I knew I should have gone to Vegas and bet a whole bunch on the Jackets winning this game. . . well, maybe I kinda thought they could sneak out a point if they got all the bounces. Nahh, I mentally had this one in the L column, though in the remotest corners of my brain I hoped for an upset.
For the long time faithful, and even the new converts, tonight's effort was one of the proudest moments in the franchise's relatively brief existence. I am sure that there will be more significant victories down the line, and hopefully this year, but for a total team effort at a time when it was needed most, under conditions of almost comical adversity, this one is tough to top.
Let's review: Just having lost 3 straight games, and already knowing our #1, Calder candidate goaltender is iffy due to mono, we then discover that our ace defenseman is out with food poisoning, another key defenseman is out with the flu, the backup goalie is likewise out with the flu, and our young stud winger is out with an upper body injury. Oh, yeah -- almost forgot -- we are playing the best team in the West, and arguably in the league, starting our 5th goaltender of the year, and one who has never started an NHL game. Recipe for success, right? Please. . .
However, as part of that wacky roller coaster ride Hitch warned us about as the Jackets broke camp, they found a way to win. Oh yeah, did I mention it was a sellout as well?
No real minuses for this game, so I am going to focus on all the plusses. However, let me get four minor irritants out of my system:
Clearing Passes--- We again had way too many passes in our own zone with no apparent destination. Quick reflexes and good support kept us out of trouble for the most part, but guys my heart can't take much more of that.
Goalie Puck Handling -- I'll cut LaCosta a break for his first game, but he is on the edge of having me apply the same "if it ain't blue ice under your feet, get back to the net" rule I have for Leclaire. He is good with the stick, but seemed to blithely direct the puck away without regard for where his teammates are, and disrupted breakouts a few times. Another time he handled the puck when an icing cal was imminent, and no immediate pressure was there.
Tollefson Puck Handling -- From this point forward, I am invoking the "skate or puck" rule for Tollefson. He has his choice -- he can either handle the puck or skate, but never, ever is he to do both at the same time. It was painful to watch tonight -- it's as if once the puck touches his blade and his feet start moving, mind and arms become paralyzed.
Officiating -- You cannot seriously tell me that the Sharks did not commit a single minor penalty after early in the first period. In fact, I know that is not true, because I witnessed several of them. I feel sorry for the referees -- they missed a helluva game.
Enough nitpicking, let's celebrate the effort, with the following 5 star pluses:
Goaltending -- LaCosta came through like a champ. Tested early, but not overly often, he kept his cool, and most importantly did not surrender juicy rebounds in the crease. He either caught the puck, froze it, or deflected it to the corners. Key stop on Thornton in OT, and a well deserved star of the game designation. The power play goal was point blank after a defender took himself out of the play blocking a shot, and the second goal was screened -- no way he ever saw that one.
Team Defense -- Absolutely breathtaking -- the most aggressive forecheck we have had all year, and it resulted directly in two goals. We set up the picket fence in the neutral zone, which really appeared to disturb San Jose's tempo. They dumped the puck more than I have seen since their first season (I am a native Bay Area resident, and was at their inaugural game). We kept them to the perimeter, and reacted quickly to support when gaps appeared. A few really nice plays to stuff opportunities. Hitting was fierce -- we outhit them 42 - 34 for the game. Hitch has to be proud.
Coaching -- Speaking of Hitch, he and the staff crafted a masterful plan to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Take away the neutral zone entirely, hit in every zone, and push them to the edges. We did all of that, and by the third period San Jose was not as enthusiastic about challenging the blue line. With depleted resources, we could not afford a track meet. While he perhaps would have liked to see more offense, I have a hunch that he figured our chances would come off turnovers due to pressure, which they did.
Opportunism -- With 3 minutes left in the 1st Period, we had 2 shots and 2 goals. It was almost 3 for 3, but Nabakov made a great save on a magnificent setup to Umberger. Williams steal and goal was perfection -- no hesitation -- got the puck on the stick, faced the net, and over the right shoulder of Nabakov. Similarly the setup to Nash and the decisive shot low glove side was a joy to watch. Williams got robbed by Nabakov in OT, but Umberger did a great job putting the winner in motion by moving to the middle and putting a hard one on net. Only 20 shots, but 3 goals. I'll take that over 33 shots and 1 goal any day.
Special Teams -- We only had 1 power play, and did not score, but created all kinds of havoc and put pucks around the net with enough frequency to catch Nabakov's attention. PK was very good -- the one PP goal came after our defender went to the ice to block a shot, and the puck caromed right to Setoguchi in the high slot.
Fans -- Maybe, just maybe the Columbus fans are starting to get it. Despite a 3 game losing streak, more injuries and illnesses than a summer camp and a seemingly invincible opponent, we sell out the joint and have some real energy. Nicely done, everyone!!
Special Mentions -- Christian Backman -- everybody's favorite target of ridicule this year, gets the game winner and a +3 for the night. He was strong at both ends, and looked strong against the Pens as well. Dorsett was a monster hitting machine all night long. Tyutin and Klesla were noticeably solid, and Malhotra again dominated the faceoff circle, though as a team we edged SJ by just 1 in that category. Jason Williams continues to show that Howson is sly as a fox, and Chimera and Torres both showed the most energy they have displayed since their respective returns.
Strangest Moment -- Boll drops the gloves to go with Shelley, but Shelley is having none of it, as his gloves stay on. It happens as an icing call is made, and is immediately followed by a San Jose timeout. That was the strangest timeout I have seen, as there was no sustained pressure from us, and it was early enough in the proceedings that the involved SJ line should not have needed the rest. Only thing we could figure was that Shelley was instructed to take Boll on next time. Any other thoughts?
Clearly, rooting for this team this year counts as cardiovascular exercise, as if I haven't keeled over dead yet, it is not likely to happen anytime soon. Hats off to the entire club for a huge effort under awful circumstances. Like it or not boys and girls, we are in the thick of a playoff race. Buckle up!