Thursday, December 18, 2008

WOW!!! Happy Birthday HItch!!!

If Hitch has a list of things he wanted for his birthday (and I doubt that he does), #1, #2 and #3 on that list would likely have been a gutty home win over the best team in Hockey, the San Jose Sharks. Well, he got his wishes . . .in spades.

Make no mistake about it, the Sharks are the best team in the NHL right now, and I'm not sure second is relevant. They have built a solid team that has gelled as a unit, and they just keep coming at you. Their transition game is scary, and they are always, always in position to make a play. They brought all they had las night as well, peppering Mason with 48 shots (though a big share of these were from the point, and our defense did a nice job of creating lanes of visibility).

Last night, however, was all about the Bluejackets. Yes, there were occassional periods where SJ appeared to dominate and where we appeared to scramble, but the overriding theme of the night was the ability to play hard, technically sound hockey for 60 minutes, and at the same time find another gear when they needed it. I suspect Hitch has been waiting for the team to find that gear, and they did it last night.

Up to the Shark's goal in the 3rd, the Jackets had played tough defense, technically sound offense, and had been spotless on the PK. When SJ scored however, their game elevated to a place those of us who have been in the seats since Day 1 have rarely, if ever, seen. They were not "reckless", in the style of the NY Islanders, but were intensely aggressive. Their game got heavy in a hurry. It was as if the team had collectively said to themselves, "No, no, not in OUR house!" I have to think that the steel curtain Mason was throwing up provided them with the freedom to play that way, and it was refreshing to see.

Don't get me wrong, the graveyard is filled with teams who have tried to play the up and back game with San Jose, and I am not necessarily suggesting it as a 60 minute strategy (though wouldn't that be something to watch?) However, at that time and place, it was necessary and the team responded. Sure, we gave up more chances that way, but Mason was not surrendering rebounds, and our defense was clearing the dangerous pucks with reasonable efficiency. You are not going to play the Sharks for 60 minutes without giving up chances.

It was great to see Huselius bounce back from some bad decisions and bad shooting to assist on the game winner with calm efficiency. Some fans were riding him pretty hard for the way he handled some prime chances during the game, but we also have to remember that his skill put him in the position to have those chances in the first place.

Great to see the fan response as well. Instead of flocking to the exits the minute the horn sounded, they stayed to cheer the team, hear the 3 Stars and cheer Mason as he got interviewed. Well done. Pass the word!

Plusses and Minuses:

Guts -- Call it "competetive composure", a "heavy" game, whatever. The CBJ reached down at crunch time and found a way to win against a superior opponent. Both sides had chances that were squandered during the game, but when it mattered most, we were there. Also overcame some very questionable officiating down the stretch. Some bad calls against us, and some equally bad non-calls on the Sharks.

Goaltending -- Those who watched NHL On The Fly on the NHL Network after the game were treated to some great stuff on the CBJ in general and Mason in particular. They were just about ready to wrap the Calder Trophy and send it to Mason's house. Great stuff!

PK -- A really solid and decisive PK effort against a very good PP team.

Defense -- We were really good in our own zone for the most part. Many of the 48 shots were from the blue line, and we created lanes for Mason to see. We reacted quickly to fill gaps, and survived some missteps with great goaltending. However you slice it, limiting the best team in the league to 1 goal is huge.

Offense -- Sure, it took overtime to get us two goals, but we did put 32 shots on net, and had some awfully good shifts throughout.

Individual Stars -- Everyone played hard, tough hockey. Really a team effort. The obvious stars are Mason, Umberger, Tyutin, Peca. Russell played great and took clearing into his own hands. He created space in the offensive zone as well. Brassard was in constant motion, and created lots of action at both ends. Voracek had another strong game and is obviously more comfortable. Nash makes the one key play when it is needed most. Backman played noticeably better, and Methot was strong.

Minuses -- Just a couple to note for this one:

Power Play -- Didn't make anything happen on our couple of chances, but it was not a deciding factor in the game.

Puck Control In Our Zone -- We continue to be a bit lazy with the puck in our own zone. Much like a receiver waiting for the pass in football, we too often stay stationary and wait for the puck to get to us. With a team like the Sharks, it often doesn't get there, as they are in motion and we aren't. Methot and Commodore had some bad giveaways in our zone, but we got away with them.

Injuries -- Chimera and Murray go down -- no word yet on severity. Novotny will need to step up, and Wilson will likely share remaining slot with another call up.

Bottom line -- a huge win for the organization, and at exactly the right time. Let's build on this one and get 4 points in Dallas and Phoenix. Go Jackets!

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