Aftermath No. 5: Chicago
Alright, let's put the finishing touches on this puppy.
The Blue Jackets and Blackhawks played a game tonight that started dull, hit a crescendo with a controversial disallowed goal in the second period, and culminated in a thrilling last-minute push by the home side. In the end, Chicago skated away with its fifth straight win to open this abbreviated NHL season, and the Blue Jackets are now winless in their last four.
Let's not dwell on the negatives, though, especially considering the Blue Jackets put together a solid team game against one of the most talented clubs in the business. They did pretty much everything they needed to get the two points, but the final consequences will be debated for quite a while (just not in this blog).
Steve Mason made 21 saves and was very good, including a pair of big-time glove stops on Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp that happened to come at pivotal junctures of the game. The ice tilted back and forth on a number of occasions and neither team really grabbed momentum, and it made for an entertaining third period with Chicago hanging on to a one-goal lead.
Was this the Blue Jackets' best performance of the season? I'd lean that way, but the collective gusto they showed in the latter stages against Nashville was also impressive. They checked Chicago's top players hard, make them work for their space and played a physical brand of hockey that didn't put a smile on the visitors' faces. That's what you want from this team.
Here are my thoughts from tonight's 3-2 final at Nationwide:
1. Ryan Johansen steps up: This has been bubbling for a few games, but the 20-year-old center was a forceful player tonight. He played 15:57 in the game, won eight of 14 face-offs (57 percent) and matched a career high with five shots on goal -- a few of which were in prime scoring areas. With Mason on the bench and the Blue Jackets seeking the tying goal, Todd Richards called on Johansen to win the pivotal face-off in the Blackhawks' end. That's a huge show of confidence and a deserving reward for the youngster, who appears to be coming into his own.
2. Defensively stout: Entering tonight's game, the Blue Jackets had allowed nearly 40 shots per game and it was putting a ton of pressure on the six defensemen, but that changed tonight. They moved the puck quickly and efficiently out of danger and held the high-powered Blackhawks to just 24 shots on net, and most were from the point or the perimeter. Chicago's best chances came off the rush or turnovers by the Blue Jackets (that won't please the coaching staff, however). There wasn't much room to navigate in the neutral zone, and the Blackhawks found it tough sledding to get anything generated on the counterattack. Credit goes to the Blue Jackets forwards and defense for communicating and maintaining a tight gap.
3. 60 minute effort: Richards has been talking about this since the beginning of the season, and the Blue Jackets came awfully close to a complete game tonight (and you could argue they did). They got the Blackhawks on their heels early in the first period, scored the opening goal thanks to some hard work in front of the Chicago net, and significantly cut down on their giveaways in crucial areas. Their breakout was strong, the forwards tracked well to eliminate time and space for the Blackhawks' skill guys, and when they went back for pucks, the transition was (for the most part) fluid. This was the type of effort you see when everyone is on the same page, and if they can take this as a building block, it's a good sign.