Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Part X: The Dark Blue Jacket's Definitive History of the CBJ; Best Yet

Before 2013-14 Game 3
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord……

And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, Oh Lord….

And with those sounds, playoff hockey returned again to Nationwide Arena in the 2013-14 NHL season.  An NHL season that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets rise from a slow start, claw back into the race, and finish in the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Falling to Pittsburgh in six games, the Columbus Blue Jackets recorded their first playoff wins, both at home, and on the road.  The incredible finish of Game 4 supplants the previous Game 4 against Detroit as ‘the Moment’ in Blue Jackets History.  A crowd that came to the Arena determined to battle to the end was rewarded with a Penguins miscue leading to a tying goal in the waning seconds of the game, and the overtime winner early in the first overtime period.  These events lead to a rafter shaking thunder that appeared as awesome on TV (check the YouTube clips) as it was to experience live. 

It is to be hoped that these stirring events end up being no more than one of John Davidson’s proverbial bricks in the foundation of CBJ events.  This would mean that the team has gone on to reach a higher level of achievement.  But before we reflect on those possibilities, we must put this one to bed, so to speak.

The Run Up to the Season

Two high priced players on the Blue Jackets had surgery over the summer between the abbreviated 2012-13 season and the 2013-14 season.  Marian Gaborik had surgery to fix a previous repair to a groin injury, and the big off season acquisition, Nathan Horton, had surgery to repair a shoulder injured in the Stanley Cup Final when playing with the Bruins.  Big questions coming into training camp were Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray.  Would they make the team this year, or spend the year in the AHL?  More importantly, would the team be able to replicate the incredible cohesiveness from the late season run in 2012-13? 

By the time the preseason games had ended, it was clear that Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray had taken great steps to make the team.  And it was time for the CBJ to launch into its first NHL season in the Eastern Conference.

Metro Mania

With Columbus moving to the Eastern Conference for the 2013-14 season, and playing in the newly named Metropolitan Division, naturally the first game of the season was against…Calgary??  This awkward flow of events continued into the start of the new season, and the question of whether the cohesiveness would carry over was answered with an emphatic NO!  The Jackets stumbled out of the gate, going 2 W-5 L-0 OTL in their first seven games, before going on a little 3-1-0 run to finish off the month of October a game below .500 at 5-6-0.

The loss in the last game of October was the start of a 5 game skid the brought the Jackets into early November with a lowly 5-10-0 record.  This skid ends with a disappointing home loss to the Rangers, 4-2 in front of a large crowd.  The Jackets cough up a 2-1 lead on a hard screen by Callaghan, then give up an own goal and an empty net goal to lose 4-2.  This was one of quite a few games in this season where the Jackets lost a difficult or disappointing home game in front of a large crowd, which seemed to hold their attendance numbers down until late into the season.  I remember not feeling too good about that Rangers game.

Making steady progress out of the losing streak, the CBJ went on a little streak of five games where they at least got a point, book ending 3 overtime losses with a pair of wins.  Not great, but better than a losing streak.  This was followed by an 8 game slugging match where they won one then lost one before starting December with consecutive wins.

The first of the two December wins was a costly 1-0 shutout of Tampa Bay, as Sergei Bobrovsky went down in the third period with an injury that would keep him out of the lineup for a month, and into the new year.  This was a challenging time indeed for fans, players, and coaches.  One had to wonder if the season was done at that point.

The Dreaded December Swoon

Starting with the 2009-10 season, several incredible December swoons have occurred which ended up blowing whole seasons out of the water.  The 2009-10 swoon cost Ken Hitchcock his job.  In 2010-11, new coach Scott Arniel’s team trashed the best start in franchise history in December.  They rallied back into the hunt in January, but faded at the trade deadline.  In 2011-12 we moved the December swoon up to October and got it out of the way early, and a work stoppage prevented us from screwing up December in 2012-13.

So here we are, a game or 2 below .500 at the beginning of December, and Bobrovsky is out of the lineup for an extended period.  This had all the ingredients for a December swoon like no other, and the 2013-14 season was hanging in the balance. 

Strangely enough, the team seems to continue the steady progress they had been making since the 5 game losing streak, and they play the next 14 games a game above .500, going 7-6-1 without Bobrovsky.  This a really good story line for this season.  Horton is still out, Bob goes down, but Curtis McElhinney and Mike McKenna held down the fort, and played well enough to keep the ship of state afloat. 

