I was able to attend my first pre-season game of the 2011-2012 campaign last night. While I have been able to watch the games through the online streaming, this was the first time I was able to really get a good look at some of the Jackets new assets, without having to guess who is who thanks to the disappointingly mediocre video feeds. With that said, the atmosphere was less than electric and while the crowd was pretty decent for a Thursday night pre-season game, most seemed somewhat passive about the start of the game. I really enjoyed the pre-game video they played on the jumbotron, probably their best work in a couple years, and while I have been pretty hateful about the goal song, I have to admit I was singing along and cheering every time it was played.
My game notes are broken up pretty well into specific categories so I will structure this post accordingly.
This has been a major thorn in the Blue Jackets side for entirely too long. Awful possession, weak turnovers, and slow passes really hindered their success in recent years, but last night, the new look powerplay is worth writing about. Extremely smooth transition into the offensive zone gives the players time to set up and look for an open man. When pressured to the outside by one or more opponent, they were finding passing lanes to set up excellent scoring chances rather than forcing something around the boards. The passing was also a thing of beauty. Finding players through traffic, moving the puck two and three times within seconds, it was just fantastic to see.
The lone powerplay goal (although I feel like they scored two on the night) came on a tic tac toe play in which Carter had Harding looking right up until the shot was passing through him. It is one of those goals that gets everyone out of their seats and makes them want to come back. When you hear "this is hockey" out of me, it's no cheap sentiment. I believe this was all made possible by the additions of Carter and Savard. While Tyutin is a functional powerplay point man, Savard was providing something I believe has been sorely lacking in the Columbus man advantage, but I will get to that shortly.
I will start with this comment, and probably finish with it as well. Savard belongs on this roster. He was a standout defensively every time he stepped on the ice, made the passes that needed to be made in the transition game without forcing his teammates to wait on him, read plays and made quick jumps to break up passes, and seemed to be positionally solid throughout the game. These intangibles he is bringing with him are not exactly taught or learned. This raw talent he seems to possess could bode incredibly well for the Jackets over the next few years.
Many will disagree with this sentiment, but I felt his abilities magnified some of Tyutin's faults. On more than one occasion, Tyutin fumbled the puck, seemed to need to look down and think before making a play, and made slow, more methodical passes that were read quickly by Minnesota. Also, during what appeared to be the second powerplay unit, Tyutin's possession game while transitioning into the offensive zone was a huge reminder of last years powerplay, where his teammates ended up lining up at the blueline while they waited for him to carry it into the zone. While my expectations for Tyutin are capped, my level of appreciation for the game that I believe Savard can bring to the table makes it harder and harder to watch this big contract get outplayed by a prospect.
While I don't remember seeing Savard hit the net with a shot (ESPN has two missed shots registered) both were absolute cannons and one missed the top right post by about a foot. I hope to see him shoot some more in the next couple games, but his passing more than made up for it. I will say it again, if he does not make this team out of camp, I will be utterly speechless.
Flashes of Calder Mason were certainly there last night. Strong presence while players were bearing down on him, cutting down the angles with aggressive lines to the shooter, Mason was giving the fans a reason to think that he has turned a corner in his development. With a save percentage of over .940 last night, and a desperation move on the second goal that ALMOST became the save of the pre-season, I would be hard pressed to say he didn't dazzle people.
I do have some concerns about his puck playing attempts, and hope that he reels it in a bit for the regular season, but it is one of those things that comes with time for goaltenders, deciding when to go after the dumped puck, and when to let their defenders do the dirty work. I was also really concerned with the way he was dropping too early last year, but I really only noticed him do that once last night, which is really great to see. The scramble goal on Minnesota's first tally of the night was a first save made, second shot, possibly third shot in the net effort, and the second goal was a pretty impressive cross crease pass that would have been an impossible save for pretty much every NHL goalie, with Heatley passing to Koivu. Hardly anything I will fault him for.
With all good comes the inevitable negative, but I should be able to keep it short. One of my biggest concerns is how much the Jackets seemed to ride momentum. Started the game decent but fell asleep with three mediocre penalty calls hemmed them in their own zone for the remainder of the period. Came out and dominated the second period, but became complacent in the third and while they did not give the game away, gave Minnesota a chance to possess the puck. Momentum plays a huge factor into the Jackets game and I hope they can either shake it or learn to avoid a lack of momentum during the regular season.
I think I will leave it at that. Seven penalties, four of which I probably wouldn't have argued with. 33% powerplay, 85.7% penalty kill. Shots were 34-26 in favour of Minnesota thanks to a 15-4 third period. Faceoffs were dominated 40-27 by Columbus (Nice 69% night Vermette!!) and the hits were edged 26-22 by Columbus (Brassard with 5 hits, better known as bumps but I appreciated the effort).
The Jackets visit the Hurricanes tonight in their last pre-season game. Sounds like Mason may get the nod again, along with another deep lineup. Should be a good game!
Carry the Flag!