Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Welcome Back Steve Mason

Steve Mason made his return from injury last night helping the Columbus Blue Jackets stun the Vancouver Canucks with a shootout victory to win Tuesday night’s game 2-1 at Nationwide Arena.
Mason looked sharp in his return stopping 31 of 32 shots faced and posting a .968 SV% for the victory over the red hot Canucks, who are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. 
It seems to be the new trend of the Blue Jackets to dominate the first period, and they did just that against the Canucks at both ends of the rink, doubling them in shots 10-5 and earning a 1-0 lead after the first.  In the closing seconds of a four-on-three man advantage James Wisniewski fired a wrist shot on net where Jeff Carter was parked in front of Roberto Luongo.  Carter followed up the rebound beating Luongo, for his sixth of the season and third in as many games.
After a scoreless second period, where the Canucks outshot the Blue Jackets 9-1 (also becoming a common trend), the Canucks tied the game eight minutes into the third.  After some pressure from Chris Higgins, and a questionable no-call trip of Rick Nash, Maxim Lapierre tied the game beating Mason short side.
Overtime solved nothing so the Blue Jackets were off to their sixth shootout of the season:
     Columbus Blue Jackets (3)                      Vancouver Canucks (1)
1.       Mark Letestu - Goal                        Cody Hodgson - Save
2.       Rick Nash - Goal                             Alexandre Burrows - Goal
3.       James Wisniewski - Goal                 N/A
Despite all the “Mason Haters” out there, tonight marked the 23-year old goalie’s return after sitting out the past 12 games due to injury, as well as tremendous play from Curtis Sanford. 
Sanford, who went 5-4-3, was good enough to help the Blue Jackets earn points in eight of the past 12 games.
Mason looked calm and poised between the pipes on Tuesday night.  His positioning in the crease was solid, not straying too far outside the blue paint, but always challenging every shot that was thrown at him.  If shot got to him, Mason’s rebound control was solid, smothering most and pushing others away from the front of the net.  In short, he looked like a kid booming with confidence.
Is this the resurrection of Steve Mason former Calder winner?
I would hate to get ahead of myself and say that yes, it is.  It was a positive game in the right direction for Mason as an individual on a team that looked to lack confidence in the net minder, and that’s really all that should be taken from it. 
The players worked hard to help Mason out, playing with energy, minimizing defensive end turnovers and getting in the shot lanes.  Something that prior to Mason’s injury, one could argue, was missing.
With Sanford lifting the weight of a franchise off of Mason’s shoulders, head coach Scott Arniel may soon have the luxury of 1A/1B tandem that can help win an organization hockey games on a nightly basis.
The Blue Jackets have earned three of a possible six points during a five-game home stand and look to add to that with games this Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings, and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.   

