The 2007-2008 season is only four games old, but a disturbing trend has already settled in with the Blue Jackets.
After a solid team performance in the home opener against Anaheim, Columbus traveled to Minnesota the next night and played another good team game, albeit for 40 minutes.
During the third period of that game, the Jackets diverted from their game plan and relinquished a third period lead for only the second time in 26 regulation attempts. Despite the hard checking and tight defensive style that gave them the 2-1 lead, they couldn't hold on for the final frame, allowing the Wild to carry the play. Minnesota won all the loose pucks and didn't let the Jackets into their zone unscathed, a pattern that was troubling for coach Ken Hitchcock.
His team exhibited a relentless forecheck in the opener and despite being outhit by the Ducks, handily won the special teams battle, converting on three power play attempts and killing off all shorthanded situations, including a 5-on-3 and a five minute major penalty to Jared Boll.
Following the disappointing loss in Minnesota, the Jackets returned to Columbus to face Wayne Gretzky's Coyotes--a team equally desperate for consistent play. The Jackets returned to the aggressive style they played in the opener and won the loose pucks, thus translating to scoring opportunities. The first period was owned by Columbus and the third line of Jason Chimera-Manny Malhotra-Jared Boll dominated in the corners, using their cycling ability to wear down the defense and generate shots on goal.
All three goals from the Jackets were scored by that line, and early in the final period Malhotra chipped a puck past the Phoenix defender, springing Jared Boll down the left side all alone for his first NHL goal. He rushed in and deftly lifted the puck over David Aesbicher's shoulder- a goal scorer's goal.
Riding high from another dominating win (their second shutout in as many games at home) and being well-rested headed to Denver, the Jackets came to the Pepsi Center in good spirits. Unfortunately, they played better in the back-to-back than on three days rest. The Avalanche played in St. Louis the night before and were handled by the Blues, 4-1. Columbus had the fresh legs and the positive feeling, but they came out flat. Not just flat, but soft.
Colorado got on the board six minutes in, a crazy carrom off Pascal Leclaire frpm the stick of Joe Sakic. To their credit, the Jackets killed off an early 5-on-3. To Colorado's credit, they put that disappointment aside and scored a minute later.
The remainder of the period was fairly even, and the Jackets seemed to find some sort of jump going into the second period. Rusty Klesla's first of the year came 1:42 into the second, a rocket that caught Peter Budaj off guard. After tying the game, Columbus played what could be described as the poorest period of the year. They took careless penalties and lost control of the game, and once again allowed the home team to dictate the play.
When all was said and done, Pascal Leclaire had a humbling night, including a weak goal from Milan Hejduk that never left the ice. However, aside from that misstep, he was again sharp most of the night. Without his strong play, the score could've easily become ridiculous.
Sakic netted his 15th career hat trick midway through the third, and the shower of hats all but sent the Jackets to the showers. If they continue to play like this on the road, they'll have a tough time establishing the "hard to play against" identity they're trying to put in place.
Hitchcock has not said who will start in goal when the Jackets return home Wednesday to face Dallas, but my hunch is Fredrik Norrena will get the nod. Also, look for Jody Shelley to make his first start of the year this week, perhaps in Buffalo. Wouldn't it be great to see another round of Shelley vs. Peters?