Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Game Recap: Minnesota @ Columbus

It is always easier to recap a loss than it is to recap a victory.  Singling out players for making mistakes is a much harder thing to do (and have people agree with you) when the team blows a two goal lead and loses than it has ever been when they hang on to win.  With that said, there was a whole lot of positive coming out of Nationwide Arena last night after Huselius buried his shootout chance, ending the game and taking home two points for the home team.

I was fortunate enough to attend the game, something I had yet to enjoy the luxury of this year.  The place was far more packed than I thought it would be after some of their recent performances, and the 14,500 noted attendance was a very fair assessment of the total number in the seats.  We sat on the attack once side, which is kind of great for me, as I was hoping to watch Mase up close, and that I did..

The Positives:
- Derick Brassard: scored on a solid pass from Huselius, causing the building to erupt.  It was a great shot, and the kind of goal that good teams score.  No fluke, just a strong play on the puck, and a quick shot to beat Theodore.  I was very happy with Brassard's play last night.
- Steve Mason: kept the Jackets in the game with fantastic saves, especially down the stretch.  All three goals were caused by defensemen not tying up their man, and unfortunately Mase could not make the secondary saves needed to preserve any sort of shutout.  He also made an excellent save on Koivu in the shootout.
- Fedor Tyutin:  While I don't know that I would give him too much credit for his defensive play, he has been the first defender to get a point shot to the net in as long as I can remember.  While I wish he'd work on a quick release shot, his cannon from the point kept the Jackets momentum going and was a big contributor in the win.

The Negatives:
- The Columbus defense (but only to an extent!!):  They played solid hockey for probably 50 minutes of the game, but really and truly need to work on covering a man and tying up sticks in the slot.  It seemed like Minnesota was intentionally taking the puck behind the Jackets net to make a pass out into the middle.
- Mike Commodore:  Took a pretty bad penalty to force his team down a man for five minutes, and made a couple foolish plays throughout the game.  Not his worst game, but that penalty can't happen.
- Rick Nash:  For being as explosive as he is, Nash was pretty tame last night.  Only a few big moves on the puck, all of which ended up flubbing shots or missing passes.  I really wish someone would sit down with him and give him a roadmap of when to shoot and when to make the pass.  He'd do well to look for seams, but when you've got the shot he's got, and you're cutting through the high slot with speed, you need to be ripping a shot low and hard for a rebound (at worst)....
- Kristian Huselius:  I don't really have enough words for the disdain I feel for this guy.  Refuses to make smart plays on the rush, basically gave the puck away on a breakaway (which lead to a MIN goal) and made a BRUTAL and unnecessary play causing a turnover which lead to another MIN goal.  It is so hard for me to watch a player with that much talent not work hard on the ice or off the ice.
- The Referees: This was a pathetic game to watch in regards to officiating.  I don't think the CBJ had a single powerplay, and there was one play specifically that stuck in my head.  Methot was carrying the puck behind his own net, and a MIN player shoved his stick under Methot's skates, spilling him (obviously) with a ref looking blankly at the play.  No call.  Wow NHL, get your zebras sorted out!!!

Overall I was very excited about the win.  Mase came up big when the team needed him to, although you could visibly tell that third goal rattled him.  He spent the next couple minutes fighting off some easier shots, but at the end of the day, that kind of resilience is something that will grow in time, and is something that we have not seen from him in recent games after he gets shelled a bit.

Carry the Flag!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Recapping: Vancouver Canucks @ Columbus Blue Jackets

Tonight was an interesting night for hockey..  With Christmas on the horizon, it seemed that a Christmas miracle was both expected and wished for during the pre-game.  I was surprisingly optimistic, although personally, I have been riding the opinion that the defense is more to blame for the goals being scored than the goaltenders.

Up until this evening, the Jackets defense had been playing substantially better with Garon in front of them.  They did not allow too many uncontested shots from the slot, and generally they don't stand around in front of the net with their backs turned to oncoming opposition.  That was all thrown into the trash this evening, as the defense left Garon with a hook in his mouth, and his pants down on easily four of the six goals he allowed.