Friday, 2 December 2011

Flames Burnout as Jackets Mount Comeback

Not to be over shadowed by the mid-day rant from Allan Walsh, agent of Columbus Blue Jackets forward Derick Brassard, in one of the most unusual “Jekyll and Hyde” performances the Blue Jackets managed to fight back from a two-goal deficit to beat the Calgary Flames 4-3 in a shootout Thursday night in Calgary.
Antoine Vermette opened the scoring just over five minutes into the first period.  Despite being outshot 15-5, the Flames managed to tie it up at one, when Lee Stempniak caught Blue Jackets goalie Curtis Sanford arriving late to the post beating him five-hole.
The tables turned for the second period as the Flames outshot the Blue Jackets 15-3 and were rewarded with a goal late in the period to take a 2-1 lead.  Taking advantage of sloppy second period play, Alex Tanguay fed Rene Bourque as he blew by the Blue Jackets defenseman to let a slap shot go as he entered the zone beating Sanford.
Newly acquired Blake Comeau widened the gap by two 5:48 into the third period for his first as a Flame, after a lazy pinch effort from James Wisniewski.  From there, head coach Scott Arniel started to shake things up with some interesting line combinations and the Blue Jackets slowly started to show life.  With 4:05 left in regulation Nikita Nikitin let a point shot go beating Miikka Kiprusoff for his first goal as a Blue Jacket. 
Then with the net empty and .58 seconds left on the clock, the Blue Jackets managed to tie the game.  Captain Rick Nash tipped a slap pass given by Nikitin off the point.  Overtime solved nothing resulting in a shootout where Nash completed the comeback as the third shooter beating Kiprusoff.  Sanford kept the Flames off the board stopping all three shooters he faced.
The big story of the day was player agent Allan Walsh who released a statement earlier that day publicly criticizing Arniel for his decision to have Derick Brassard as a healthy scratch for seven of the teams past 10 games.  He goes on in his statement about how Arniel has a “history of burying players and using them as scapegoats to mask his own lack of success on the ice.”
As a first round pick (6th overall), his point production hasn’t really stood out  compared to the likes of other 2006 draftee’s Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel or Claude Giroux to name a few. 
But he hasn’t been the worst of the 2006 class either.
Every coach wants to maximize the point production out of players, that’s what coaches do, they want to see players succeed and develop to help a hockey club reach their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.  But hockey is a two-way game; you need to be strong defensively too, it is vital to any winning organization to be good at both ends. 
Especially when a team has been outscored consecutively the past four seasons, the closest margin coming in the year the Blue Jackets made the playoffs: 220 GF vs. 223 GA.
Brassard has only had one season where his +/- rating has been positive (+12 in 2008/09), coincidentally the same year the team made the playoffs.  Outside of that one year, he has been minus double digits each season, including 2009-10 where he led the team at -17. 
I hate to use +/- as a viable stat because a lot of people consider it useless or “not defiant of a player’s productivity,” especially since this year Nash is actually worst on the team sitting at -12.   But Brassards -11 rating stands out to me and the difference between Nash and Brassard aside from playing time is point production, which for Brassard has been nonexistent, 2-2-4 in his 18 games played.
The Blue Jackets have been playing winning hockey over the last 10 games, so there is no surprise that there hasn’t been a real shake up.  This makes it hard for Brassard to make a case for himself.  As much as everyone would like to see Arniel showcase Brassard, the team isn’t exactly in a position to take games lightly, they need every point they can get in this tight Western Conference.
I can understand why Walsh voiced his opinion, if he is like me he takes pride in his decisions, and if a player I endorsed was not seeing ice time, I would be upset too.  The unfortunate thing is Walsh made himself look like the rambling fool everyone thought he already was, when the simple fact is Derick Brassard is not playing good hockey. 
Until the team starts losing again or Arniel is convinced of otherwise, I don’t see any reason that warrants Brassard back in the line up on a nightly basis.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Everyone's A Critic

Both the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals both gave thanks to their head coaches’ for the dismal start to the 2011-12 season by replacing them on Monday.  Dale Hunter is stepping in for Bruce Boudreau, and Kirk Muller will step in for Paul Maurice down in Carolina.
The thing that amazed me the most out of Monday’s events was that it seemed almost instantly after those two firings; rumors began that Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel would be next on the list of people to lose their job.  Thanks to @Cujoerulesdtown (writer on for being the first to shed light regarding people who were speculating Arniel would be out the door next.
A fitting storyline considering the Blue Jackets are 30th in the National Hockey League, but why are coaches really fired? 
If it was strictly on a win/loss basis one would think Boudreau, who’s Capitals were sitting second in their division and tied for eighth in the conference, might have had a little more job security regardless of the team being 3-6-1 in the last 10. 
The common denominator is belief.  Like most things in life, if you do not believe in what you are doing, you will not devote 100% effort all the time.  An argument that could be used in reasons why franchise players such as Alexander Ovechkin or Eric Staal have under produced so far this season.
When players stop believing in a coaches “brand,” the effort starts to lack and productivity will eventually decrease.  Key role players stop producing, chemistry starts to change and eventually, more often than not, teams start losing.  Once a team starts losing, general management starts to lose beleif in the coach as well. 
So what makes Columbus different with their below .500 record?  The players still believe…
Despite starting off the season 1-8-1, the Blue Jacket players are still buying into the “brand” of hockey Arniel wants them to play.  Each night, all 18 skaters come to the rink to work, bringing a tenacious high-intensity brand of hockey that is hard on the fore check.  Thanks to consistent goaltending from Curtis Sanford, and an almost complete and healthy Blue Jackets roster, the Blue Jackets are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games.
In today’s NHL, players can’t afford to give less than a hundred percent.  There is so much talent in the game today that the minute a player let’s up, they are exposed.  Laziness, lack of motivation, or even sheer spite – whatever you want to use as a reason; if one player struggles the team pays the sacrifice. But you can’t fire an entire team so ultimately the coach will pay the price.
Despite what people might think, Arniel will not be fired this season on the simple fact that the team still believes in both Arniel and his “brand.”  The Blue Jackets although down are not out of the playoff race in the Western conference, partially thanks to how ridiculously tight the standings are right now with only three points separating 3rd through 11th place.
If I am wrong, all "I told you so" messages are welcome.  Feel free to send your comments to @Kelly_OIH.  After all, everyone's a critic.     

