Blue Jackets miss early opportunities, rally late but fizzle to Lightning

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Blue Jackets miss early opportunities, rally late but fizzle to Lightning

COLUMBUS, Ohio — During his morning chat with the media, Columbus Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent took a deep dive into the coaching staff’s work with the young roster, revealing that their focus between games these days is far different than it was at the start of the season.

In October, November, and December, it was drumming home the basics of the system and making sure the dressing room was functioning properly with so many green players and new faces, Vincent said. It was learning to fly.

Now, over the last several weeks, Vincent and his staff are working on the finer points, he said, not the foundation. The room, while not yet on auto-pilot, is beginning to be self-sustaining. Call it learning to thrive.

Then, after Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vincent was undeterred in his thinking. If anything, the first-year coach was emboldened.

“Like I said after our last game in St. Louis (a 1-0 win on Jan. 30), there’s something happening with that group,” Vincent said. “I know they mean well. They have all year. But there’s something happening.

“What I’m seeing is, they work for each other. They play for each other. If you were at the game tonight, that’s the style of hockey we’re going to play. That’s what we’ve wanted to create (here), and that’s what we’re creating.”

Boone Jenner scored both of the goals for the Blue Jackets, who pulled to 3-2 late in the game. It wasn’t until a Lightning empty-net goal with 47.9 seconds remaining that the largest crowd of the season in Nationwide Arena — a standing-room-only 18,876 — began to file out.

The Lightning know how to win, and they know how to win games when they aren’t at their best and/or aren’t the better team. Tampa Bay isn’t exactly thriving these days, having lost two in a row since the loss of top-notch defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. They were dug in on Saturday.

The Blue Jackets don’t yet know how to win, which means they manage to lose games even when they spend much of the game as the better team. That was on full display, as the Blue Jackets lost a game, mostly, on the finer points.

This is the hard part of any rebuilding project. But games like Saturday’s should give Blue Jackets fans hope. There’s no way to sell patience to this well-past-that fan base, but on certain nights this season. you can see a flicker that hints at a bright future.

The Blue Jackets hadn’t played in 11 days, so they were concerned about what the start of the game might look like. And yet they dominated, everywhere but the scoreboard. Sure, Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was sharp, but the Jackets don’t yet know how to finish scoring chances or execute a two-on-one.

Johnny Gaudreau looked like the 2021-22 version of himself on Saturday. He could have had four primary assists on Saturday, but it wasn’t until the third period that his setups were finished.

“When I say the room is coming together, (Gaudreau) is one of the guys I’m talking about,” Vincent said. “He’s not a big talker, but he’s taking more space in the room now. His game tonight … he was dynamite. He’s an excellent hockey player, and when he plays like he did tonight, our team looks different.”

Zach Werenski hasn’t scored since November, the longest goal-scoring drought of his career. He was robbed by Vasilevskiy off a backhand shot from the slot in the second period, looking toward the rafters in disbelief.

Gaudreau and Werenski were the Blue Jackets’ best players, both one-man breakouts and offense generators. They each had nine shot attempts, including five shots on goal.

“Him and Johnny, when they push that way, we look different as a team,” Vincent said.

Ultimately, the Blue Jackets lost by failing to capitalize on their chances early in the game and because of their penalty kill, which has been — no sugar added, here — dreadful since the start of December (66.7 percent), when Jenner went out with a broken jaw.

The Lightning scored a power-play goal at 15:40 of the first to make it 1-0, and another only 23 seconds into the third period, to take a 3-0 lead.

“Yeah, big time,” Jenner said, when asked about the Jackets’ scoring chances that fizzled early. “We had good energy, had our legs going. He (Vasilevskiy) made some great saves and we hit some posts. I like the way we stuck with it. We knew we’d get rewarded, and it started to go in the third.”

With 7:38 remaining, Jenner was crowding Vasilevskiy when Gaudreau found him with a perfect set-up to make it 3-1. With 4:10 remaining, on virtually the same play, Gaudreau zipped a pass to Jenner on the doorstep to pull the Jackets within 3-2.

Total distance of those two goals? A very Jenner-like 13 feet.

The Blue Jackets pulled goaltender Elvis Merzlikins with just under two minutes to play, but couldn’t get the equalizer.

That’s 35 losses (10 in overtime or shootout) in 51 games for the Blue Jackets (16-25-10). They are dead last in the Eastern Conference and have the fourth-worst record in the NHL. They have a long way to go, obviously.

But on some nights, it doesn’t seem so far away.

(Photo: Russell LaBounty / USA Today)