The Blue Jackets' winning streak hit a franchise-record nine straight games Saturday afternoon, another comeback effort in front of a raucous and sold-out Nationwide Arena.
After going nearly three years without a hat trick, the Jackets earned their third three-goal performance in the past six games when Nick Foligno’s empty-netter put the Penguins away for good, a 5-3 final. A Penguins team that was without Evgeni Malkin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Kris Letang still managed to skate to a 2-0 lead midway point of the second period. That’s when the momentum and the pace of play shifted for the Blue Jackets, with the game changing thanks to one turnover.
The Blue Jackets found themselves trailing at 8:21 of the first period after a defensive zone miscue that has been uncharacteristic during this nine-game stretch. With Brandon Dubinsky unable to clear the zone on the left-wing wall, David Savard was already up the ice anticipating the rush and leaving the top scorer in the league alone in front for what became Sidney Crosby’s 27th goal of the season. The Jackets buttoned up their D-zone for much of the rest of the way, while the Penguins would lose that composure over the next two periods.
Leading by two goals, David Perron turned the puck over high in his own zone, directly resulting in a 2-on-0 and Foigno’s first goal. At 6:46 of the third period, it was Foligno forcing the neutral zone turnover when he stripped defenseman Derrick Pouliot and raced in on a 2-on-1 with Dubinsky. Foligno buried the rebound of the Dubinsky shot to give Columbus its first lead of the night.
Against the Islanders and Penguins, two teams in playoff position, the Jackets were able to spur two-goal comebacks by forcing strong teams protecting leads to make glaring mistakes in their own end of the ice.
“I think it’s our structure. We’re playing to our structure right now and you can see it,” said Foligno. “When we’re doing the things necessary, when we’re in the lanes we’re supposed to be in, we can create turnovers and use our speed to create chances off of it. It’s a credit to every guy who’s doing the right things and it’s a conscious effort to make sure we’re in the right spot to help out team win.”
It’s been a career season for Foligno, who has far outdone his previous career-highs offensively this season. After beginning the season with a high-water mark of 18 goals and 46 points, Foligno’s hat trick on Saturday gives him a team-leading 30 goals and 70 points.
Always a strong two-way player, Foligno’s offensive explosion this season has been a pleasant surprise to many, but coach Todd Richards is not among them.
“I knew it was at least 25, for sure,” said Richards when he was asked how many goals he thought Foligno could provide at the start of the season. “And I thought he could get up into the 30s, and he proved it.”
Foligno now has 115 career goals, but Saturday was the first hat trick of his eight-season NHL career. Foligno didn’t mind that it took him so long, just so long as a certain other player didn’t beat him to it.
“I watched my brother last night and he had two goals. They were up 4-3 and there was an empty net,” said Foligno referring to his brother Marcus in Buffalo. “I thought ‘if he scores a hat trick before I do, I’m going to snap!’ Low and behold, today it happened and I was laughing to myself on the bench.”
Foligno then claimed he was looking for a lane to pass it to Boone Jenner. There’s little question Jenner would have slid it right back.
No player wants to be sitting at home during the playoffs, and not every player wants to admit that they take some pride in playing the “spoiler” role in the final weeks of the season. Richards has no problem admitting that enjoys making the road for the rest of the league as difficult as possible.
“Absolutely, and for me they’re the top teams in the league," he said. "And you can even go back to Calgary and Vancouver, two teams that are in the playoffs, and we’re 7-0 against playoff teams right now. We’ve got a really good test on Monday in New York.”