Per the the previous assessment, I'll go ahead and break down the goals scored, and see who exactly was to blame for them;

Goal 1: Garon makes initial save, and puck is played behind the net.  All six Jackets on the ice stare at the puck, and stop moving.  Puck is played to the front and banged home uncontested.
Goal 2: All five Blue Jackets players are below the hash marks.  Solid play made to the point man, who walks in and takes an uncontested shot.  Garon probably wanted this one back
Goal 3: Bad attempt to clear leads to a broken point shot, which is tipped by a player who freely stands alone in the slot.  Hard to blame goalies for tips.
Goal 4: Center plays too low, allowing room for the pass across.  Hejda covers no one, allowing for the pass back across to the winger for the easy bang in.
Goal 5: Weak effort by Tyutin to get the puck deep.  Nash falls coming back, Garon overcommits to the shot.  Easy one-timer.
Goal 6: This goal is in my opinion one of the worst goals in the game for a defense to give up.  The pass goes into the slot from behind the net, and the only person to come near it is an opposing player.  This is the epitome of a defensive breakdown.

These are the kinds of goals that have been scored on Mason all year.  It was only a matter of time before Garon got the same treatment.  It was almost comical to watch Mase come in, and get great protection for the remainder of the game, short of a decent tip (that he didn't seem all too interested in making a play on).  I never intended to be biased towards Mason, and while it may have come across that way, I think this post is a fairly good indicator that my main goal here is to tear apart the defense.

I went ahead and put together a screen shot of exactly how bad the Jackets are when the puck is behind their net.  Good players have their heads on a swivel, watching both the puck, and the other players coming in around them.  A question to leave you with.... How many of these guys appear to have their heads on swivels, and how many are simply admiring the puck?

In my opinion, this is why our goalies struggle with confidence.  They can't look one way and prepare to receive shots from the other way.  It is the job of the defender to know who is breaking in on net, and cover them up so the passes don't reach an opposing stick.  Too many teams are taking advantage of all the players watching behind the net, and slowly edging closer to the crease.

I will still Carry the Flag... These boys need some help, but I maintain it's on them to resolve it, not necessarily Howson.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Reviewing the Goals Scored by Edmonton

After last night's loss it has become rather clear to me that many have given up on Steve Mason, the Jackets number one goaltender. It seems that the kid is really in a funk, and no doubt, looking at the scoresheet will tell a rather bleek tale. But is that the case? I paid close attention to the game last night and watched the cause of each goal. Here is what I believe to be a reasonable breakdown of each one.

Goal 1: tiny Omark walks around TWO Jackets defenders to get his own rebound uncontested and made a solid play to kick the puck forward and bury.
Goal 2: tiny Eberle walks around Klesla, who doesn't body up. Mase is bad positionally and gets beat far post.
Goal 3: Penner stands uncontested in the slot, scores from a pass from behind the net. Mason is in the right position, but gets beat.
Goal 4: Eberle skates out in front of Mason uncontested, tips the point shot to opposite post.
Goal 5: Mason challenges shooter, but puck is deflected wide to Paajarvi, who is not covered by a defender, and he scores into empty net
Goal 6: Awful turnover by Huselius, Mason is somewhat caught off guard, let's one squeak through the five hole

It would seem that a common occurrence is being left out of the equation here. I am under the impression that a quality defense takes a general area on the ice and bodies up the opposition so they are unable to attack the net uncontested. I believe that goalies are expected to make the first save every time from outside the hash marks, and that the defense should play an integral role in not allowing any big rebounds.

It would seem that while Mason is struggling to support the first criteria, his defense is truly letting him down on the secondary criteria. The goal scored by Omark should have never happened. One of the two defenders should have bodied him up and not let him walk by. On the second goal, Eberle probably gave up 40lbs or more to Klesla, yet walked around him with relative ease. Certainly the goal scored by Paajarvi could have been avoided by someone bodying him up and avoiding the free pass to an open shot, but that it was rather flukey that the puck deflected off of a leg and landed up 91's feet.

