Sunday, December 6, 2009

Close, But Not There Yet . . .

Coming into tonight, Columbus fans were primarily focused, perhaps obsessively so, on the return of Adam Foote -- former wearer of the "C" in Columbus, who professed loyalty but then extorted a trade back to Colorado.  Foote had been conveniently injured or otherwise unavailable during prior Columbus visits, so this represented the first opportunity for vocal vengence by the assembled crowd. 

The Blue Jackets themselves, however, were more focused on exorcising the defensive demons that have possessed them for the past few weeks.  Repeated turnovers in the defensive zone, lack of communication on the ice, and simple lack of focus had combined to produce some ugly losses, including a forgettable 6 - 3 home loss to Toronto on Thursday night.  While the goaltending has not been up to last season's standards, the spotty defense has hung the netminders out to dry with repeated point blank opportunites, making Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon appear worse than warranted.  

With Foote being predictably and lustily booed every time he set skate on ice, the first period was largely a feeling out exercise, with each side displaying tight checking and caution in the offensive zone.  Fans were treated to nine total shots in the period -- with the Avalanche holding the 5-4 edge.  Not exactly scintillating stuff, but an improvement over recent starts.

The demons emerged once again in the second stanza. Colorado began possessing the puck for longer periods, and started occupying that danger zone below the goal line behind the net that has bedeviled the Jackets thus far this season.  6:46 in, Jan Hejda dove below the line to chase the puck, leaving Woski all alone at the right post.  Stastny found him, Commodore was late getting over, and it was a simple 2 foot tap in for a 1 - 0 lead.  Nine minutes later, the scene was duplicated. Umberger lost contact with Milan Hejduk at the left post.  Duchene put the feed on the tape, and another tap in made in 2- 0.  Though the Jackets' energy improved in the second half of the period, and they outshot Colorado 12 - 10, they still faced a 2 goal deficit heading into the final frame.

The energy created in the latter stages of the second period carried over to the third.  Jason Chimera, who forced the play all night long, netted Columbus' first marker when he crashed the net and directed the puck of the skate of  --- Adam Foote.  A review in Toronto amazingly confirmed the goal, and the Jackets were within one.  Just 39 seconds later, however, Chris Stewart entered the offensive zone on a partial break.  He fired the the puck from above the left dot, and it deflected off Methot's stick and into the back of the net.  You could almost hear the air being sucked out of the Arena at that point. 

To the Jackets' credit, they kept their foot to the floor (ultimately outshooting the Avs 15 - 4 in the third), and created numerous opportunities.  It is a cruel fact of the latest slump that poor play has been exacerbated by the lack of good fortune as well.  So it was tonight -- Peter Budaj robbed the CBJ on numerous solid chances, and others were narrow misses.  Jakub Voracek, another star performer all night long, converted a wraparound with 4:28 left in the game, narrowing the gap to a single goal.  They kept the pressure on, pulling Mason with 1:16 left.  With 13.6 seconds left, it appeared that the Jackets had tied the contest, with Chimera parking one from in close.  However, the net came off the moorings as the goal was being scored, and a Toronto review of the call of goal on the ice ensued.  Replay showed that the shot actually came in under the side of the net -- no goal.  Another effort coming up short. 

After the game, Hitchcock bemoaned the lack of hunger throughout the locker room.  He characterized his team as "inconsistent", and called out the team to find that level of desperation necessary to do "whatever is necessary to win".  That may be the case in some circles, but the failures cannot be laid exclusively on attitude.  For the first time in recent memory, Hejda and Commodore, the #1 pairing from last year, received the lowest amount of ice time on the blue line.   They continue to make blatant errors, and don't appear to be improving.  Hejda has been better, but Commodore has been challenged to play at a level anywhere near to his effort of last year.  Fortunately, Fedor Tyutin is showing signs of coming out of his funk, and Kris Russell has been extremely solid since returning to the lineup.  He brings energy, mobility and puck movement to the blue line, and has the capacity to take the puck deep in the offensive end.

Columbus was improved tonight, but still not good enough.  The players are clearly tight -- gripping the stick too hard, afraid of making a mistake.  Others (Nash, Huselius) often try to do too much on their own -- which has the opposite effect.   Even solid puck handlers like Anton Stralman are making errors, due largely to tightness.  The team needs to relax, play the brand of hockey that they have demonstrated they can play, and do it for 60 minutes.  They need to be accountable, but they can't live in fear that the next mistake will send them to Syracuse.  That is where the coaching staff can provide assistance.

GM Scott Howson has said that the answers lie within the existing roster, but numerous reports indicated that he is sniffing around for a defenseman, with Toronto identified as one of the more likely trading partners. 

Not time for panic, as the Jackets are still in the hunt, and have some good streaks ahead of them.  Still, the team as a whole has to find that comfort zone that will enable them to play technically sound hockey, without consciously fretting over every detail.  Such are the challenges of having the youngest team in the league, and Hitch will be challenged to display the kind of patience he is not know for displaying with young players.

Slumps are no fun, but they are finite.  Howson, Hitchcock and the players need to take a collective deep breath and look forward.