Thursday, October 29, 2009

10 Thoughts about Game 11: Phoenix

1. The 6-4 Columbus Blue Jackets hosted the 6-4 Phoenix Coyotes last night at Nationwide Arena and played roughly 25-30 minutes of reasonably solid hockey.  The rest of the game made my nephew's squirt league look like NHL All-Stars. The Jackets lost, 4-1.

1a. It's been a tale of two seasons.  The Jackets built on the lessons learned in the brief playoff run last year and went 5-1.  They then lost Jan Hejda, lost their perspective and started sliding, going 1-4 over this most recent stretch.  With Pittsburgh and Washington, arguably the best two teams in a weak Eastern Conference, on the docket for Friday and Sunday, a 1-6 streak is very possible.

2. Contrary to a healthy portion of the CBJ fan base, I do not blame Steve Mason.  Let's analyze those goals, shall we?  (Seems fitting that the NHL posted the Coyotes feed...)

  • Goal 1 (video time: 1:35) - Hanzal grabs a rebound while rushing the crease.   Mase was on his knees and made the initial low block.  The short rebound went right in front of him, and he opened his legs up to grab the puck.  Hanzal dropped it in the slightly-ajar five-hole.  
  • Goal 2 (video time: 1:55) - Puck was shot wide, but Tyutin's skate ricocheted it back in behind Mason.  Not Mase's fault as he was in line with the shooter. 
  • Goal 3 (video time: 3:35) - Michalek uses the power play activity on the other side of the ice to his advantage, gets a pass from another 'yote, and drops it in behind Mason.  I think that was glove side high, which Mase left wide open.  Note that the shorthanded CBJ defense bit just like Mason did, offering no backside protection.
  • Goal 4 (video time: 3:55) - Mase got schooled by Lang.  Mase squared up, the angle was relatively challenging for Lang, and Lang blew the puck past Mason.  Given Mason's apparent state of mind, I'm going to guess that he mentally had punched the clock on the night.  

In my estimation, Mase was uniquely responsible for goals 1 and 4.  Goal 2 was a dumb fluke, and goal 3 was a defensive failing on the penalty kill.  With a 2-1 game, however, Mase's spirits would have been higher...and the Jackets sure had enough nice looks at LaBarbara to salvage a point if not win it outright.

2a.  If we take goaltending guru Dave Rook at his word and believe that Mason is technically sound, then the team needs to focus on the grey matter between Mason's ears and the defense that plays in front of him.  Is Mason going to win the Vezina Trophy this year?  Most likely not.  Will he be the cause for a team meltdown?  Without some help, it'll sure seem like it.

2b. I sincerely hope that Mason has shelved the idea of playing in the Olympics for Team Canada and is focussed on getting his game turned around.

3. On a team with fewer and fewer players who are positive in the +/- on the season, the Jackets had to send defenseman Mathieu Roy back to Syracuse because they risked exposing him to waivers if they kept him around too much longer.  This was a shame, as Roy was a reasonably solid d-man and would have been helpful.  

3a. This move also signals that Jan Hejda is coming back to the team soon, and that won't happen quickly enough.  The CBJ need that +8 on the season, with his settling influence, back in the lineup BADLY.

4. Kristian Huselius is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, but it's pretty clear that he doesn't have the chops to play Hitch-hockey.  That's a damning statement when you consider that he's the team's second-highest paid player with a cap hit of $4.75 million, eating up just under 10 percent of the Jackets' salary money for the year.  10 percent of the team's money going to player who plays as erratic as Juice?  Not wise.  

4a. As a counterpoint, Antoine Vermette, with a $2.7265 million cap hit, is really playing quite well.  He's driving to the net, working well with his linemates - especially Jake Voracek - and is around the scoring chances more often than not.  

5. Jared Boll made his obligatory appearance and got in a fight with a guy who had a longer wingspan.  Boll literally couldn't connect on nearly any of his punches, "lost" (if you really want to call it a fight), got a 5 minute major and was on the ice for a whopping 3:34 during the entire game.  Someone remind me why he's on the roster?