I am not going to sit here and say that Mason is playing like an all-star goalie. What I am saying, is that his defense is not giving him the support he so badly needs to perform with confidence. Every time Khabibulin gave out a rebound, a triangle of Oilers players surrounded the slot, guaranteeing the inability for a Blue Jacket player to walk in for the free goal. In fact, the only times they didn't, the Jackets (aka Huselius) picked up the garbage and scored.

I'd love to hear everyone's take on this. I've seen a LOT of twittering about Mase, and very little said about the defensive breakdowns.

Game Recap: Columbus @ Edmonton

As most of you may very well be aware, Columbus lost a real stinker to the Oilers last night, 6-3.  It wrapped up a three game Western swing with 2 of the possible 6 points, and drove the losing streak to three games.  It also may be the turning point of the Mason v. Garon battle for number one, although the discussion with Arniel post game tells an interesting tale.

First, on Mason;  The kid got lit up last night.  There is no way to beat around that bush.  From the moment the game began it seemed like he was climbing a hill without any solid ground.  A tough break on the Omark goal (albeit a nice move by the young forward), over committing on the Eberle goal, and helpless on the Penner goal, the first period couldn't go by faster.  Lackluster play in the second period sealed the deal, and Garon came in to replace him in the third.  Now, here is essentially Arniel's take from the post game.  The kid is in his own head, and he needs to dig his way out of it.  He is a young goaltender, and they will do what they can to get him out of it.

I support that statement, but I also want to point some fingers at the defense.  12 turnovers were committed in this game, including at least two in the second period that lead directly to goals.  Omark burned two defenders to get to Mason on the first goal, Eberle walked around Klesla on the second goal, and Penner was uncontested on the third goal, a pass from behind the net into the slot.  If the Jackets want Mason to play better, it is also going to be on the defense to play better positional hockey.  Blown assignments and soft defense allowed the Oilers to attack Mason, and his shaky demeanor opened the door for a beating.

Second, on the forwards.  They played alright.  Credit Huselius' linemates for his three goals, although his positioning was very strong, and something Arniel should share with the rest of the team.  In fact, if the entire team took a page out of Juice's book from last night, we'd be scoring 5-6 shovel home goals a night.  They certainly had their chances, and fired a great number of shots on Khabibulin, who played fairly well.  With that said, in the post game Brassard acknowledged that the team missed on some great opportunities that could have changed the outcome of the game.

Lots to be resolved in the Jackets locker room.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Let's Get Rolling Again...

I've been caught up trying to create/generate awesomely professional and over the top ideas for the blog, but I think I am going to take a less conservative approach for the remainder of the year to try and get some more activity for those who actually take the time to stop in and read.

The Jackets are now sitting on a somewhat awkward 15-10-1 record.  While they had a pretty solid stretch of games where winning was a logical outcome, they have ebbed away from that feeling and now generate a more desperate feeling of disaster every time they step on the ice.  I am fully confident in saying they are a complete team when they play to their potential, and can easily blow out half of the league on a nightly basis.  My biggest concern right now, is why they don't come out and play with a sense of urgency.

If not for the fact that Howson has been incredibly patient with the team, allowing them to grow into their roles and build chemistry with their teammates, for the fact that they have been one of the league's biggest underachievers for almost half of a decade now.  I can say, I'll never not be a Jackets fan.  I've vested 10 years in the franchise and am in no hurry to jump ship, but I will say my need to drive from Cincinnati to Columbus to go to a game has substantially diminished.

I had all but purchased tickets to the Pittsburgh game, doing just about anything I could to get in the door.  Myself and a couple friends were prepared to stand in the cold for multiple hours to get Huntington tickets, but ended up backing out at the last minute because it just felt like I was not meant to go to the game.  Sure enough, I sat at home, pizza and beer in hand, watching my team flat foot a 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh.  If that wasn't a good reason to not spend the 100 bucks to attend a game live, I don't know what is...

