Blue Jackets late effort in Montreal not enough to end slide

It was a terrific game.

The problem again, though, is the Columbus Blue Jackets left the Bell Centre (not a typo; it’s the Canadian spelling) wondering how they could have played so well and come away with no points. It was the team’s third straight loss, and a stark reminder that last season’s fast finish means nothing when it comes to proving this year’s playoff worthiness.

If the players were left wondering what it takes to parlay solid efforts into points in the standings, their coach Todd Richards had no doubt. According to Richards, the problems in Montreal started with, well, the start. He made it very clear in his post-game press conference that his team spent much of the early going in downtown Montreal doing way too much standing around. He said the speed of the Canadiens seemed to surprise the Blue Jackets early, and it took them a while to match it.

Credit the team for finally getting up to speed, if you will, and ultimately forging an impressive comeback from an 0-3 hole to tie the game in the third period, on the second of Boone Jenner’s first two NHL goals. That tie held up for over 14 minutes, until Tomas Plekanec took a page from an NFL quarterback’s book and looked left before shooting from the slot. The head fake seemed to fool Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who also may have been screened on the shot. And just like that, the Canadiens had the game-winning goal, with just over a minute to play in regulation.

But let’s go back to the start.

In the NHL, teams simply cannot afford to start games slowly and expect to be rewarded for an effort that doesn’t go wall-to-wall, for the full 60 minutes. The league is just too difficult.  And as the Blue Jackets learned last year, starting the season slowly can have dire consequences, as well. Columbus fans know their team was one of the best in the league for more than half of last year’s truncated season. But despite going 19-5-5 over the season’s final 29 games, the Blue Jackets could do no better than lose the final playoff spot in the Western Conference on a tiebreaker.

At 2-4-0 now, this season is starting to look eerily similar to last year.

Start slowly, dig a hole, then try to climb out. Yes, it’s still very early, with 76 games to go yet in this lockout-free, full version of a season. But, as the Blue Jackets found out last year, the start matters. Points accumulated now don’t go away. They’re FDIC insured, and they can be eminently meaningful when game 82 rolls around and the NHL tallies up the results and announces its playoff schedule.

Which brings us to tonight’s final game of the Blue Jackets three-game road trip, against the Washington Capitals. The Caps have also taken a page from last season’s slow start and sit at 2-5-0 going into their battle with Columbus. It didn’t matter last year, as Washington – led by Alex Ovechkin’s MVP performance over the latter two-thirds of the season – were able to reach the Eastern Conference playoffs.

But even with the three-time NHL MVP on their side, there’s no guarantee Washington can survive another slow start. And that’s why tonight’s game should have a sense of urgency higher than most this early in the season. With the way they struggled, expect the Capitals to come out flying, much the same way Montreal got out of the gate Thursday. How to the Blue Jackets counter that in this road-trip finale? For Todd Richards, it’s pretty simple.

“We’ve got to come out hard,” he said to the media gathered after this morning’s skate in the nation’s capital.  “And you’ve got to manage the puck; don’t be afraid to take some whistles, slow it down a little bit.  I think if you’re disciplined with the puck and disciplined with your structure, that always gives you a chance to have success.  You can frustrate your opponents by playing that way, too, but it more leads to doing good things on your side.”