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Blue Jackets Fall Short Snapping Win Streak

The turkey might taste a little dry tomorrow for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who looked to extend their winning streak to three games on Wednesday as they rolled into the Prudential Center only to fall short 2-1 (SO) against the New Jersey Devils.

After a scoreless first period, Devils forward Dainius Zubrus opened the scoring four minutes into the second frame after jumping on the Curtis Sanford rebound created from Adam Larsson’s point shot.  Sanford, in his third consecutive start, was solid through two periods allowing only one goal on 17 shots.

Staying true to Head Coach Scott Arniel’s “working harder without the puck” mentality, the Blue Jackets were full steam ahead in the third period outshooting the Devils 17-3.  Just over five minutes into the third period, Vinny Prospal pressured Devils Captain Zack Parise leaving the defensive zone forcing a turn over.  Prospal then finds Marc Methot for a point shot that is redirected by Jared “Broken Nose Ain’t Stopping Me” Boll for his first of the season.  After a short review, they deemed it a good goal with no kicking motion knotting the game at one’s.

Almost immediately after the Blue Jackets goal, the team was almost rewarded again as Jeff Carter went searching for his fourth in three games only to be denied by the crossbar on a wrist shot that I think Devils goalie Martin Brodeur is still looking for.

The Devils woke up slightly in the OT frame doubling up the Blue Jackets in shots 4-2, but neither team really produced any quality scoring chances forcing the game to a shoot out.

Ilya Kovalchuk was the first shooter for the Devils beating Sanford glove side after a nice fake that dropped Sanford to the ice.  Blue Jackets Captain Rick Nash was first shooter and to no surprise of myself, and apparently Brodeur, tried to fire a quick wrist shot only to be denied by a quick glove hand. 

On a personal note:  I would like to see Nash try something new in shootout’s, granted it looks great when it goes in.  But I find him to be quite predictable for the most part.  But I am zero for zero lifetime in NHL shootouts so what do I really know?

Parise was second to shoot for the Devils making a no mistake upstairs after a sweet little forehand to backhand fake that left Sanford out-to-lunch.  Blue Jackets forward Mark Letestu, who is 33% (2/6) career in shootouts, was unable to beat Brodeur, who stopped 35-36 to edge the Blue Jackets for the win.

The Blue Jackets continue to grow as a unit and are playing solid hockey which has earned them six of eight points in the last four games.  Most noticeable difference for me is the quality of shots being taken by the Blue Jackets, they continue to fire everything they can at goalies but are in closer proximities and are making sure to get bodies to the net.  The defense struggle with hitting the net on point shots but wingers down low helped maintain puck possession.

Mention should be made to the penalty killing units of the Devils who shut down the Blue Jackets on seven power plays improving their league leading efficiency up to 96.9%.

The Blue Jackets are home for the holiday weekend with a game Friday against the Buffalo Sabres and Sunday against the St. Louis Blues.  A Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American followers from yours truly up here in Canada.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Blue Jackets Extinguish The Flames

Antoine Vermette notched the game-winner early in the first period as the Columbus Blue Jackets earned back-to-back wins Monday night at Nation Wide Arena beating the Calgary Flames 4-1.

The Blue Jackets were quick to the offense with goals coming from Jeff Carter and Vermette before the 10-minute mark of the first period.  Carter, just over three minutes into the game fired a wrist shot that went bar down on Flames goalie Henrik Karlsson. 

