|Columbus Blue Jackets 4 - Pittsburgh Penguins 3 - 2OT|
Series tied at 1-1
After the first 5 minutes of tonight's game, if you had told me the CBJ would win convincingly in overtime I would have laughed at you - after having spit beer out my nose and then slapped you about the head and face. There is getting scored on early, and then there is getting OWNED in the first 20 minutes of a hockey game. It was like the Penguins had the cheat code to "The Blue Jackets - the video game." To watch the first period was like watching a train driver over a cliff. The Penguins had reached into the soul of the Blue Jackets, bathed in their insecurities, and then played them like a break-up tape from an ex-girlfriend on slo-mo repeat. The first period was tough to watch, and full marks go to Dan Bylsma for exploiting the Blue Jackets. You don't often see a mismatch like that in the Stanley Cup Playoffs - that kind of blatant one-sidedness typically happens in Pee Wee tournament on the north side of Detroit.
The Penguins owned the Blue Jackets in the first period, in every human rights degregating sense of the word. I'm not sure there was an even strength shift in the CBJ offensive zone that lasted more than 15 seconds. The Penguins finished every check first 8 minutes of the game. The Penguins owned the middle of the ice in the neutral zone while transitioning to the attack, again something not regularly seen in playoff hockey. The Penguins played aggressive Dzone coverage both even strength and short-handed, forcing the Jackets to out skill the Penguins - something this Columbus team is incapable of doing. The Penguins exploited the areas of the ice that were the defensive responsibility of the CBJ wingers, set up around the Jackets in Neutral zone transition - forcing the Jackets to put their heads down on the breakout and skate right into a comfortable Penguins defense. Saying the Jackets were lucky to get out of the first period only down two goals may be the most polite thing I've ever said about the CBJ.
The only glimmer of hope in the first period was Ryan Johansen's Power play goal which was a quick response to Pittsburgh's emasculating shorty just moments earlier. The old cliche goes that your best players have to play well in critical situations - Johnasen did just that. While it's immediate importance couldn't be misunderstood, it's true value would come later in the second period.
If there was part of the Penguins game that looked vulnerable, it was Mass Airflow Filter, I mean Marc-Andre Fleury. He overplayed many of his saves in the first. And by 'overplayed' I mean routine saves were made while sliding post to post, and his motions to cover controllable rebounds were very animated. He was tracking pucks that were clearly sailing wide of the net. Those are hidden symptoms of a goalie try who is fighting the puck.
But mid-way through the 2nd period with the Pens on the Power play, the Jackets capitalize on a miscue and Matty Hustle takes all the time he needs to roof one on the short side of Fleury. Calvert is not going to beat Fleury in that scenario if he shoots far side. He likely doesn't hit Jack Johnson on the cross-ice feed. The only thing that Fleury is really responsible for on that play is making sure Calvert doesn't beat him short side. That's listed in the very first sentence in the 2-on-1 chapter in the book "Goal tending for Beginners." That goal completely zapps any momentum the Penguins had. Matt Calvert should not be able to snipe a stud goaltender in that scenario - but I am so glad that he did. I won't pretend to know what went on in the minds of the Penguins players after that goal, but having lost regional and national level tournaments because "Oh no, Tommy gave up another softy" kills your confidence. MAF.
The score is 3-2 Pens at that point, but one could argue it was no longer in favor of the Penguins. The aggressive pressure at the points from the Pens wingers, the exploiting of the high slot in the Jackets defensive zone, and the pond hockey breakouts all seemed to go away after that goal by Calvert. And with (insert favorite spiritually fulfilling thing here) as my witness, if the Penguins have to play the Jackets straight up, I like the Jacket's chances in this series. The third period brought hope to Jackets fans everywhere, if nothing else. The Pens defensemen carried less confidence with them as they turned to combat the Jackets fore check. The Jackets did a much better job setting up multiple passing lanes from the point as the Penguins point pressure wasn't nearly as aggressive in the third. The Jackets defensemen took and extra second or two to make better breakout passes, and the neutral zone passing was calculated and not reactive. I don't understand why the Penguins changed their strategy after the Calvert shorty. Either the Penguins players stopped picking up what Bylsma was putting down in the first period, or the players chose to play differently. Oh to be a fly on the wall in the Pens dressing room...
The team effort and execution was much better for the Blue Jackets in the 3rd period. Bob had a handful of sparkling saves that motivated the Jackets to do more for themselves. They didn't sit back and wait for Bob to bail them out. They took it upon themselves to stop chasing the puck and were able to play at a more comfortable tempo in the 3rd. As the minutes ticked by in the third stanza, you could feel opportunity mounting for the Jackets. The Pens were playing 'not to loose' and the Jackets were playing to win. And 14 minutes into the period, Jack Johnson ties the game at three with a tap-in power play beauty.
