Blue Jackets fight off injuries, Leafs; End road trip on high note

You’ll forgive Columbus Blue Jackets fans if the first question they have after most games lately is, “Who are those guys, and what have they done with my team?” Sometimes they’re asking questions in a good way, like right now, after the injury-riddled Blue Jackets shocked the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs 6-0 in Ontario Monday night.

Of course, the question had a decidedly different tone after perplexing lopsided losses in Edmonton and Vancouver on the second and fourth games of this just-completed trip.

That’s to be expected when a team goes into a season-testing swing across Canada and gets outscored 13-2 in two losses but blasts its opponents by a count of 12-2 in three wins. No doubt, going on a 10-day, coast-to-coast trek across our neighbor to the north and winning three of five games is really solid stuff. It’s how they got there that has fans, coaches, and players scratching their collective heads.

After the 7-0 beat down at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers in game two the trip, Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards was questioning whether his team could handle success. Of course he did. Columbus had just dominated the Ottawa Senators 4-1 less than two days earlier in a game many called the team’s best of the year.

Richards also suggested after the blowout loss in Edmonton that the Blue Jackets didn’t know who they were or who they wanted to be. After Columbus closed out the trip with that convincing 6-0 shellacking of Toronto Monday night, a clearly bemused Richards admitted he didn’t know why his guys were on such a roller coaster ride. Then he expressed optimism that his team was close to finding the identity it needed to sustain success.

“Eventually, there’s gotta come a point where we get it,” he said, “where we understand what we need to do to win games, what we need to do to be successful. But there’s a lot of good things we can take out of this game tonight.”

Yes, it’s certainly hard to figure out how a team can plummet to such lows and elevate to such highs, all in the span of a week and a half. But what’s not hard to figure out is how they were able to close the trip on such a high note.

“We limited their opportunities,” said Richards about the job his team did on the Maple Leafs high-octane offense. “I thought our forwards did a good job getting in shooting lanes, forcing shots wide. Our defense really competed in front of our net, boxing out where Bob (goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky) could see the puck. And then we were opportunistic in the offensive zone.”

Sounds simple. And it actually looked pretty simple much of the night. The Blue Jackets were physical, quick to pucks, made good decisions, and created good scoring looks with a strong forecheck and a willingness to enter the high-traffic areas in the Toronto zone.

One play in particular stood out. Big winger Jack Skille, playing only his third game with the Blue Jackets this season, drove down the left wing, lowered his shoulder, and took the puck directly to the Maple Leafs net. Skille, who had already scored his first Blue Jackets goal in this game, didn’t score this time. But he drew a penalty, and on the ensuing power play, Ryan Murray ripped a shot from the high slot that made it 4-0 Columbus and put the game away.

It’s only one game, but it was one heck of a way to end a seesaw trip. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a game the Blue Jackets and their fans can point to and say – without question – that’s when this team’s true identity was revealed.