Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Game 62/Vancouver: My Take

The "West Coast" part of the Columbus Blue Jackets West Coast trip kicked off late last night and lasted really, really late with a 2-1 Vancouver Canucks shootout win over the visiting CBJ at Rogers Centre.

I've been writing game recaps for a couple of seasons now, and I have to say that it's games like this that drive me batty.  Do I stand up and applaud the valiant effort of the CBJ against (arguably) the best team in the NHL, taking them all the way to the shootout?  Or do I bemoan the fact that this game was the Blue Jackets' to win...and they couldn't seal the deal?

I'll try to do a little of both.

First, the positives.  This was/is perhaps the best team in hockey right now (surely because of the presence of three former Blue Jackets).  The Blue Jackets played a tight, tenacious, frustrating (to the 'nucks) brand of hockey that didn't give Vancouver an inch pretty much all night.  Sticks were down, pucks were flipping out of the Canucks' control all too often for their liking, and the CBJ was largely controlling the play as a result.

Newcomers Sami Lepisto and Scottie Upshall, literally hours after meeting their new teammates, were inserted into the starting lineup and acquitted themselves well.  Lepisto was on-ice for the one Vancouver regulation goal, and I believe that he was out of position on that goal.  But learning a defensive system takes longer than 5 hours.  A practice or two might help.  Thus, I'm not going to crucify him for one blown play in over 21 minutes of time on ice when he probably was doing little more than playing on instinct.

Parental guidance suggested
Upshall, however, is a revelation on the third line.  Sammy Pahlsson, somewhat mercurial in his time in Columbus, clearly enjoyed having Upshall on his wing.  I saw nearly instant chemistry between the two that lasted all night long.  Derek Dorsett, never known for anything approaching offensive aptitude, did his best to rise to the occasion and focussed his flying around the ice in north-south directions (toward the goal, largely) and not toward the nearest opponent who had a smug look on his face.  Besides scoring the only regulation goal of the game for the CBJ, Upshall also brought a little "somethin' somethin'" for the Fox Sports Ohio microphones in dropping some four color language on  Canucks defender Dan Hamhuis.  Thus, we rechristen this game in his honor.

The game almost moved out of reach, however, when Upshall took a double minor for high sticking at 15:06 in the 3rd.  That meant the CBJ penalty killers had to withstand four minutes of the NHL's top ranked power play.  And whattya know, they held firm and willed the team into overtime (and the one standings point for getting there).  I cannot speak highly enough of this effort, to lock things down so tightly after such a hard-fought game, when surely they were tired from the travel and the prior 55 minutes of play.  If the CBJ get in the playoffs by one point, look to this sequence as to how they made it.  

The Blue Jackets are making progress in goal by only being down 1-0 after one period (as opposed to their near-requisite two goal deficit).  Outside of that one goal - and I'll gently pin that one on Lepisto but probably need to go back and watch it to confirm my fuzzy late night recollection - Mase played a solid and thankfully unspectacular game in stopping 25 of 26 regulation and overtime shots.  His positioning looked good, he stayed poised and he kept his mind focussed.  And he had defensive support pretty much whenever he needed it.  With a little more offensive support, the Steve Mason of the Vancouver game could carry the Blue Jackets into the playoffs.

Lastly, and this is a fantastic transition, the Blue Jackets as a team FINALLY seemed to figure out this puck possession transition game that Arniel has been preaching (and the team's been practicing) since training camp.  Columbus' players were flinging the outlet passes like mad and, by my count and that of a couple others, at least 5 genuine breakaways.

Now for the rest of the story.  Upshall's one goal was not a breakaway.  That means that the CBJ had 5 breakaways - often one-on-ones with the goaltender, Roberto Luongo - and couldn't bury a single one.  And it wasn't just the bottom six forwards who blew it (but Derek Dorsett kicked off the madness in the first with a failed breakaway).  Rick Nash, R. J. Umberger, Matt Calvert...they couldn't convert either.  So do we simply tip our cap to the Olympian Luongo and say, "Bravo?"  Maybe in the first half of the season, or maybe in a season where the CBJ aren't scratching and clawing their way to get into the top 8 in the West with next to no help from around the league and only 20 games left.  But not tonight.  If these guys really want to be in the playoffs, they need to find ways to bury those chances.  It's what you do when you beat the good teams.

Which brings me to the shootout.  Only Nash and Antoine Vermette could get it past Luongo.  Upshall, Jake Voracek, Calvert, Fedor Tyutin, Derek Mackenzie and Umberger all could not.  (And Kyle Wilson, who's potted more than one shootout chance, is sitting in Springfield.  Yes, I'm missing him.)  With the caliber of teams that the CBJ will be playing down the stretch, the likelihood of shootouts is all that much greater.  Arniel should be running shootout drills at every practice.  Columbus just can't give that extra point away.

Had the CBJ won, even in overtime, they would have added 8 percentage points to their playoff chances.  instead, the loser point got them just over half a percent.  The chasm between "surviving" and "winning" (and not in a Charlie Sheen sense) is that wide.

NEXT UP: Edmonton Oilers, 9PM on Thursday.  Let's hope Linus Omark got his highlight goal fix in last night's shot against the Preds:

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