Friday, December 31, 2010

Game 37/Toronto: My Take

Making their once every two years pilgrimage to the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets emerged victorious against the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2, in regulation for their second straight win.

At risk of being a buzz-kill, this was a matchup of two 13th place teams.  I appreciate that 13th in the West means you're almost qualifying for the playoffs (by virtue of being 4 points out of 8th) whereas 13th in the East means...well, you're not very good.  But this was most definitely a "should win" if not a "must win" (to get back in the playoff hunt, you start by picking off the weaker teams).  And they won, two points for the good guys, bumping the CBJ up to 11th by the end of the evening with a 19-15-3 record (41 points).
The game itself was an interesting contrast.  Seeing as both teams occupied the same rung on the ladder in their respective conferences, it's clear that they got there for very different reasons.  The Blue Jackets are one collective head case.  They have plenty of skill - not the most skilled in the NHL, granted, but more than enough to put them in the playoffs - yet lack the mindset to be consistent winners.  The almost constant pattern of period-ending goals against is perhaps the best indicator...these guys let their guards down way too often.  Toronto, on the other hand, lacks skill but has a reasonable mindset considering.  Someone Tweeted that the Maple Leafs are a bunch of fourth liners; I'll buy that assessment.

And skill trumped mindset in this game.  Not by a wide margin, but it was enough.  And when you're digging out of a slump, does it really matter HOW you get the win?

Steve Mason held serve as starting goaltender again.  He's not playing the greatest that I've ever seen between the pipes, but his head appears to be clearing up.  He's also not letting in the dreaded shots that He'd Rather Have Back.  I didn't see any particularly awesome saves or atrocious rebounds but did notice that he was playing pretty far outside of the crease on occasion.  Looks bold on TV, but one would think that a bad rebound when you're far out there leads to easy shots for the opposition when you have no defensive support.

Perhaps the biggest Maalox inducer of the night, however, happened at roughly 13:30 of the 2nd period with Toronto up 2-1.  I swear I saw the Leafs drop four men back to the blue line, daring Columbus to pierce their Maginot Line.  In football jargon, Toronto was playing prevent defense with over half the game to go.  Ron Wilson's team did not respect our offense one bit, and but for the gift of a turnover by Francois Beauchemin right next to their own goal, they were correct to do so.  This game was not that far from going to overtime.

Good for Kristian Huselius to drop two much-needed goals in.  I'm guessing that Rick Nash is glad to have another goal scorer back in the lineup, so he doesn't need to carry the load all of the time.

Scratches were again notable.  Derek Mackenzie, back from injured reserve, watched the game from the rafters with Mike Commodore (who has only played in 20 games this season and is on his - what? - 4th straight scratch?) and Jake Voracek, who was scratched for the second straight night.  I tweeted at the end of the game, "Did we really miss Jake Voracek?" and still remain ambivalent on the question.  He may have helped us push up the ice - not as much as competent outlet passing from the defensemen, but he could have helped.  Still, Arniel is wise to send a message to Jake before the All-Star break if such a message needs to be sent, as we'll need him to step it up as we head into the back half of the season (or trade him for someone who can help us better).

As negative as I appear on the game itself, it's always cool in my mind to play the Torontos and Montreals of the world.  The Rangers and Bruins, too.  I suppose that I'm just an Original Six junkie at heart who enjoys the long histories of these iconic franchises.  So, on that level, it was cool to see CBJ sweaters sharing the ice with TML sweaters.

One last thing: I watched a fair bit of the game on the Leafs TV feed.  WOW.  These guys know how to present a hockey game.  The players were larger than life (Nash and Mase stood tall like Greek gods during the national anthems), the graphics were the best I've seen, the studio set was incredible, the play-by-play and analysis were top-drawer, and the intermission pieces drew upon that aforementioned history to great effect.  What a fantastic viewing experience.  Fox Sports Ohio (hell, all of Fox Sports) could learn a lot from how the Maple Leafs put a game on TV.

Oh yeah, Columbus also had a power play for the first time in what seems like forever.  And the CBJ got a goal off of it!

NEXT UP: Nothing says New Year's Eve like a visit from the Ottawa Senators (16-18-4, 36 pts., 10th in the East).  7PM, Nationwide.

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