A Good Goalie Closer

The old saying is that there’s no cheering in the press box. Except that the game will be 5-1 by the end of the second period and not change, so that stories can be written early and filed on time. On the other hand, with the rise of new media, there has been a blurring of the lines between reporter and fan, and more than ever, people who started out as the latter are becoming the former, and in some cases carrying their affiliations with them.

At IH, we avoid that. We’re here to inform you, but every once in a while, it’s hard not to feel a rooting interest. That was my experience, and that of others in the Staples Center press box, on Thursday night when Columbus was in town. So close to the end, they were sitting in eighth, but they need every point they can get. So while I have no personal interest in them winning, it did feel like it might be nice to watch them continue their feel-good resurgence, even if at the Kings’ expense.

Confession time: I think there’s every reason that there shouldn’t be an NHL team in Ohio. There’s no history in Columbus. The city is totally given over to OSU sports, football in particular. The nearest two places where there’s hockey history are Dayton, where the Bombers and Gems have held forth over the decades quite successfully (until more recently) and Cleveland, which has had two failed forays into the pro leagues. One was the NHL Barons, the other the WHA Crusaders.

The Barons had been the California Seals, California Golden Seals, and Oakland Seals—same team, no movement—but they relocated and lasted just two years, 1976-78. The Crusaders were alive from the start of the WHA in 1972 until they were moved away in 1976 to make room for those aforementioned Barons. They went to Minnesota to become the Fighting Saints, version two.

Of course, you could make the “no history, no hockey infrastructure” complaint about a lot of places. Atlanta. Phoenix. Oh, wait. Bad examples. Let’s see. Carolina, Dallas, Los Angeles—all have built from nothing into places where there’s now Stanley Cup history and lots of kids playing the game, including some who are now finding themselves in the NHL (Emerson Etem down the road in Anaheim is the primary example.)

Thus despite the fact that it might be illogical to pull for them, the Blue Jackets are compelling.

One irony of Columbus is that while it is geographically much closer to the East coast and hence the Eastern Conference teams, it is in the Western half of the NHL’s world. That means, while those of you back East have heard a lot about the Jackets this year, you haven’t seen them, even on TV, with the odd exception for games when they happen to have been scheduled against “national” teams—Detroit. Los Angeles, despite being the holders of the Cup, is still erased as far as the powers that be go. No? How many times have they been on TV in New York this year? How many times have we on the West coast had to watch the Rangers? Case closed.

So on the assumption that you don’t know a ton about what the Blue Jackets are like, and with the further assumption that, like me, you actually care right now, given that there’s nothing like an underdog making good, here are some observations about the team as seen when they played the Kings.

The Jackets have been winning of late, as is well known, with their streak being five in a row coming into the night and seven of ten going back to the end of March.

The beat Anaheim the night before they appeared up the road in LA, taking the game to a 3-2 victory in OT.

So who are they? They’re not fast, they’re not big, but they’re tricky. Or at least, that seems to be their game plan. They actually do what the Ducks do, which is make long diagonal passes in the opposition’s zone, often backwards or slightly so, to off-balance the defenders. They tried this against the Kings, and it worked to give them space.

But, and here’s the second thing to note, they can’t penetrate very well. They passed, as I just said, and backed off the Kings’ defense. But then they took shots from out where they were, unable to work the puck in closer to the net. The shots harmlessly hit shinpads and bounced away. Their shot totals over the course of the year perhaps reflect this failing, and those numbers leave them 27th in the league, 200 shots behind those nearer the top of the league.

On this night, they managed 21, but only due to a late surge. The telling number, though, is 17 shot attempts blocked. The Kings had nine.

Note next that they have a group of players now which is more than just a guy or two with name value. They’ve made perhaps as many high-profile trades as any team in the past couple of years, if you count deals both coming and going. Some of those have been good, some not so good. It’s perhaps not worth going through the Rick Nash thing again, but let’s just say that now-departed GM Scott Howson probably learned that when your star whines his ass off for months, you just need to make a deal to shut him up. Waiting until everyone in the league knows he’s desperate to get out is too late. But that doesn’t matter anymore, since the new man in the GM chair is reputed to be a guy whose toughness belies the stereotype of European hockey people.

Jarmo Kekalainen is not likely to make a deal like the signing of James Wisniewski, who got 6 years and $33 million. He was coming off a year when he piled up 51 points in 75 games with the Isles and Habs. He’d been in Anaheim for two years prior to that, however, one of which was half AHL, half NHL, and so those of us who had seen him out here were more than surprised and would have been in a good position to tell the GM that the move was stupid had he bothered to call. The player has produced points at about a .5 per game rate since that deal.

