Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jackets Stop The Bleeding With A Solid Effort

With grumblings of fan discontent echoing loudly in their ears, the CBJ responded in resounding fashion with a 3 - 0 shutout of the Florida Panthers, a team equally desperate to end their current slide.

Tonight's game featured a resurgent defensive effort -- sorely needed after surrendering more goals than virtually any other team in the league through 29 games. Mike Commodore and Fedor Tyutin played their best games of the season, and Marc Methot was also a solid contributor.  Kris Russell continued his excellent play -- being responsible in his own zone, and leading transition with sharp passing and elusive skating. 

However, the most notable contributor of the evening was Steve Mason.  Dubbed the #1 Star for his effort, Mason invoked images from last season with some stellar play.   He stood tall, aggressively took the top of the crease as his own, and was more active with his stick than at any time this year.  While Florida did not exert extended period of high pressure, there were several flurries of activity, and Mason responded with aplomb.  He appeared energized by the revitalized defense around him, and may also have been motivated by some rather harsh public appraisals of his attitude by goalie coach Dave Rook.  Rook implied that Mason might have allowed last year's Calder Trophy success get to his head a bit.  While Mason has not been the primarily culpable party for the recent failings, he has also not been the exceptional netminder of last year.   With a shutout under his belt, he could be poised for a run. 

The Jackets came out of the chute strong, dominating possessoin in the first period, but proving unable to convert on their opportunities.  Chimera made a nifty forehand/backhand move on Vokoun, to no avail, then somehow managed to miss the net entirely from an unmolested position about 6 feet dead on to the goal.   Nash, Huselius and Vermette put on a clinic of puck possession and scoring opportunity at the 13 minute mark, but failed to convert.  Given Vokoun's history of success against the Jackets, more that a few were wondering if these squandered chances would come back to haunt the squad.  Chimera, however, vindicated the effort as the first period wound down, following his own backand shot and stuffing home the rebound, with just under two minutes left in the first.

The second period brought a dreadful sense of deja vu, as the CBJ allowed Florida to dictate the early tempo.  The familiar littany of failed clearing attempts, turnovers and defensive gaps emerged once again.  On this night, however, Mason was there to stem the tide, and the Jackets righted the ship by the midway point of the period.  They displayed a frustrating knack for firing pucks into the bodies of defenders, as Florida blocked an amazing 20 shots over the course of the contest, but surrendered nothing at their own end. 

Given recent history, entering the third period with a one goal lead was not exactly a cause for jubilation.  However, the club came out with a strong forecheck, particularly by Nash, Voracek and Umberger, and appeared destined to take control of the period.  Unfortunately, the referees had other ideas.  Kristian Huselius was called for a very questionable delay penalty, and Andrew Murray was nailed for hooking shortly thereafter, giving Florida 23 seconds of 5-on-3 advantage.  The penalty killers knocked off the two man deficit, and the subsequent 5-on-4 with aggressive play and solid puck management.  Immediately afterward, Derick Brassard coralled the puck along the left wing, and roofed a beautiful short sided shot over Vokoun to extend the lead to 2 - 0. 

To provide some indication as to how desperately Florida was seeking the win, Vokoun was pulled with over two minutes to play.  Pahlsson deposited the empty netter directly off the center ice faceoff, and the final margin -- plus chili for all -- was secured. 

The victory serves as a benchmark for several reasons.  First, it should at least temporarily quell the rising tide of negativism that had begun to dominate the debate, ranging from calls for Hitchcock's firing to calls for massive trades and restructuring.  Secondly, Steve Mason was truly superb  -- quite possibly signaling a turning point in his season.  Brassard may be catching fire, and Chimera scored in his third consecutive game.  Overall, they appeared like a much looser, more confident group on the ice.

The trick will be for Hitch to capture this energy, allow the mometum to carry into Nashville on Thursday and beyond.  Hitch needs to keep the reins a little looser than he has in the past, as these colts need to run a bit.  He can keep them on the ranch, but can't squelch the spirit.   This is a young, talented group of players, and they showed what they can do when they are loose. 

Nashville preview and other goodies later today.  Go Jackets!!!

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