When a so called “natural goal scorer” is in a slump, all it takes is one before they seem to remember how to light the lamp again.  Carter, who has played only 10 games this season due to injury, has seemed to have found his stride again that all Blue Jacket fans were hoping for.

The Blue Jackets continued to apply pressure and just 3:43 after Carters goal Vermette scored a nice goal between his legs on the door step.  Yes folks, it is YouTube worthy.  Despite being outshot 11-10, the Blue Jackets took a two goal lead into the first intermission.

Carter opened the scoring in the second period when the Flames found themselves in some penalty trouble just over five-minutes into the frame giving the Blue Jackets a two-man advantage.  Prospal added his second of three helpers with the other assist coming from James Wisniewski.
Marc Methot took a penalty shortly after the Carter goal for holding and the National Hockey League’s worst penalty kill (73.1% efficiency) surrendered another as Mark Giordano tucked a snap shot just inside the post beating Sanford blocker side. 

The Flames offense was silent from there.

The Blue jackets who have notoriously fallen apart in third period’s this season, maintained composure minimizing the pressure from the Flames by keeping them to the outside in the defensive zone.  Another strong factor contributing to their success was their transition game. 

The team worked as a cohesive unit for 60-minutes of hockey making sure to complete passes leaving their own end and more importantly, made sure to get the puck deep into Calgary’s end for most of the third period; something that has been a constant “work-in-progress” for a number of seasons now.   

The flames pressured throughout the third period, but the Blue Jackets who looked completely rejuvenated in front of Curtis Sanford continued were rewarded with an empty-net goal from Captain Rick Nash late in the period. 

The 4-1 win is the Blue Jackets first back-to-back wins since February 2011.

Sanford is continuing to shine with the opportunity he has been given, moving to 2-0-1 in four games with a .943 SV% and a 1.46 GAA, he has certainly proven for the time being that he could be the answer to the goalie predicament that has plagued the Blue Jackets so far. 

The team has certainly elevated their game since Sanford has been between the pipes.  Their feet seem to be moving and they have a sense of flow to their game that symbolizes a Blue Jackets team that is finally starting to click.  It has been long overdue but it’s nice to see the team moving in the proper direction.

Prospal finished the game with three assists to improve his team leading totals to 6-12-18 over 20 games.  Nikitin picked up his fourth point in five games since being acquired from St. Louis.

The Blue jackets will head to New Jersey for a matchup against the Devils on Wednesday night.  Sanford is reported to be getting the start, as rightfully deserved, as the team looks to improve the win streak to three games.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

When Is It Too Much Weight For a Goalie's Shoulders?

