For Blue Jackets, minor tweaks are recipe for success
North-south play, playing full 60-minute game key for Blue Jackets in game two in Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
By Rick Gethin
Chalk the loss up to nerves, or maybe to inexperience.
After squandering a two-goal lead in game one Wednesday evening in Pittsburgh, the learning curve must be swift for Columbus if they hope to rebound against a fast, skilled Penguins team on Saturday. They proved to themselves that they have the wherewithal to play at this level. The key is now to play their game for the full 60 minutes.
Speaking about the players in the room, Columbus head coach Todd Richards said, "There's disappointment in losing, because we all come in here expecting to win and it didn't happen. I know that they believe. We're here to win (and) the learning comes through experiences."
One aspect of their game that they've been good with for most of the season was in winning the initial possession game in the faceoff circle. Wednesday night was not their best showing, winning 31 of 71 for 44 percent. Starting play with possession of the puck goes hand-in-hand with controlling the pace.
In the latter stages of the game, turnovers became the issue.
"I think it was more about the turnovers", said Richards. "They did a good job tracking and putting us in positions. But we didn't do a good enough job managing the puck and keeping the puck moving forward."
Decisive transitioning through the neutral zone and crossing the blue line with alacrity is a key for game two on Saturday. The physical side of their game should make its presence felt throughout the game, also. One of their hallmarks is getting the puck deep in the offensive zone, and they strayed away from that Wednesday.
Asked if he thought they played physical, Richards said, "At some points we did. But again, getting back to the turnovers, especially a lot of them off the rush, we weren't playing to our strengths. Our strength is getting the puck below the goal line and investing in the physical play on their defensemen and trying to wear them down, creating the turnovers down there, making them come 200 feet.
"But those turnovers right at the offensive blue line, with players going forward, those are tough to recover from. It's the lateral plays into the middle of the ice, because when you have guys driving... our defenseman on the last goal, he's looking to get up into the play. There's a quick turnover and this is a team (Pittsburgh) that will transition on you. And that's what they did."
Playing laterally instead of north-south does not play into the strength of the Blue Jackets. Dumping the puck in the offensive zone and initiating physical play are what they do best when they are on their game. Lateral play does not allow for their forecheck to be initiated. "North-south" play or "dump-and-chase", call it what you will. This is what has given this club success throughout the season.
The playoffs bring an obvious uptick in intensity, where time and space is at a premium. The skill of the Penguins limits this time and space, but that doesn't faze emerging star Ryan Johansen.
"They're a great team," said Johansen. "They play a really strong defensive game. For guys like me, we have to work extra hard if we want to make skilled plays, time and space for ourselves. Moving forward, we've just got to keep doing those things."
The changes that are needed ahead of game two are not drastic. Tweaks to their game, such as north-south play, limiting turnovers and penalties, are what is paramount to give them the best chance for success.
"The difference between hard penalties and soft penalties," Johansen continued, "you try to erase those from the game, especially offensive zone (penalties). Moving forward, we just need to stay out of the box. We can play with them, easily, five-on-five."
There is no panic within room. To the contrary, they have a steely focus of what must be done for game two in Pittsburgh. "We're 0-1 right now", Johansen said. "We had a good lead midway through the game and couldn't hold on to it. (We need to) try and get off to a good start on Saturday and hold on to a lead."
Their response tomorrow evening will be telling. They have battled through adversity throughout the season and almost always bounce back after losing due to straying away from their game. Might they be able to replicate this?
"I think we've been a team that's always responded well," said the injured R.J. Umberger, who questionable for game two. "We've had a lot of adversity and we're a resilient bunch. We've been learning as we go this whole year. The last game we played hard and played well. It was a pretty evenly matched game. But, I think there's even more in our group."
Minor tweaks, versus major overhaul, are what are needed prior to the next game. Even though they are young and relatively inexperienced, they know what must be done. They are in the second season, where one loss does not define your character. A series plays to their strengths and they know this. They want to win, and not just one game.