The 2013-14 season had the December swoon that was not.  The team went 7-5-1 for the month, and gained two games on a .500 pace, ending 2013 two games below .500.  All of this without the Vezina Trophy winning goal tender.  I think that when Bob went down with an injury it was the catalyst for the team starting to come together and really play, setting the stage for great things.

Ringing in 2014 with a BIG Bang

A team that is playing tough, cohesive hockey, mixed with a Vezina Trophy winning goal tender is a volatile mix, and this elixir exploded on the rest of the NHL in January.  With the return of Sergei Bobrovsky, the CBJ reeled off an 8 game winning streak to propel themselves into the playoff mix.  The franchise record winning streak moved from two games below .500 to six games above .500 and dramatically changed the course of the season.  The CBJ turned in a sparkling 10-4 record for the month of January which put them in playoff position.  I would dwell on this moment, but there are better things to come.

The Olympic Break

February started, and the Jackets won a game against Florida, and then headed out west where they went 1-1-1 in the cauldron of Anaheim, LA, and San Jose.  This gave them a 2-1-1 record in February leading up to the Olympic break.  At the break, the Jackets sat 29-24-5 with 63 points, and squarely in the playoff hunt.  And then the weird change of pace, from the chaotic frenzy of an Olympic year compressed schedule, to almost no hockey became a quiet interlude in the season.  Loyalties get all moved around, and it is unsettling, but fun to watch.

From the Olympic Break to the end of March, the CBJ went 9-6-1, in the playoff chase the entire time. Wins against Florida, Toronto, Dallas Nashville, Detroit (2), Minnesota, Carolina, and Montreal showed the Jackets could beat good teams.  This stretch of good play set up the frenzied finale for the season.

The CBJ went 5-2-1 down the stretch, trying to fend off competition from Detroit, Philadelphia, and New Jersey which were all winning down the stretch as well.  In an incredible 7 games in 10 days finish to the season, the Jackets 5-2 finish was good enough to secure them the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

For the second time in franchise history, the Columbus Blue Jackets were in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The frenzied finish to the season ensured that they were at the top of their game, and they entered the playoffs with momentum.  However, the slow start early in the season served to hold them down to the final wild card spot, and matched them with the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, whom the Jackets had not defeated in the 2013-14 regular season.  Time to get it on!

The 2013-14 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Pittsburgh handily won the inaugural Metropolitan Division Championship with 107 points, however they finished behind Boston in the overall points race.  The Columbus claiming the wildcard spot, the first playoff round was set, with the Penguins holding home ice advantage.  Much as the 2008-09 playoffs started, the 2013-14 playoffs began with a tough road matchup.

Game 1

The CBJ come out flying in Game 1, and are able to get the first goal off a rush in which Jack Johnson is left uncovered rumbling down the middle, and the playoffs start with the CBJ taking a 1-0 lead just 6:20 into the first period.  Jussi Jokinen ties it eleven minutes later on a shot from the point past a good screen.  But Mark Letestu regains the lead less than a minute later on a power play goal.  DerekMacKenzie starts the second period with a short-handed goal off of a breakaway.  Forty-three seconds into the second and the Blue Jackets have a 3-1 lead, starting and odd trend where the team that goes up 3-1 ends up losing. 

In less than the next two minutes, the Penguins score 2 power play goals, from Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen to tie the game.  From there the play settles down until the second half of the third period where Brandon Sutter gets loose on a breakaway and scores the game winner.  Pittsburgh prevails in Game 1 by a 4-3 score.  The CBJ acquitted themselves well, but fell late to a powerful opponent while on the road.  Not exactly a shocking result.

Game 2

In Game 2 the Penguins come out buzzing, hoping to crush the spirit of the Blue Jackets.  Early in the first period, Crosby brings a rolling puck out from behind the net and absorbs the hit from Dubinsky as he passes back out to the right point.  The resulting shot is deflected by BrianGibbons who is camped in the slot, and the Penguins take a 1-0 lead.  Less than a minute later, Wiz bobbles a puck at the point on a power play, and Gibbons pounces on the loose puck, goes in, puts Bob down, and scores the short-handed goal, thus earning a contract from the Blue Jackets this summer.  Penguins lead 2-0.

Less than a minute later, the Jackets still on the power play and David Savard puts a dent in the pipe behind Fleury.  The CBJ maintain possession, work the puck around to Ryan Johansen, who makes sure he doesn’t miss, and the Jackets answer the shorty to remain only a goal behind.  Soon thereafter, Blake Comeau lays a crunching hit on Brian Gibbons, and he is done for the playoffs, thus ending that trend.

