Friday, November 20, 2009

Place Foot On Throat . . . Press Firmly

The Blue Jackets turned in the type of effort everyone had been looking for since the early games of the season -- taking control of the game early, and removing all hope late.  The fact that it happened at the start of their longest road trip of the season is a bonus.

Playing in the back half of a road-home back-to-back, following a solid win over Detroit on Wednesday, Dallas apparently decided that the best way to overcome fatigue is through thuggery.  Dallas came out hard and nasty, as evidenced by the 52 minutes of penalties handed out in the first period, featuring three "official" fights (Daley/Dorsett, Chimera/Ott, Boll/Barch), a double minor to Nash for roughing & boarding, and penalties against both goaltenders for leaving their respective creases to assist in the shenanigans.  (Due to proximity, Turco was in the middle of the melee, while Mason was turned back by the officials as he approached center ice.)

To their credit, the Jackets responded definitively and cohesively.  Though appearing somewhat tentative in the first few minutes of play, they quickly upped the tempo and the intensity.  After successfully killing off an early penalty to Klesla, the Jackets got their first extra man opportunity when Neal went off for hooking at the 7:52 mark.  The power play, ranked 7th in the NHL coming in, maintained possession and crashed the net, with Nash able to finally drive it home for a 1 -0 lead -- a goal Hitch had to be smiling over.

The Dallas response was a physical one, and the Jackets responded in kind.  At with 5:34 left, Dorsett and Neal started a scrum down low, with Trevor Daley then stepping in and escalating it to a full fledged fight with Dorsett, who drew the extra minor for cross-checking.  20 seconds later, Chimera and Ott mixed it up, followed by a predictable square-off between Boll and Barch.  All of this ended up with no impact on the scoresheet.

With 1:43 left in the first, a fracas started in the corner to Turco's right -- with Nash and Robidas as the focal point.  Both squads rushed into the fray, with Turco in the middle of it, apparently having taken umbrage at Torres' dash through the trapezoid.  When it was all sorted out, the penalty boxes were SRO, and the Jackets were again on the penalty kill, with Nash having taken the extra minor. 

The Jackets turned an apparent burden into a benefit.  Returning to the aggressive PK style of the early season, they pressured the puck, got solid clears, and denied Dallas any real scoring opportunities.  With 6 seconds left in the period, Huselius caused a turnover at the blue line, and led a two on one break , with Vermette charging hard to his left.  Counting down the clock in his mind (according to his own statement), he looked off Turco, veered to the center, past Vermette and the defender, and unleashed a wicked wrister that beat Turco through the pads with just 0.3 seconds left in the frame.  The perfect exclamation point to an intense period of hockey.

The Jackets started the second with energy, but failed to convert on a few chances.   At the 6:49 mark, Dorsett was tangled in a scrum for the puck along the boards to Turco's right, when Neal cruised across the ice and laid a vicious shoulder to Dorsett's head, pounding it against the glass.  The image of Dorsett, clearly out on his feet, slumping to the ice, then vainly trying to regain his feet, will be one of the images that finally gets some league action on head shots.  The officials quickly imposed a 5 minute major and game misconduct, and Neal will undoubtedly enjoy some unpaid time off, courtesy of the NHL disciplinary officials.

At this point, the Jackets did what they have so often failed to do in past seasons -- applied the knockout punch.  With a five minute major, they were patient, but persistent, creating some good opportunities.  At the 10:23 mark, Huselius notched his second of the night, with assists from Tyutin and Klesla.  Just 20 seconds later, Voracek made a beautiful feed to Torres on the right, who parked the puck for a 4 - 0 lead.  The margin should have been extended to five just a few seconds later, but Torres' shot to a wide open net maddeningly caromed off the post.  No matter -- the damage had been inflicted.

The lone Dallas marker came on a defensive lapse, which left Modano wide open at the right dot.  A sharp cross-ice pass found him, and Mason had no chance to recover.  Undaunted, the Jackets shut everything down for the remainder of the second and the third, providing the Stars with few opportunities.  Unlike prior games, however, the Jackets were not in retreat -- they kept the pressure up in the offensive zone, and actually outshot the Stars in the third.  That may have been the best indication of all that the team is beginning to make progress.

Mason was terrific between the pipes, looking very much like he did last year.  He was alert, active and aggressive.  At one point, he was perhaps a bit overly aggressive.  Apparently influenced by Turco's wandering habits at the other end, Mason strayed far afield to play the puck up the left-hand board.  It was intercepted, however, forcing Mason to act like a diving shortstop to smother the return shot heading for the far corner.  Other than that, Mason controlled the puck and projected confidence -- signifying a mental recovery from the Detroit debacle of last week.

Confidence was the by-word for the evening.  While still not as sharp with passing as we would perhaps care to see, they were decisive and deliberate with their exit passes, and consistently showed speed through the neutral zone.  Tyutin had his best game of the season in all three zones, and Commodore looked much improved.  Brassard was strong, and Torres brought life to the offense as well.

In summary, a great start to the road trip. The combination of intelligent play and physical presence has to be reassuring to Hitchcock, particularly heading into Nashville on Saturday.  With Dorsett's status unknown, plan to see MacKenzie stay with the big club for perhaps the entire road trip, and for Sestito to be a big factor against the Predators.