In the grand scheme of soul-crushing Jackets’ defeats since 2000, or, hell, soul-crushing Jackets’ defeats in the past two weeks, I’m not sure this one should even register. But it does, big time. Yeah, they came away with the loser point, but I still left the game last night feeling eviscerated, and it wasn’t just the Chipotle burrito…
Part of it was of course the presence of large numbers of Penguins fans. I’d say anywhere from a third to half of the fans in attendance were cheering for the boys in baby blue. Hard to know how many of them actually made the drive out from Western PA or Eastern Ohio, and how many were locals, but it does stick in the craw to see your team’s home arena taken over by away fans. Shame on Columbus for not selling enough tickets to CBJ fans to prevent that. And honestly, seeing them all in their brand new Crosby and Malkin jerseys, wondering how many were supporting the Pens in the dark days earlier this decade and not just after a couple of generational talents essentially fell into their laps….yeah. Most all of the Pens fans I encountered were perfectly well-behaved and polite (although sounds like there were some jerks mixed in) and not even especially smug. But this was a group I still very much wanted to send back east to
Pittsburgh Reynoldsburg on the losing end.
The Jackets did have some good fortune before the game in the form of Evgeni Malkin’s shoulder injury, which took out a big part of the Pens’ talent. And, once again, they found themselves facing a backup goalie, this time in the form of Brent Johnson.
For two periods, the Jackets played pretty well. They got off to a slightly tentative start, but went up 1-0 in the first on a Rick Nash goal. And in the second, they played a very strong period, limiting the Pens to five shots on goal, while they added two more goals, one from Nash, and a pretty one from Dorsett, of all people. Mason was looking like his old self in goal, stoning Crosby on a beautiful save. Unfortunately, the Pens grabbed a shorthanded goal after some confusion by the Jackets ended with Nash sitting in the net next to Mason. Still, the Jackets took a 3-1 lead into the third, the arena was buzzing with an almost playoff like atmosphere, and it felt good. All they had to do was hold down the fort for twenty more minutes.
They only managed about seventeen, though. And really from the start of the period, you could see the Pens taking control of the game. The Jackets were scrambling more and more, and not looking like the confident team from the second period. A Penguins goal seemed inevitable. And it came. And then another came in quick succession. Watching the highlights this morning on the NHL Network, it looked like Mason didn’t have much of a chance on either one. But the defense broke down.
The Jackets managed to hang on for the remaining minutes of regulation, and the five minute OT, to take it to the dreaded shootout. The only goal was scored by Sidney Crosby. It initially looked like Mason had made the stop, but he didn’t freeze the puck, and it slowly and agonizingly trickled over the line. And that was enough to keep the Pens unbeaten on the road. And send me home feeling like I’d just watched a 8-0 blowout, not a 4-3 shootout loss.
I’m not saying anything novel here, but the Jackets just need to figure out how to kill the game off when they have a lead. A couple years ago, they lost because they couldn’t score. Now they can score, but they can’t seem to hold a lead. Yes, getting Hejda back (sounds like next week) will help. But the whole team needs to figure this out. If they don’t figure it out soon, their playoff chances are going to slip away like a two goal lead. It’s just not good enough.
And it gets no easier tomorrow, when the Jackets face Washington on the road, before coming home to play Jody Shelley, Manny Malhotra, and the rest of the Sharks on Wednesday.