With Dubinsky nestled down low, Jenner patrolling the slot, Johansen, Johnson, and Wiz established the umbrella formation high in the zone. Johansen collects the puck low in the corner after a JMFJ shot is deflected wide. RyJo feeds the puck to Wisniewski at the point, who gives the puck back to Johansen at the half boards. Johansen feeds the puck to Jenner who has time and space in between the circles. Johansen does the right thing by driving the middle of the red zone after feeding Jenner the puck. Jenner's shot is blocked and a driving Johansen is able to get his stick on the puck and give it a one-handed push to open ice. And with Jack Johnson trailing even with Jenner on the right wing, has a clear lane to the net as Johasen almost wills the puck onto his stick. Johnson had all 24 square feet of goalmouth to shoot at and he wasted no time burying the puck. Jackets fan across the globe rejoice. I have no idea what Wiz said in the celebratory goal hug, but I'm sure it's something that won't be repeated in an Easter church service.
Consistent effort carried the Blue Jackets the rest of the regulation and into their first ever overtime appearance during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blue Jackets definitely had the momentum but my viewing partners and I had the feeling this game would go into multiple overtimes. The Jackets had to respect the offensive capability of the Penguins while continuing to press the issue in the offensive zone. The game had more penalties than I think anyone would have anticipated considering how the first game was called. Three penalties were called in the first overtime, and with the Pens getting rung up early, I believe that forced the Penguins to back off even more. The longer into overtime this game went, the better it was for Jackets - save a completely boneheaded turnover. Bob fueled the CBJ PK late in the first overtime and the advantage, based on team play, was still in the Jackets favor as the first overtime came to an end.
History was made just a few moments into the second period as Matt Calvert roofs his second whack at a loose puck in front of MAF. If I could describe this goal in one word, that word would be "grindy." What typifies the Blue Jackets bread and butter offense is that goal in the second over time. Calvert carries the puck into the zone on the left wing, Letang steps up to challenge and Calvert wins his battle. He is able to ward off Letang and advance the puck deep in the zone with Dubinsky in position down low. Dubinsky wins his individual battle behind the goal against Jussi Jokinen. Winning that battle forces Scuderi to abandon the red zone and give chase below the goal line. Letang takes his eyes off of Calvert and Scuderi wanders to cover for a beaten Jokinen. All five Penguins defenders are puck watching as Dubinsky threads a pass to a wide open Atkinson who is driving through the slot. Fleury makes the initial save on Cam but the puck bounces right to Calvert's stick. Matty Hustle directs the rebound back on net where Fleury is able to make another pad save. But the rebound goes right back onto Calvert's stick who, instead of wondering why his face isn't embedded into the crossbar by now, wisely roofs his second whack scoring the game winner for the Jackets.
As much as I have teased Fleury, that OT goal is all on the Penguins Dzone coverage. Calvert and Dubinsky get full marks for winning their battles, but the Dzone coverage breaks down, everyone is puck watching, and Calvert is in perfect position. No goaltender can be expected to make the 3rd and 4th save down low when the defenders are not tying up sticks and bodies down low. Hard work down low opened up that opportunity and the Jackets capitalized on the Penguins lapse of Dzone coverage. Stick tap for RJ Umberger to take time from the on-ice celebration to go collect the game puck for Calvert. Calvert will always remember tonight's two goals. You never forget a playoff goal.
I nearly tore my shirt off when Calvert roofed that puck. The local pub I was at erupted with heart felt excitement and genuine jubilation. The Blue Jackets had battled back from 2 two-goal deficits to beat the Penguins in overtime. The game on it's own merit was hugely rewarding as a fan. The Jackets took advantage of the opportunity given them. There was no weird bounce, no controversy, no disputing the win. The win was well deserved and satisfying. When you take into account the historical context of the win, as the first playoff victory, it was a little like celebrating graduating from the 3rd grade. While I snarkily say that, I think it goes without saying to have been blown out in this game would have demoralized both the fanbase and franchise to their core.
The players on the team had little of anything to do with the time between day one back in 2000 and tonight's victory. But I do think it's very gracious and honorable of the players to recognize how important this game was to the fans - it was important for us. The players are fully responsible for what happens this year in the playoffs - and while almost everyone on the team has the right to wash their hands of the failed policies of the past, it was special to see them acknowledge the long suffering fans after this win. For me, it was a special win. Knowing a few of the players in this team's past who came here to try and change things and were ultimately shown the door. The changed happened.
This win is also important for a young team like the Blue Jackets. They proved to themselves that they can battle back from even the worst of playoff situations and win important hockey games. You can't buy that kind of lesson, you can't learn that lesson from film study. You have to experience that type of win for yourself to fully understand it's importance as a player. I believe that as a coach, Todd Richards has never been any more proud of this season's team that after the game. But on this Easter morning, the feeling of pride and excitement will soon give way to preparation. The focus is on beating the Penguins at Nationwide Arena on Monday night. The Jackets can carry this momentum and positive attitude with them into game 3, and all that matters right now is winning that game. If nothing else, John Kemp can finally stop going on about "Game 4."
In the immortal words of Brandon Dubinsky, "I have played in arguably in some of the best playoff games in the world - But Game 2, it was better."
Game in one Haiku:
Meant the world to us
But you proved it to yourselves
We are the fifth line