Late in the first period, with the Penguins on the power play, Matt Niskanen blows one by a screened Bobrovsky, and a wild first period ends with Pittsburgh holding the dreaded 3-1 lead. 

Early in the second period, with Pittsburgh once again on the power play, Savard springs the Jackets on a 3 on 1 break, Fleury cheats on the pass, and Matt Calvert shoots instead, beating him short side.  If Fleury blocks that and Pittsburgh gets possession it’s 4 on 1 back in the Columbus zone.  I can’t imagine they wouldn’t score there.  But Calvert makes sure on that one to even up the tally of short-handed goals in the game.

The third period unfolds, with Pittsburgh leading 3-2 and both teams playing excellent hockey.  Late in the third period, with the Blue Jackets on the power play, Jack Johnson misses a shot from the right point.  The puck is retrieved, cycled out to the left point, and then fed into the slot where Boone Jenner gets off a good shot.  Fleury blocks the shot, but Jack Johnson is crashing from the right point, pounces on the rebound and puts it in the net to tie the score at 3-3.  And Bob suddenly gets really big. 

The third period ends with Pittsburgh and the Blue Jackets tied 3-3, and franchise history is made.  The CBJ last past regulation in a playoff game for their first playoff tie score in franchise history.  For me, it was all gravy from there, and I enjoyed watching an exciting first overtime period. 

The teams slugged it out toe to toe through the first overtime period, trading chances, but both goal tenders were playing well.  At the end of the first overtime period the score remained tied, but the CBJ were quickly going to change that.  Coming out flying in the second overtime period, the CBJ got the puck deep into the Penguins zone.  A pass come from behind the net to CamAtkinson in the slot, and he put a hard shot on Fleury.  The rebound came to Matt Calvert who quickly put a low shot back on net.  Fleury blocked that with his pad, but the rebound came right back to Calvert at the edge of the crease.  He took his time, and roofed the game winner for the first playoff win in franchise history. 

Game 3

In Game 3 the Penguins got an opportunity to enjoy a new experience.  For the first time in recent history Pittsburgh encountered a hostile crowd in Nationwide Arena.  The spectacle of playoff hockey had finally returned to the Arena District, and the Blue Jackets faithful welcomed it back like a prodigal son.  An electric and thunderous crowd welcomed the team onto the ice, and the CBJ transmitted that energy into their play. 

The CBJ open the scoring a little under two minutes into the game on a real pretty play.  Johansen gathers the puck in the neutral zone, passes back to Wisniewski, and then heads up ice.  Wiz sends the puck over to Ryan Murray, who calmly picks up Johansen near the red line and feeds him a really nice stretch pass.  Skille follows Johansen into the offensive zone, and Johansen cuts to the middle and drops a pass back to Skille, who launches a shot from the right point.  Fleury stops it, but the rebound comes up the slot to a crashing Boone Jenner and he puts it away for a 1-0 lead at 1:38 gone in the first period. 

Less than 2 minutes later, Dubinsky gets dropped behind the Penguins net by Niskanen.  He jumps back up, gathers the puck then tries to send it to the net to a crashing Matt Calvert.  The rebound from this mayhem ends up on Jack Johnson’s stick, and he puts it away for a 2-0 CBJ lead with only 3:18 gone in the game.  The crowd is going crazy, but there is a heck of lot of hockey left to be played. 

However, the CBJ are not done.  They basically carry the play through the rest of the first period, and a lot of the second period, but they simply can’t get one past Fleury.  At the end of the second period the CBJ were pressing hard to score, and had an extended period of possession.  However, very late in the period, with a tired group that had been pushing the play on the ice; the Penguins got possession and brought the puck down to the Jackets’ offensive zone.  The CBJ never seemed to get set defensively, got into scramble mode, and Brooks Orpik glides across the high slot unchallenged and scores a goal with less than 1 second to play in the period.  This was a cruel blow late in the period, and the second period ended with the Jackets leading by a score of 2-1.

Early in the third period it appeared the CBJ had finally broken through when the ubiquitous Dubinsky brought the puck up the ice with Atkinson on a 2 on 2.  Atkinson scores the third goal when Dubinsky throws the puck at the net and it bounces in off Cam, who was parked at the edge of the crease.  With that goal the CBJ have the dreaded 3-1 lead, and the goal does nothing to wash away the momentum Pittsburgh gained through the last second goal. 

With just less than 6 minutes played in the third period, Pittsburgh took over.  My boxing analogy would be a fighter who had fought a spirited and effective fight for most of the bout, but late in a round the other fighter lands a good punch.  Early in the next round, the other fighter lands another good punch, and in momentary confusion, the boxer lowers his guard.  The other fighter, sensing confusion, lands two quick jabs, boom, boom, and the fight is over.