More on team effort soon.  Carry the Flag.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Weighing in on Marc Methot

It seems like every year the Jackets have a couple players who play well below our expectations, and a couple people that come out of the woodwork and play well beyond anything we expected from them.  This year, I think Marc Methot has been the defensive surprise that the Jackets were hoping for.

Whether Methot is stepping up because of a lack of quality out of players like Klesla, Commodore or Tyutin, or whether he is simply developing at a higher rate this year, it has been one of the best things to happen to the Jackets this year.  He has vaulted to being one of the Jackets most valuable defensemen without any real recognition from the Jackets brass, so I felt it necessary to bring it out here.

His play with the puck has been fantastic.  He is confident when carrying the puck, and takes the chances that do not cost the team in the long run.  While he had been capable of doing these things in years past, it seemed that he was hesitant when making big decisions.

His defensive play has been outstanding.  He leaves the perfect distance between the opposition to avoid giving up a free shot, while not allowing the player to get around him.  In fact, during last night's game against Minnesota, he made a play on the puck while a defender was skating in one on one that was absolutely textbook.  The forward tried to slip the puck through Methot after making a play to the outside, and Marc immediately swatted the puck into the corner while maintaining position between the forward and his net.

While this is only a small selection of the excellent decisions made by Methot this weekend, I can expect to have a great handful of plays to use as examples by years end.  In fact, his play has been so strong, it is making players like Klesla, Commodore, and Tyutin completely expendable.  This is the kind of play that will make Columbus a serious threat in the league.  Production from within their system.  And with the collection of prospects budding in the minors, they are without a doubt one of the deepest defensive prospect teams in the NHL.

Expect big things from Methot.  I think he's just getting started.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Columbus Blue Jackets - NHL Power Rankings Dunce Once More

Every year I look forward to the 'power' rankings that flow out of the mainstream hockey sites, predicting yearly standings and stating their powerhouses. Every year, it seems, the number of fans outweighs the actual moves made, and team prestige is basically a pre-requisite for acquiring the coveted top 5 spot.

I am not tired of reading them. It actually gets me excited to step away from my fandom and read a more or less negative review of the team I have been following for a decade, and yet somehow, I always walk away disappointed.

This year, it is fairly consistent across the board that the Jackets will finish no better than 26th in the league. More often than not, excuses driving that number suggest that the only move Columbus has made this off-season is acquiring Moreau. Also not uncommon, discussions about Commodore's conditioning, the health of Mason, and the mindset of Filatov. Call me a homer all you want, but really? Is that all it takes to make an NHL club?

Sometimes it is worth ignoring some of the developing youth on the team, but more often than not, the youth of a team becomes the driving force for the year. Colorado showed that adding two youngsters can truly help a team become a playoff contender, so why all the ignorance towards the Jackets youth? Russell had a banner year last year, not only with the puck, but without it as well. Voracek is showing more and more signs of being a full on 25g/50a workhorse. Brassard showed he can be healthy, even in a system that played to every weakness of his game.

These are all things that should be accounted for. Especially when the team hired a coach to play an offensive game, more suited for 80% of the current roster, including Nikita Filatov, who finally gets to play without the massive target on his back. Obviously these are all things that could (and may) be stretched into entire posts, but really are only the tip of the iceberg in Columbus' development this year.

Finally, Mason. Many peg him as a one hit wonder with a sophomore slump, but I maintain it was a hitchcock slump. His numbers AFTER Hitch was fired were better than his rookie season (.923) and with a healthy defensive core, along with a hopefully conditioned Mike Commodore could spell a very strong return to the form shown in 2008/2009 by the Jackets defense.

Paint me homer all day long, but I can not come up with enough excuses why this team will not be good this year. There are too many logical pieces to the puzzle fitting too many pre-oiled holes. It's game on in Ohio's capital.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mase Notified by Team Canada..

Looks like Mason found his groove just in time. Team Canada has contacted Mase and let him know that he will be the 'first alternative' should any one of Canada's top three goalies get injured before or during the Olympics.

Not a bad call considering how Mason was probably feeling not two weeks ago, sitting on some of the worst numbers of his career. At least Yzerman can notice that if Mase has solid defense, he's a monster in net!

