theme arose in both losses, with particularly disappointing efforts by Klesla and Methot.  While the absence of Commodore and Hejda is significant, the Jackets were able to craft a solid victory over L.A. without them.  But the attention to detail and the pressure in all three zones that was evident then has been lacking in the past two contests.
  • Awareness – It is sometimes tempting to treat then skaters and the goalies as separate, unconnected entities, but they are very much related.  When a team is backstopped by a solid goaltender, they play more confidently, are able to be more aggressive, and generate more opportunities.  Similarly, when a goalie has a well-functioning defense in front of him, he is better able to anticipate the flow of the play, which in turn makes him more effective.  There has been a disconnect the last two games, and the consequences have been garish.  Both Mason and Garon have been caught anticipating clears, and appeared to be caught napping when the normally reliable defense has failed.  Similarly, the defense has seemed unprepared to deal with unanticipated rebounds in their own zone, giving the opposition multiple opportunities.

Despite these two setbacks, all is not gloom and doom.  Commodore is expected to return against Anaheim, and the play of Kris Russell, Anton Stralman and Mathieu Roy has been encouraging, providing coach and GM with more long term flexibility.  The offense has started to blossom, with Kristian Huselius shaking off an awful effort against Calgary to net two goals at Edmonton.  Derick Brassard is showing signs of life, with Raffi Torres and Jason Chimera making huge contributions.  The power play, which resided in the league basement all year last season, has been more than credible, currently sitting ninth in the NHL at 25%.  Despite surrendering three goals against Edmonton, the penalty kill still sits third in the league at 88.9%.

The recent travails are the unfortunate side-effect of having a startlingly young roster.  There is nothing wrong with the Jackets that can’t be cured by some pointed examples from Hitchcock and a lively practice session or two.  Thanks to their fast start, these two setbacks are disappointing, but hardly lethal.  Look for a return to form as the Jackets play their first back-to-back games in Anaheim and Los Angeles over the weekend.  Hitchcock will make sure that the club devotes its full attention to delivering 60 minutes of hard-nosed hockey.

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