It was bound to happen.
Call it a good team going cold. Call it a bad team overachieving. Call it the law of averages.
At the begining of the season, who would have predicted the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the final team in the NHL to lose two games in a row? Is it unfathomable that they could lose three?
Of course not, nor should the white flag be raised on the season because of Wednesday night’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. A season cannot be lost because of one, two or three defeats. It’s about how a team responds to a losses.
Heading into the midweek match-up with their Music City rivals, the Blue Jackets and their fanbase had to come to grips with a staunch reality: they’re no Detroit. The Red Wings are the class of the entire league. They have been for the past 15 years. And the Union Blue skated with the best at times last Friday and Sunday, only to see the Red Wings shift up a gear when they needed to take both games.
There was no shame in either of those losses, although head coach Scott Arniel and his staff have taken it upon themselves to eliminate the mentality of moral victories in the CBJ locker room. It was how they responded against the Predators — in the third straight game against a divisional foe — that was concerning.
The Blue Jackets were unable to capitalize on a plethora of scoring chances early in the first, while the Predators needed only one good opportunity to take the lead. The Blue Jackets fought back to tie the game not once but twice, and even took the lead midway through the third, only relinquish it less than two minutes later.
The Blue Jackets pushed for the win in overtime. The Predators hunkered down for a shootout. Once the five minutes of 4-on-4 were over, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the two points were lost.
“I’m never really satisfied with not winning a hockey game. I don’t care about how it went — if it went 65 minutes, or a shootout, whatever,” Arniel said. “I’m more upset about giving up that third goal. We’ve been pretty good this year when we’ve gotten leads late in games of clamping it down. That one shouldn’t have happened.”
That goal shouldn’t have mattered. The Blue Jackets had chance after chance to claim the win in 60 minutes, but seemed to be in a reactive mode after being unable to capitalize in the opening stanza.
“I think we were waiting,” defenseman Kris Russell said. “We had a team with fresh legs — they played last night. I thought we had more opportunities to put them away but they kept coming back.”
Columbus got a pair of goals from Antoine Vermette, who is quietly starting to produce on the scoresheet at the pace the organization expected. He has four goals and seven points in his last four games after being held without a point 10 of 12 prior games. RJ Umberger added a pair of helpers to take sole possession of the of the franchise record of consecutive games with a point. He has now registered a point in 10 straight game, eclipsing the nine-game mark held by Rick Nash (twice) and Andrew Cassels.
Russell also scored his long-awaited first goal of the season, a slap shot from the high slot seconds after a power play had expired. The game itself was the Caroline, Alberta native’s tour de force on the young season, as he finally appeared unshackled from an early season knee injury. He skated the puck regularly, pinched liberally and even threw the body around.
“(Russell) has been frustrated with himself and he’s wanted the offensive side to come,” Arniel said. “I hope he gains tons of confidence from (the game) because he was outstanding.”
But it came down to burying chances, and that’s precisely what Nashville did when they needed. Arniel said his team only gave up five scoring chances through two periods. The Predators put two of them in the net. The Blue Jackets had a half dozen prime scoring chances in the first 15 minutes.
“I think overall our first period was pretty good. I don’t think the score was representative,” Vermette said. “Tonight we could’ve had a better fate.”
The third period mirrored the first, with the Jackets getting the majority of quality chances, but this time around they got a pair of goals to show for it and take the lead. They held it for 97 seconds and the Predators were able to sap any momentum with Kevin Klein’s goal. Klein kept the puck in the zone after a half-hearted clearing attempt from recently-returned Ethan Moreau and stepped into a heavy slap shot, which goaltender Steve Mason likely never saw.
“Mason made some big stops for us,” Russell said. “I think this is one we have to bury down.”
Mason played well enough in net to win — he could hardly be faulted for any of the Predators’ goals. In all three cases, the defense appeared to lapse, whether they were puck-chasing on Colin Wilson’s or Sergei Kostitsyn’s; or failing to clear the puck out of the zone on Klein’s.
As for the shootout… well that’s never exactly been his strong suite (as his 7-13 record supports). Steve Sullivan abused him and the Jackets’ attempts left much to be desired.
It was a shootout loss. Most coaches and players will tell you a shootout is a crapshoot, that they still earned a point. But it’s not the one point won in Wednesday’s loss, it’s two points against Buffalo on Friday.
The Blue Jackets have yet to truly face adversity under Arniel. They’re starting to get a taste of it now.