They say “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” a common phrase that I can remember being said way-back when I was just a little guy.  After Steve Mason’s sensational rookie year where he posted a 2.29 GAA with a record of 33-20-7 that included 10 shutouts, it was clear that Columbus was invested in the development and future of the Oakville, Ontario native.
Since that year however Mason has been on a steady decline, his win percentage has dropped, granted you can’t blame that entirely on him.  But his GAA hasn’t dipped below 3.00 in three years.  It’s not even so much how many goals he lets in, it’s how they are let in and when.  That frustrates me the most and maybe even the entire Blue Jackets fan base?  I can’t be the ONLY person upset by this.
In the midst of this summer’s “hoopla” which consisted of big-name signings in Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski and Vinny Prospal (who has been a beast so far this season), the Blue Jackets piled more stock into their young goaltender by signing of Mark Dekanich.  Wait, who?  Don’t worry; I had to Google him at first also.  I have nothing against Dekanich; I think he is a good goalie who fell off the charts in a system that was set with Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback.  It’s hard to make a name for yourself when you have one career start to date in the National Hockey League.
But his injury hasn’t helped his case unfortunately and who knows when we can expect him to fulfill the role he was brought in for, to help Mason through dark patches. 
The Blue Jackets continue the struggle to find ways to win hockey games, protecting the lead has never been their forte.  They continue to get overwhelmed by opponents; leading to defensive collapses and some awful turnovers in the defensive end.  I know the expectations were high of Mason after his rookie year, but even I don’t expect him to be a miracle worker and be able to stop everything.  Goaltenders thrive on confidence; sometimes confidence is all it takes.   
But what if the confidence is gone?  Then what?
It wouldn’t be too unrealistic to see Columbus make a move to pick up a goaltender that has some NHL experience under their belt.  By “wouldn’t be too unrealistic,” I mean they should have done it five games ago.  With no goaltender for sale in any teams current one and two position, finding a dance partner for Mason who has NHL experience – True NHL experience (no offense Curtis Sanford) isn’t the easiest thing to do.  The ever so popular wish-wash coming out of Long Island in regards to Evgeni Nabakov on where/when he ends up is just enough of a tease for me to scream in my head “Why haven’t they done anything yet?!”  The 36-year old goalie who has nine years of NHL experience on his belt and a cap hit of about $500K seems like a perfect fit, and maybe GM Garth Snow realizes this and is planning on saving this commodity for a later date. 
With the Toronto Maple Leafs publicly saying they have no interest in Marty Turco, this could create an opportunity for Columbus to show interest in another veteran goaltender who has years of experience in the NHL for an efficient price.  Turco, after a dismal performance last year with the Chicago Blackhawks, continues to work out with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in his hometown waiting for a team to sign him.
I have invested my time in Mason for the past three years waiting for him to find his form again that replicates some sign of brilliance that we all remember from that coveted rookie season.  Having the confidence in a goaltender to continue to stand by and wait for overall team production to produce its first winning season since 2008-09 takes a lot of patience. 
If no change is made this season to give Mason and the team some help in the goaltending department, it will be interesting to see where Mason’s game goes from here.  Remember rookie phenom Jim Carey?  Neither does most.

It's About Quality Not Quantity Of Shots

If you have kept up to date on the Columbus Blue Jackets season so far, Tuesday night’s performance was much of the same tune it has played all season falling short to the Minnesota Wild 4-2 despite posting a season high 45-shots on net.

The first period was all Columbus, which has been a rarity this season – It actually feels kind of nice to say. The defense played probably their best 20-minutes of hockey, keeping the Wild off the score sheet and holding them to only six shots in the period.

The first period was littered with penalties, five in total handed out to each team, including two 10-minute misconducts to Matt Calvert and Jared Boll for the Blue Jackets and both Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard for the Wild. Antoine Vermette opened the scoring six minutes into the contest short-handed. Mark Latestu finished out the scoring for the Blue Jackets with his second since being acquired on the power-play.

The Blue Jackets finished the game with 45 shots on Wild net minder Niklas Backstrom, but could only muster out the two-goal first period. The Wild took advantage of poor shot selection and sloppiness when the Blue Jackets were on attack. Scoring two in the second period, Matt Cullen started the scoring on the power-play courtesy of a coach’s nightmare, the dreaded “Too Many Men” bench minor. It took only 20 seconds for the Wild to answer again as Mick Johnson jumps on a puck in front beating Steve Mason to even it at two.

Clutterbuck put the Wild ahead on a brief memory lapse during a 3-on-3. Allowed to trail behind the puck carrier Bouchard uncontested, Clutterbuck fired a slap-shot glove side on Mason less than 10-minutes into the third period. Devon Setoguchi added an empty-net goal for his fifth of the season.

If you can’t look past the outcome of this game, then you are in for another long season as a Blue Jacket fan. A lot of the issues that plagued the team at the start of the season are slowly working themselves out, like most problems do with hard work. With center Jeff Carter playing again, almost all of the summer acquisitions are off the shelf, exclude Radek Martinek because I am sure that he is locked in a dark room somewhere avoiding all forms of light. Nikita Nikitin has shown his strengths with and without the puck helping fill a void that has been in the Blue Jackets organization for some time, a D-man that can move the puck safely out of the defensive end. Nikitin logged the second highest time on ice behind James Wisniewski with 24:55 of action.

Mason pushed aside 20 of 23 shots faced in the loss moving his record to 3-12-1 with a .887 SV%

The Blue Jackets head out on a two-game road trip starting with the Boston Bruins on Thursday and division rival the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Notes: Vermette ended a 21-game goalless draught with his short-handed marker. The goal was his 134 in his career (134G-165A in 557 games) leaving him one point below the 300 mark.