From the 5:58 mark in the third period, to the 8:06 mark, slightly more than 2 minutes, the Penguins scored three times.  Brandon Sutter scores from the point through traffic, Stepniak gets loose through the slot a minute and ten seconds later and puts one on Bob in exactly the same spot the Sutter scored (under the left arm) and Maata bounces one in off Wiz.  With this outburst of scoring, the Penguins take game 3 of the series, and it is starting to get a little weird.  Each game has a team going up 3-1, and subsequently losing 4-3.  This trend can’t continue, can it?

Game 4

Pittsburgh comes out in this game trying to put the series away by winning both road games.  Continuing to capitalize on a ‘leaking left side’ (if you want to call 6 consecutive surgically placed shots under Bob’s left arm ‘leaking’) the Penguins scored six straight goals from the third period of Game 3 to the first period of Game 4.  Craig Adams, ChrisKunitz and James Neal all scored through just past midway in the first period. 

At this point, the CBJ crowd dug in, and made sure the team knew that they were still behind them.  And the team responded.  With 16:39 gone in the first period, and the Jackets on the power play, Letestu walked through the top of the slot and let loose a hard shot.  Boone Jenner was crashing the net, and as he turned to face Letestu the puck bounced off Jenner and over Fleury’s head and the CBJ were on the board. 

The hard fought game continued as the Jackets tried to claw their way back into the game.  Then with 14:20 gone in the second period, and the Jackets on a 5 on 3 power play, Dubinsky got the puck from the point, passed it to Anisimov who was at the top of the crease in the center.  Anisimov re-directed it toward the net, and Johansen crashing unchecked from the other side slam dunks the puck in for the second goal. 

From then on, the Jackets just couldn’t seem to score, no matter how they tried, which set the scene for perhaps the craziest moment in Blue Jackets history to date.  With Bobrovsky pulled, and the puck going from end to end, the puck gets rimmed around the boards in the Penguins’ zone.  Fleury tries to play the puck; it hops over his stick and right onto Johansen’s stick.  Ryan spots Brandon Dubinsky crashing the slot, and puts the puck on his tape.  Dubinsky pots the tying goal with 24 seconds left in the game, and Nationwide Arena exploded. 

Personally I remember being in a momentary state of disbelief because the play happened so quickly.  However, I got over that pretty quick, and raucously enjoyed one of the sweetest moments in Jackets history with 18,000 plus other fans.  What a moment!  Stunned, we stumbled out to the concourse to talk about the finish and prep ourselves for overtime.  Thoughtful (and opportunistic!) vendors scrambled to re-open the beer stands in the buzzing Arena. 

The puck drops for overtime, and after roughly 2 minutes of scrambling, back and forth overtime, one of the craziest plays I’ve ever seen unfolds.  With Pittsburgh threatening, RJUmberger lays out to block a hard shot from the point.  He barely covers his face with his glove to avoid getting hit in the same place where he had taken a puck earlier in the game.  As the puck drifts back through the neutral zone, Umberger gets up and heads directly to the bench.  Back in the neutral zone, the Penguins are trying to corral the puck but Wisniewski dives to prevent them from gaining possession.  The puck comes directly to Umberger who promptly fires a nifty backhand pass to a streaking Nick Foligno.  Nick pulls up at about 60 feet from the goal, launches a shot that is tipped by the stick of a Penguins defender, and a big old fat knuckleball of a shot goes drifting through the air towards Fleury.  As knuckleballs are wont to do, this one took a sudden dip to find a hole under the goal tender’s arm for the winning goal, and the ceiling just about popped off Nationwide Arena.  In an iconic celebration, the Blue Jackets mobbed Foligno, while the crowd savored the first home playoff win in franchise history and roared its approval.

One of the most amazing sporting events I have ever attended was Game 4 against Detroit.  A superior opponent, a dug in, crazy crowd, getting loud to support the home squad, even when the chips were down, it was one of the greatest sporting events I have ever seen. 

This Game 4 had all of those things and more.  In the previous Game 4, the Jackets finally cracked at the end of the game under the pressure, and lost.  In this Game 4, the Penguins cracked under the pressure and lost.  There is no doubt which of these amazing Game 4s is the best, the 2013-14 Game 4!

Game 5

So the series returns to Pittsburgh, and the scoring starts to dry up for the Jackets.  After a power play goal by Boone Jenner in the first period, the Jackets are done scoring.  They lead 1-0 at the end of the first, but a power play goal by Kunitz ties the game in the second. 