Carry the Flag! Oddly enough, a Mason blurb to follow!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Make it 3

The idea of tanking this season has been completely removed from my mind. A new coach, a new lease on the year, and a 3-0-0 start. It would be hard to ask more of the Jackets, who have beaten Dallas, Buffalo, and San Jose to bring their record to 25-27-9. With each strong win, they edge closer to the playoff spot, which now sits 8 points ahead of them.

Tonight was a breath of fresh air for me. I attended with an open mind, as Dany Heatley has always been my favourite NHLer. He also plays for one of the more potent offenses in the league, who have been known to dismantle defenses on a nightly basis.

The first period started with a bit of a chess game. It seemed like neither team wanted to make too much of a splash in the offensive one in fear of allowing an odd man rush the other way. That being said, a neat pass by Huselius (who was otherwise worthless tonight) to Nash for a quick tip brought the Jackets ahead 1-0. I would argue that period two was Columbus' best of the night, although there was no question they were more potent at even strength as opposed to the powerplay. A tremendous pass by Brassard to Voracek, who snuck the puck through the five hole to raise the lead to 2-0.

After that, it seemed as though the Jackets were satisfied and not hungry for more. It was all San Jose for the rest of the second period and most of the third, however, Steve Mason was tremendous, making two or three ridiculous glove saves to preserve the shutout. A hard working goal for Vermette sealed the victory, and got a pretty solid crowd on their feet for the final minute.

While most will talk about beating San Jose tomorrow, I am going to be talking about beating the monkeys. There have been players who are noticeably better without Hitchcock in the dressing room, including Mason (.989 save percentage, 0.33 gaa) and Brassard (0g 2a +3). It has been exciting to watch them play, with the upside I have been shouting for over a year now.

I will be in attendance again on Friday. The Jackets will have yet another heavy test on their hands against Vancouver, and I expect a strong effort from all. I am curious as to whether Garon gets the start considering the game Sunday against Chicago, but time will tell.

Carry the Flag!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Not So Breaking News... Hitchcock

There has never been any question that my tendencies have leaned towards removing Ken Hitchcock as the coach of this team. With the lack of quality coming from the players, and the excuses piling up, even if Hitch were deemed ' the right man for the job', something had to give.

In removing him at this point of the year, it says a couple things about the organization. First, Mike Priest is eating his words. After praising Hitch and saying that he had absolute confidence in him, removing him is definitely a shot in the leg of an otherwise unwavering attitude towards the veteran coach. While I believe it was the right decision to make 3 months ago, I do have to respect Priest for eating his words and accepting the idea that maybe, just maybe, this team could be better without Hitch.

Secondly, it all but removed Columbus from playoff contention. I was already knee deep in draft lottery details. I have been tracking the standings daily and not necessarily rooting against the Jackets, but smirking a bit each time they dropped a contest. It was never a sense of abandonment, but an absolution that having a top three pick would do worlds for the future of this franchise. By removing the coach now, it gives fans hope of an incredible run to the playoffs, and the ideology that the blanket of abysmal play has been lifted.

Thirdly, it readdresses the issue of Filatov. His value went up with the removal of Hitch, and with it, the likelihood of his return to North America. I am not suggesting that he is going to be successful when he returns, but he remains one of the highest sought after prospects in the game of hockey, and if it does happen that Hitch was simply the wrong coach for him, Columbus has quite a few more poker chips when considering what to do with the budding Russian.

So let us not exaggerate what has happened here. Claude Noel is a fine coach, but not someone I would like to see take over full time for the Jackets. My expectations for the current year went up, solely because I think Noel is going to let them play their own game. I am looking forward to seeing a young, offensive minded coach come in during the summer, and with him, the aspiration of a quality playoff team in 2011. The Jackets still have a hole to dig themselves out of, but it suddenly seems a lot less muddy with a major piece of their team 'retooled'.

