I am working on a few feature length pieces, to appear on The Hockey Writers, and a slightly abridged version of this review will be posted on Inside Hockey, but here is my brief take on the game and the current streak.
The Jackets showed all aspects of their game against Calgary -- ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. The first 8 minutes of the game were troubling, to say the least. Turnovers, inability to clear, defensive missteps were the order of the day. At one point, the Flames had a 4-on-1 rush,t were fortunately confused by all of their choices and misplayed the pass. My personal favorite was the rush where Stralman had the center of the ice staked out, Commodore joined him (close enough to hold hands), while two Flames streaked by on either side. This prompted a particularly witty member of Press Row to quip : " I didn't know Commodore and Stralman were dating . . . "
Fortunately for the Jackets and the assembled crowd of 17,772, Mason was brilliant, and the Jackets found their legs and began asserting themselves. Nash notched #15 on a great feed from Huselius, with Boll and Methot adding clutch second period tallies on nice shots. (Those holding the Boll/Methot Exacta ticket cashed in big . . . ) As the third period progressed, with the CBJ holding a 3 -1 lead, they seemed to have things in control -- taking no unncessary risks, but still outshooting the Flames in the 3rd. However, with about 8 minutes to go, subtle changes began to occur. Defensemen started abandoning the point at the offensive blue line a bit earlier than they had been, even though the forwards were doing a nice job of getting the puck deep. This created gaps, and gaps are bad things in Hitch hockey.
Before you know it, Calgary parked two point blank shots off of feeds from (where else?) behind the net. Overtime was uneventful, and the Jackets lost the shootout in 4 rounds, with Calgary netting 3 of their 4 chances (Mason stuffing Iginla, Nash and Huselius scoring for the CBJ). Done deal.
Needless to say, the nay sayers and fear mongers are out in force. However, thanks to the mercurial nature of the Columbus season, the CBJ remain in the thick of the playoff hunt, and are showing just enough brilliance to create hope. The players know what they need to do, Howson has nothing imminent that he will acknowledge, and when things click, it is clear that this is a talented group that can play anybody. So, what's the problem? Here is my take:
- Some of my friends on Press Row are convinced that the lack of veteran leadership in the clubhouse is hurting this squad. While I remain skeptical that this is the major factor in the uneven play, the sophomores are experiencing this flavor of adversity for the first time. Sure, last year they had Mason's mono and some other injuries to deal with, but there were not the defensive lapses that we are seeing now. Calmer heads would undoubtedly be helpful at this point -- Garon can only do so much and Commodore is struggling with his game, so can't offer much solace.
- Mason is experiencing new adversity as well -- in the form of a loose and unpredictable defense in front of him. Frankly, he has played really well for most of the past few games, but has allowed the one goal at the wrong time. Hitch hit the nail on the head last night when he noted that Mason is moving too quickly, which is causing the five hole (and others) to open. In the course of the game, it is most often not an issue, as Mase is still big and players on the fly lack the accuracy necessary to exploit these gaps, in most instances. However, players in the shootout do have the time to find those vulnerabilities, and they have been doing it. Last season, one of the major distinguishing characteristics between Mason and LeClaire was the smoothness with which Mason handled the crease. Sitting behind him, it was amazing to watch him stand tall and basically glide from post to post with seemingly no effort. LeClaire, in contrast was all arms and legs -- violent, jerky motions-- a high risk, high reward style of play. While much of that was Mason's natural ability -- it was also a factor of the stable, predictable defense in front of him. With that taken away, he is forced to react quickly and violently far more frequently than last year. That is not his comfort zone, and it shows.
- While there are some rumblings about players not "buying in" to Hitchcock's system, and more grumblings about some recent personnel moves, these grousings oversimplify the issue. First, let's look at the personnel issues. The Jackets had a shutdown pair last season of Hejda and Commodore. Hitchcock decided early in camp that he was going to break up that pair, ostensibly to spread the leadership between the pairings. Unfortunately, Commodore has had issues with groin and hip flexor strains, plus a nasty bout with the flu, dating to early in camp. He has not had the time to get back in playing condition, simply in terms of stamina, let alone establishing relationships with new pairings. Similarly, Hejda was shelved with a significant knee sprain, and has shown similar problems adjusting to new pairings. Klesla has been erratic, and Methot has not shown the progress that many would hope to see. Fedor Tyutin, a mainstay last year, is off to a slow start. Newly acquired Anton Stralman has been a great addition to the ability of the blue line corps to move the puck and score, and has been better than anticipated in his own zone. Kris Russell has been showing steady progress and good puck handling, movement abilities. However, his diminutive stature has led to some puzzling healthy scratches of late, even against clubs where speed is at a premium.
- The Jackets are the youngest team in the league, averaging a mere mid-20's in age, and lack the collective experience to patch these holes consistently. Hitch is known -- sometimes fairly, sometimes not--for not necessarily being encouraging of young talent. His hard checking system produces results, but has difficulty dealing with the fastest, most skilled teams. Hejda and Commodore are skilled, but not particularly speedy. Before you hit them, you need to catch them. Remember that Hitch's Stanly Cup ring came with a team that averaged 30.7 years of age, and fell during the "hold and grab". While he has been able to show that it can be extended to the "new" NHL game, that is true only to a point. He has a group of young, talented stallions on his hands, and he needs to find a way to keep them in the corral, while still allowing them to stretch their legs, within the confines of the system. It is a process of governing, rather than breaking, and it is still a work in progress at both ends.
- The knee-jerk reaction has been to change lines with alarming frequency. The latest experiment, moving Raffi Torres to the #1 line and Voracek to the third line, lasted just over nine minutes. The tinkering extended to the shootout, where Tyutin was tabbed as the third shooter. To be fair, Tyutin has had some success, but the sound heard in the arena was the clunk of eyebrows hitting the roof.
- Management is not in panic mode, but impatient fans will only listen to "we need to compete better" so long. Time to return stability to the equation -- return Commodore and Hejda to the same pairing, establish some lines and stick with them to enable familiarity to take root, consider Mathieu Roy, who had a brilliant camp on the blue line, and who many thought outplayed Methot.
Now, back to bed . . .