Wednesday, March 7, 2012

DBJ's 5 Thoughts on Game 66: Phoenix

Columbus 3 - Phoenix 2
21-38-7, 5th in Central Division, 9 points out of 29th in the NHL
The Columbus Blue Jackets won their third straight game in regulation for the first time in what feels like forever in defeating the visiting Phoenix Coyotes, 3-2.

The Blue Jackets are perilously close to making the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft a topic of conversation around the league.

1. NASH WAS ON THE ICE - Defying competitive logic, the CBJ chose to once again put mutinous captain Rick Nash on the active roster for the game.  His presence in the locker room, combined with his 19:31 of ice time, further forestalled the inevitable rebuild that is facing the team as a result of this disastrous season.

1a. NASH DIDN'T GET HURT - As best we know, Nash's trade value to the Blue Jackets was not diminished by his play last night.  So the Blue Jackets once again dodged a bullet.

2. WIN THE CROWD, AND YOU WILL WIN YOUR FREEDOM - As I desperately look to rationalize why the Blue Jackets are doing what they are doing with the roster as they play out the string, I'll try sharpening the point that I made in the Game 65 recap.  So try this on.

Rick Nash has a $7.8 million salary cap hit, and he's under contract for 6 more years.  The Blue Jackets tried, and failed, to extract a Herschel Walker trade out of some NHL team of Nash's choosing for the NHL's 33rd best player.  And although Nash's agent stated that the list of Nash-approved trade partners would not change in the offseason, Howson said that he would not budge on what the franchise considers Nash's value on the market.  Oh yeah, and Nash said he wants to be outta here.

So I'm currently conjecturing that Howson told Nash that because the underlying trade dynamics won't change in the offseason, the only way that he is going to get traded is to play his way out of town and generate some of the irrational exuberance that will be needed for another team to meet the Blue Jackets' steep asking price.

Proximo surely is pleased with Steve Mason's performance
against the Desert Doggies.  Rick Nash?  Not so much.
Much in the same way, Steve Mason has one more year on his contract at $2.9 million.  The word I've read (from the Dispatch, I believe) is that the Blue Jackets have grown weary of Mason's poor performance and planned to try to move him as well at the trade deadline.  There apparently was no deal to be had, so it would not surprise me to learn that Mase was told to make himself attractive to other teams.

2b. SO HOW DID THEY DO? - Nash had four shots.  And nothing on the goal/assist/point columns.

Mason, on the other hand, played perhaps his best game of the season.  He turned away 38 of 40 shots, often in spectacular style.  (You can say a lot about Mason, but you can't say that he doesn't play with a flair for the dramatic.  Unnecessarily so, perhaps, but dramatic.)  Save after save, often with minimal to no defensive support, Mason did the job.  He's so fun to watch when he's "on".

I was particularly drawn to his performance against former Blue Jacket (and current DBJ man-crush, as I wasn't fortunate enough to see him when he was lighting it up as a Blue Jacket) Ray Whitney, who - at age 39 - arguably is having a better season than Rick Nash.  Didn't matter...Mase was up to the challenge:

3. WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE THAT FIRST (ALMOST) FOUR MINUTES, MIKE SMITH - Speaking of notable goalie performances, file this under "Stuff I never thought I'd see this season":  In less than four minutes of game play, the Blue Jackets put seven shots on the NHL's 1st Star for the Month of February, netting two goals from a surprisingly hapless Mike Smith.  The rout was on.  Kudos to one of my favorite NHL coaches, Dave Tippett, for realizing the same and swapping in Jason LaBarbera to stop the bleeding.

Have the CBJ ever run a goalie - any goalie - in less time? Amazing.

4. WHAT WOULD JACK JOHNSON DO? - Color me amused at the rock star treatment of Jack Johnson since his trade to Columbus.  I mean, he was playing on Los Angeles' second blue line pairing when he came to us and was thrashed about pretty well in the halls of hockey criticism.  As best I could tell, his biggest redeeming quality was that he could smile and say how happy he was to be in Columbus (which, considering the team's two biggest stars entering the season wanted out, is saying something around these parts).  Yet the Twitterverse was gushing over JMFJ's on-ice play...something I just wasn't seeing on television.  So I took my first opportunity to watch Johnson play in person to see what this fuss was all about.

Here's my take: The Columbus Blue Jackets and their fanbase have been so demoralized this season by sub-AHL blue line play that any injection of NHL-level competence into the lineup is a revelation.  Enter Jack Johnson.  He had a goal and an assist on the night in over 27 minutes of time on ice.  He pushed the puck up the ice.  He made passes that largely moved from tape to tape.  He moved laterally with ease.  He has a degree of size that keeps him from becoming a slalom ski pole for fast-moving forwards.  Overall, he's pretty good.

Is he the second coming of Jesus?  Is he Columbus' All-Star next season?  (Remember, we really do need one considering we're hosting the darned game in 2013!) With improvement, perhaps, but I'd take James Wisniewski right now.

5. MEANWHILE, IN THE REAL WORLD - Imagine my surprise at walking across the Arena District plaza toward Nationwide Arena and being approached by a lady in a neon green t-shirt asking me if I had enough of the current state of the Blue Jackets.  And then she gave me this:

So the protesting fans have taken it to a new level.  Good for them for not looking at the All-Star Weekend protest as a "once and done" thing.  It took over ten years for the franchise to get this way, and it's going to take more than one collection of speeches on a January afternoon to have their voices truly sink in with John P. McConnell and his folks.  As somebody, somewhere, says, "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

BONUS NUMBER 6 - The announced attendance last night was 10,915.  Sure, it was a Tuesday.  Sure, it was Phoenix.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that we'll be looking at a lot of half-filled buildings like this next season.  The die was cast over the first 60 games on the season, and I'm not sure that turning it on in the NHL equivalent of garbage time will change anything vis a vis ticket sales.

NEXT UP: The Los Angeles Kings arrive tomorrow night at Nationwide Arena for what surely will be a lovely time as once-CBJer Jeff Carter faces his former team (and former fans) at 7PM.

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