In the third period of a back and forth game, the Penguins put a good shot on Bobrovsky, he loses the rebound and the puck comes to Jokinen who hits a wide open net.  Finally, Pittsburgh scores into an empty net to establish the final margin, a 3-1 Pittsburgh victory.

Game 6

The series returns to Columbus, with the Jackets down 3 games to 2, and the fans are treated to another wild game.  Bylsma moves Malkin up to the top line with Crosby and Kunitz, and by the time the dust has settled, the Penguins have a 4-0 lead and Malkin has a hat trick.  However, in the second half of the third period the Blue Jackets begin a furious rush that sees goals by Tyutin (short-handed), Anisimov (Power Play), and Foligno.  In spite of a furious attempt, the Jackets could not net another goal, and the Penguins take the series 4 games to 2, before going on and collapsing in the next series against the Rangers. 

Unfinished Business

The Blue Jackets came out of the second trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs vocally dissatisfied, and believing that they should have gone farther.  That’s okay, and that sets up the challenge for the next year’s squad.

This was the best team in franchise history, hands down.  The numbers bear it out.  At the end of the day though, they ended up in the middle of the pack, finishing 16th.  For all that this team accomplished, a slow start really hampered them.  The reality of this team is that it was unable to beat the elite teams this year.  With the exception of a fading Detroit team, the CBJ fared poorly against the elite teams (Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, etc).  An area for improvement in the upcoming season would be to make incremental progress against the elite teams.  We are not going to start all of a sudden ‘whupping up’ on these teams, but stealing a few wins here and there would be good progress.  The elite teams at home usually mean a big gate.  A good place to start would be winning more of those games than we lose.  That would be a good attendance booster. 

Some Numbers

Last season, Mark Letestu led the team in goals and VinnyProspal led the team in points.  In 2013-14 Ryan Johansen led in both categories, with 33 goals, 30 assists, and 63 points.  These are excellent numbers for a young player, and Johansen joins Rick Nash and Geoff Sanderson as the only 30 goal scorers for the Blue Jackets.  James Wisniewski led the team in assists, finishing with sterling numbers for a defenseman with 7 G- 44 A- 51P. 

Sergei Bobrovsky won 32 games, and posted a .923 save percentage and a 2.38 Goals Against Average.  Not Vezina numbers for Bobrovsky, but still very good.  Curtis McElhinney won 10 games as the backup goal tender, and finished with a .909 save percentage and a 2.70 GAA.

The team finished 43-32-7 for 93 points, the best season in franchise history.  The 2008-09 team finished with 92 points.  In 2013-14, the Blue Jackets finished with a winning record on the road, going 21-17-3, a feat never before accomplished.  The home record was not sterling, finishing 22-15-4.  A good place to improve for next year would be to improve the home record. 

In the 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoffs, Jack Johnson played like a man possessed, leading the team in points with 3-4-7 in 6 games played.  He tied Boone Jenner for the team lead in goals with 3.  Brandon Dubinsky also played like a man possessed, and led the team in assists, finishing a strong 1-5-6.  Of course the one goal tied Game 4.  The team showed balanced scoring with eleven players scoring at least one goal.  Bobrovsky finished with a .908 SV% and a 3.17 GAA, numbers he would doubtless like to improve upon. 

2013-14 Summary

A slow start, surmounted by a 5 game losing streak got the team off to a poor start.  They tightened up their play, and started clawing back into the race.  Having established a .500 pace of play by December, Bobrovsky went down with an injury.  They maintained their .500 pace with backup goal tenders, and when Bob returned they went on a tear, with a franchise record 8 game winning streak to propel them into the playoff discussion.  The team seemed to gather momentum as the season went on, and battled their way into the playoffs in spite of a horrifying schedule, compressed due to the Olympic year. 

Once in the playoffs, the team played well, winning their first road playoff victory, and their first home playoff victory.  Pittsburgh’s playoff experience showed, while the young Blue Jackets gained valuable playoff experience. 

As a fan, this was a wildly entertaining season, with lots of drama to keep it interesting all the way.  Then the playoffs, punctuated by GAME 4!

The 2013-14 Columbus Blue Jackets were the best team in franchise history, and left their mark splattered all across the franchise’s record books.  There is not a lot left to say, except THANK YOU for an awesome season!


1 comment:

  1. The CBJ were the first wildcard -- 7th spot not the final 8th spot -- that was Detriot which earned them a series with Boston.