The All-Star break might have been just what the doctor ordered. The Blue Jackets came out of their 10-day rest and played a tough back to back against a high end team, splitting a home-and-home series with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the weekend. Even in the loss, the team looked refreshed and more inspired.
On Friday night at Nationwide, the high flying offense of the Leafs was on display. They put 41 shots on goal, but Joonas Korpisalo stood tall and kept the Jackets in it for almost 48 minutes, before Leafs were finally able to pot a second – and then less than a minute later, third goal.
The Jackets put some pressure on them for a lot of the night, though more than a few of their 30 shots on goal came from low danger areas. Still, momentum-wise, they were in this game for spurts and definitely had the Leafs sweating, until they were able to find some insurance goals late.
The teams flew to Toronto and matched up again on Saturday night, in a game that looked to be heading in the same direction as the one on Friday. Toronto took the lead just 2:39 into the game, then added a second goal just over halfway through the period; taking a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. Really, the Jackets didn’t even look interested in this one, being out-shot 11-4 and dominated the entire period.
But unlike Friday’s game, the Jackets came out determined in the second period. Right from the drop of the puck, this one had a different feel. Captain Boone Jenner would capitalize with a gritty net-front goal 4:21 in to make it a 2-1 game – earning Kirill Marchenko his first career assist on the play. (It is acceptable to boo this, if you were cheering for him to make history.)
As we have seen so many times in Toronto over the years, this goal took the wind out of the crowd at Scotiabank Arena. It’s almost like Leaf Nation has seen this play out before … you could hear a pin drop in that arena. Just over 10 minutes later, Marchenko scored his 14th of the season to tie the game, banging home a rebound of a Jenner shot. Just 57 seconds later, Sean Kuraly joined the party with a greasy goal, giving the Jackets their first lead of the night:
The Leafs battled back and early in the third period, Morgan Rielly tied the game on the power-play on a pretty cross-ice feed from Mitch Marner. But the Jackets remained determined, and just four minutes later took the lead once and for all on a Kent Johnson goal, deflected in from a Cole Sillinger shot. They would not allow the Leafs back into this one, eventually taking the 4-3 win.
Earning a split against a team currently sitting fourth overall in the NHL is a very encouraging result after having nearly two weeks off. But for me, it was more about the way they battled in these games. Even though they lost on Friday, they did not give up; playing physical and working hard right up until the buzzer. Toronto was just the better team.
On Saturday, they came out sluggish, but then went on to play what I thought were their best two periods of hockey of the season. They out-shot a very good team by a 36-18 margin, outscoring them 4-1 in the process. Led by that top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Jenner, and Marchenko; they were swarming pucks and getting shots from the high traffic areas, right between the hashmarks.
The Fourth line of Eric Robinson, Kuraly, and Mathieu Olivier were fantastic as well, competing and winning puck battles and generation offense as well. The kids showed up and were rewarded with that Kent Johnson goal – but most importantly, this team battled in front of Elvis Merzlikins. He made a couple of huge saves early on, that prevented this from becoming another runaway; and the team rewarded him with a higher compete level and eventual win.
Hopefully this is a step in the right direction for this team. While there will still be growing pains due to the overall youth and inexperience, this is the kind of hockey they have to play to have success. It will not get any easier if you look at the schedule: next up, the New Jersey Devils (3rd overall) come to town on Tuesday night, followed up by the 9th-best team in the league, the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.
After those two games, the Jackets will play just 10 of their remaining 26 games at home – including only three games at Nationwide in the entire month of March. They can still play spoiler in some meaningful games, but will have to display this same compete level if they are going to have munch success.