While early season observations are fraught with peril, as they have a nasty way of boomeranging, the 2009-10 edition of the Columbus Blue Jackets may be one of the most miserly clubs in the league this year.
With the exception of a 6–3 aberration in San Jose for the Sharks’ home opener, the Jackets have now allowed a grand total of five goals in the other four games, against the likes of Vancouver, Minnesota, Calgary and Phoenix (who has already shut out both Pittsburgh and San Jose). They own the league’s leading penalty kill, and are starting three very young defensemen, while missing half of their No. 1 tandem from last year, Mike Commodore, who is still nursing a groin strain.
Last night, their game was billed as a matchup of the irresistible force against the immovable object. Calgary sports the league’s best power play, and can roll a seemingly endless cast of talent at the opposition, with Iginla, Jokinen, Conroy, Phaneuf, Bouwmeister and Regher, just to name a few.
The Flames were coming off a stinging overtime loss to Chicago last night, blowing a five goal first period lead, and were figured to be boiling mad and ready for revenge. Normal Columbus-Calgary matches have a tendency to be rather brutish affairs (“heavy” games in Ken Hitchcock’s lexicon), so this one figured to be a potboiler from the start. The certainty of a brawling atmosphere led Hitchcock to declare young star Nikita Filatov a healthy scratch, lest he undergo an involuntary anatomical rearrangement.
This was a bizarre affair from the start, with Calgary reeling off seven of the first eight shots, countering any notion that there might be a hangover from the previous night’s disappointments. Gaining their legs, the Jackets came right back, with Mark Methot scoring what appeared to be the game’s first goal on a laser from the left point. However, just before the shot was released, Jacket Jared Boll had dropped the gloves with the Flames’ Brandon Prust. Wave off the goal.
Though two mutual roughing calls would follow later in the game, this would prove to be the only fighting major, defying expectations, and far under the over/under of four fighting majors per squad that opened at the start of the contest.
A tight checking contest all the way, Calgary scored first when Columbus mishandled the puck near their own blue line, and Curtis Glencross (a former Jacket), knocked home a bouncing puck off the stick of Rene Borque. Columbus claimed that Glencross had knocked it in with a high stick were rejected by review in Toronto, a scenario that most Blue Jacket fans will tell you occurs all too frequently.
The Jackets began carrying the play more strongly in the second. Derick Brassard clanged a golden opportunity off the post, and missed another open chance not long thereafter. Kiprusoff rebuffed some other solid scoring opportunities, and it was beginning to appear that this might be one of those games where Columbus would outshoot its opponent, but fall 1–0. However, with just under six minutes to play, Mark Giordano took a hooking penalty, and the Blue Jackets went on the power play.
Keep in mind that the Columbus squad had the worst power play in the league last year, by a considerable margin. So, against that backdrop, the gift of the extra man was viewed somewhat cynically by the assembled crowd. Columbus kept the pressure on during the first minute of the man advantage, and ultimately forced Cory Sarich into a hooking penalty, providing a 5-on-3 advantage for 40 seconds.
Hitchcock, liking what he was seeing from the unit on the ice, took a timeout to enable that group to stay on the ice. over a minute. When play resumed, it took all of nine seconds for the Jackets to convert, with Anton Stralman (acquired from Calgary just before the season started) netting a wicked slapper from the left point for the tie. Still on the power play, the Jackets dominated possession, providing several more opportunities that just missed. However, just after power play time expired, former Flame Kristian Huselius parked home a rebound for what would prove to be the winning goal.
The Blue Jackets dominated the third period with the type of stifling neutral zone pressure that makes a Ken Hitchcock beam, and the rest of the league cringe. They turned defense into scoring opportunities, and apparently had taken a 3 -1 lead when Antoine Vermette seemed to score on a rebound the slot. Referee Stephen Walkom, however, had inexplicably blown his whistle, negating the goal and drawing the ire of the fans. Replays show the puck clearly visible and in play, and Walkom apparently looking right at it, but still the whistle blew. Amid the boos, there was an uneasiness in the building that this mistake might come back to haunt them.
Not to worry, however, as the Jackets defense shut down any remaining hope, and despite Rick Nash’s empty netter attempt from the neutral zone clanging off the right post, the victory was secure.
Considering that Columbus maintains one of the youngest rosters in the league, this win showed an uncharacteristic amount of discipline. Resisting the inclination to turn the game into a slugfest, the Blue Jackets surrendered only one power play opportunity to the Flames. With the defense coming together very nicely for so early in the season, even with Commodore absent, and the 1–2 goalie pairing of Mason and Mathieu Garon performing beautifully in net, the prospects for Columbus are bordering on scary.
Considering that Hitchock is nursing young Filatov along at what some would call an unrealistically slow pace, and that Derick Brassard is just now starting to find his game legs, the prospects for the offense are similarly strong. Unlike previous years, the Blue Jackets can roll three or four lines that can hurt you, both physically and on the scoreboard.
Having just completed a three game west coast road swing of opponent home openers, Columbus moves on to entertain the surprising Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night, before heading back out west to visit Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim and Los Angeles. If the beginning of the season is any indication, those teams had better be prepared for a contest, as Columbus is intent on showing that last year’s playoff debut was no fluke. If the defense plays the way it did last night, they will be very convincing.