The team also snagged Jack Johnson from the Kings in trade for Jeff Carter, a deal which has considerable upside for the team, at seven years and $30.5 million. That player was highly sought by the Kings when they got him in 2007.

Their lineup now looks less like the ragtag bunch of unrecognizable names than they used to when they rolled into town, and that’s a good thing. In fact, let’s say this—when Columbus used to who play, the only person with marquee recognition was Rick Nash, and he also took all the heat on the ice, something his coach pointed out one night in the hallway after playing in Staples.

Fourth, the team has a good goalie for the first time since Steve Mason was on a tear for them a few seasons ago. Sergei Bobrovsky, as everyone knows, had an incredible March. His numbers right now look like this: a 2.03 GAA (6th in the league) and a .931 save percentage (2nd).

Watching him play in net Thursday, I observed the following: he’s aggressive in the way that the old standup goalies were. His quickness resembles that of Jonathan Quick last season, where he exploded at shooters when they had clear sightlines for close-in wrist shots. He does the splits in a flash like Quick. But if you want an old-time example, look up some video of Gerry Cheevers. Discount the difference in equipment and shooter strategy, and you have a pretty good match. I’m not saying he’ll be that good for that long. Who knows? It may be over in a week. But he’s playing big right now.

When I tried to interview him after the game against the Kings he said, “I don’t speak English.” My look apparently said, “You said that perfectly in English,” and he finished with, “I’m not comfortable.”

The truth? A Columbus writer told me that he claims not to speak English if he doesn’t want to talk. Chances are, he has never heard of Gerry Cheevers, though, so my questions might not have hit the spot.

Goaltending is perhaps the real message about Columbus. They’re a work in progress, but at this instant, they’ve got the one piece that takes teams to Stanley Cup playoff success (Anaheim in 2003) or Stanley Cups (Patrick Roy in Colorado in 1996, Brodeur in a bunch of years, etc.).

The Kings won the Cup for a few reasons, but the primary one, the one that can’t be discounted, was that their goalie handed them game after game. Sure, they got depth scoring, with wins coming night after night off of a different stick. But in net, they were sterling, and that’s the key.

James Wisniewski said, “Sergei has been our star player this year. We’ve been playing hard in front of him, finally getting some results, some wins. We’ve been doing a good job of helping him out as well. Without him, we probably wouldn’t have been in a lot of these games.”

Is it enough? Well, that’s the key question for Columbus. Is there more there than a netminder on a hot streak? In the third period against the Kings, they poured it on, and they were effective. They got pucks to the net, as when Blake Comeau threw one in front to Jack Johnson. Then Nick Foligno stole a puck at the Kings’ blueline and went in with a wrist shot that forced Quick to make a good save on one knee. Marian Gaborik and linemate Mark Letestu were tenacious, creating a chance that was broken up only when Doughty got his stick on the puck. But why not all night? Is there only so much talent there? Then why save it for when you’re behind?

Columbus seemed to describe the game accurately in their comments after. Coach Richards said that some of his guys weren’t ready to start, not fast enough. But he praised his guys, “They [Kings] make things extremely difficult . . . but for the guys that were ready to go . . . most guys settled into the game.” He added about period three, “We started to push forward. We started to win more battles, more races, started to create some momentum there.”

Wisniewski further commented, “Good teams usually have a hot goalie, and they ride him.” So is goaltending enough? The answer is that it’s not, but while the magic lasts, it’s going to be a good ride for the team. Whether that means another playoff appearance or not is TBD, and every game matters, since they’re in a virtual tie with Detroit and Dallas given that each are back by two points with two games in hand.

The present Columbus magic may be a matter as much of belief as of connecting the dots in an X and O fashion, however, and so for the final element, put this in your pipe and smoke it: the Jackets kept hanging around against the Kings, and hanging around. Their shot total slowly crawled closer to LA’s, and as the third period wore on and they were still down 2-1, you had to say to yourself that the more remarkable chances and the greater pressure was on the part of the visitors. That they couldn’t prevail shows perhaps bad luck. Wisniewski said, “We battled tonight. We fell short, but we very easy could have got another goal, or two, and won this game.”

So what does the back-to-back set of results which saw them down the Ducks and lose to the Kings say? That they can play with a team that lets them play to their strength, but they just aren’t in the class of a bigger team which plays a tight game with the puck.

They are, in other words, a good goalie closer to the playoffs than they were before, but a few turnovers, a lot of blocked shots, and a power play away from being able to win there.

Notes

Please follow me on twitter @growinguphockey. Few tweets, but generally good ones. My Country Is Hockey is my latest book.

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