6. Derick Brassard started getting out of his funk - finally!  He netted a power play goal and got the CBJ out in front first for the first time in seven games.  He also had his motor running for much of the game, notching 10:20 in ice time and warranting a promotion back up to the top 2 lines.  Good to see on a whole number of levels.  I like his competitive spirit.

7. Anton Stralman put in another solid night, with 15:36 minutes on ice, a couple shots and both power play and penalty kill service.   And he comes across as eerily unflappable.  Methinks we have another Hejda in the making.

7a. Another D-Man, Fedor Tyutin, must be getting tired.  He was the Jackets' high minute player last night with 18:54 on ice, took 3 shots and only had a -1 on the night.  Almost makes the ricocheted goal excusable.  

8. I'm still not convinced that the team is missing anything significant with regards to skill or system.  More and more, I think that this is a matter of team maturity.  There is significant playoff/Stanley Cup experience on the team, but there's an even more significant number of young, young players on the squad.  Until the young players begin to realize that they need to play the system to win - and that might be subjugating themselves and their talents to play in that system - it just won't happen for the CBJ.  

8a. Even more importantly, there appears to be a lack of player leadership.  We all know that Rick Nash is the strong, silent type of captain, one who leads by example on the ice, right?  Well, leading by example last night equaled 3 shots and 2 minutes in the sin bin for 15 and a half minutes of play.  That's not good enough - he was virtually invisible!  He should expect more of himself, and he should DEMAND more of his teammates. 

8b. I won't call it a crisis in player leadership, but I won't place the blame on the coaches for what we saw last night.  Hitch has pulled rabbit after rabbit out of his hat to get this team moving in the right direction, and it's the players' responsibilities to do their part as well.  It's just not happening right now.  

8c. Do you think that Michael Peca would come back for cheap - say, Jared Boll's $743,333?

8d. To their credit, alternate captains R.J. Umberger and Mike Commodore both tried to get the team going.  Commodore ran Hanzal after the early goal (and got penalized), and Umberger picked a fight in the crease with one of the 'yotes.  There is veteran play, but are the youngsters catching on?  The lack of fight in the team after the Jason Chimera hit in Los Angeles was downright scary.  Where's the fire?  

9. I usually don't talk much about the other guys, but Jason LaBarbara was incredible out there last night.  As mentioned earlier, the Jackets had a handful of quality shots - all but one turned away by the Phoenix backup.    As we CBJ fans know what good goaltending is and haven't seen it on our side in a while, it's only fair to offer compliments where we see it from the other side.  

10. Recycling a post from just under a month ago, It's All About Desire.  For some strange reason, I think I'll be going back to this well a few times over the next month or two...

Next up, a Malkin-less, 10-2-0 Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night.  I am on record with friends in predicting that the Pens will drop between 7 and 9 goals on the Jackets on the presumption that the Jackets won't get the Hitchcock gospel.  With Malkin out, I'm predicting between 6 and 8.  I'm not being an alarmist, but I sure am being a realist.  This is one tough team against which systemic damage can get repaired.  


  1. Your Friendly Pens FanOctober 29, 2009 at 7:47 PM

    While I hope your score prediction comes true tomorrow, I would like to respectfully disagree with your characterization of the Eastern Conference as "weak." I think the salary cap has evened out the talent in the NHL in the last few years and I can't say that either Conference gets the edge. There are good and bad teams in both. What are you basing your opinion on?

  2. To me, it's all about the game by game matchups.

    The Jackets were 13-3-2 last year v. the East.

    The Western Conference was 141-103-26 v. the East in 2008-2009. Thus far this year, the West is 23-13-2 vs. the East. Those are fairly significant differentials between wins and (real) losses - I still look at an OT loss as a tie, sorry.

    The challenge for Pens fans is to realize that while their team is rather good (but 1-1-0 v. the West this year, hmmmm), they have to carry the burden of the weak sister in their conference. The Leafs and Islanders come to mind.

    I also think that the West has played a tougher, more "truculent" brand of hockey than in the East, but the East is certainly catching up in that regard. Pittsburgh was infinitely more physical in the Stanley Cup Finals last year in comparison to the year prior.

    But, in the end, it's wins and losses.


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