Carry the Flag!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Strange Brew ~ Definitely Homemade

It has been an interesting week for fans of Columbus. A blow out loss against Vancouver brought about the possibility of a Hitchcock firing if a second occurred against Edmonton. A series of wins to basically negate any possibility of a Hitchcock firing. 4 out of 6 points, when I personally expected two or less.

For me, it is hard to be excited. I was absolutely sure we would have a new coach by the end of this week. I had already accepted a two or three loss roadtrip, and was looking forward to the change of pace once a new coach had been named. In fact, I was so far ahead of myself, that I actually started cheering for Sam Gagner (former hometown London Knight and now Edmonton Oiler) to finally put us out of our misery.

But then, unexpectedly, the Jackets started playing hockey. While the win in Edmonton was not a good win, it was something that seemed impossible a week prior. While the Oil have been struggling harder than Columbus, it still drew the tinge of excitement to see Garon get the 'W' against his former team.

Even more shocking was the win against Calgary. A hard nose team no matter what evening it is, the Flames have been able to man handle some of Columbus' more offensive players in games past. Yet another strong game by Garon, and a breakout game for Vermette and the Vermette-Voracek-Torres line left me absolutely boggled. Could it be that these guys just needed a spark to get going? Could it be that Hitchcock may still have the locker room, and that the players were the issue?

I am not ready to admit being wrong about Hitch. The team will have to win a whole heck of a lot of games before I change my mind. In fact, a playoff berth may be the only time this year I admit being wrong about our coach, but I will admit he has bought himself a couple games even from me. I would love to see them make a move to bring a big name to Columbus, but I have to think, based on the standings, that will not happen before the off-season.

The Stars are in Columbus on Sunday. Believe this; This game means more to the fans than the Jackets will ever know. You can not win on the road, and return home playing like crap. If they come out slow tomorrow, you better believe the fans will let them know.

Carry the Flag!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Add Enjoyment to the Game... Let our boys play!

For most sports fans, the common interest in watching each sport is to be entertained. While a layup in basketball makes for about as much excitement as a lobbed wrist shot from the point, we all wait in anticipation as the stars make plays that make our heads spin. Whether it is a diving touchdown catch, a homerun that reaches the upper deck, or a no look pass that results in a nifty top shelf goal, we live for that kind of electricity in our veins.

For the Blue Jackets, excitement has been far from their game plan. With Ken Hitchcock, the style of hockey played is at best, bland. Heavy traffic in the neutral zone, dump and chase or one man deep, the style of play rarely allows for odd man breaks that lead to earth shattering goals. In fact, most of the excitement last year was watching Steve Mason defy what most Blue Jackets are used to seeing (hard work, determination, and defeat).

While I sat and endured another unfortunate performance a few nights ago, I began to wonder why or how I could possibly be disinterested in a game that sees my team outshoot the opponent 2:1. I could not really piece together how that kind of margin could possibly draw such little interest from me, but in reality, it is boring hockey. While New Jersey all but perfected the most boring trap style I have ever seen, they found ways to win Stanley Cups. I suppose it would suffice if the Jackets were heavy in the playoff race, fighting off opponents 1-0 or 2-1 all the way down the stretch, but that simply is not happening.

This is one of many reasons why I believe Ken Hitchcock is a bad fit in Columbus. It is a city used to exciting games thanks to the Buckeyes. They are built on winning, thanks largely to the conference the Buckeyes are in, and they are sold on the idea of sporting events being highly entertaining. If the Jackets can find a coach that can bring excitement back to the game, whether or not we are winning games 7-6, or losing them 6-5, I think it will be better for the hockey club. Some fan bases are well built to tolerate 1-0 or 2-1 losses, but I personally do not think Columbus is one of them.

The simple fact is, this team is built for high paced, high scoring games. I have seen countless nights where some of our more exciting players are lulled to sleep by their own forced tendancies, causing them to be sluggish around the puck and tired on the forecheck. Our team belongs on the scoresheet, and I do not believe under the direction of Ken Hitchcock that we will see exciting hockey in Columbus unless we make a coaching change. Let the players succeed at their own game. The game Howson knows they can play.

Carry the Flag!