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ANALYSIS: Blue Jackets defense starting to come together

Columbus' style is coming into focus five games into season

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

If you haven't heard the phrase "above the puck" during the start of the Blue Jackets' season, you haven't listened to many interviews featuring head coach John Tortorella. 

It's about being positionally sound and not chasing the game. That's especially true in transition, maybe that 90 feet from the CBJ's offensive faceoff dots all the way back to the team's defensive blue line. A whole heck of a lot of goals in the NHL end up in the net because of a chain of events that happens in that area, before an attacking team even enters the offensive zone, and that's where the Blue Jackets want to be strong. 

Of course, every team wants that very thing, but it's the "concentration," to use their word, that Tortorella and his staff have tasked the Blue Jackets with playing with this season. With two goalies short in starting experience on the squad, not hanging them out to try in the early season has been the focus of the Blue Jackets. 

"We're inexperienced in goal," Tortorella said. "I want them to get an opportunity to get themselves in the season without us taking so many chances." 

It doesn't mean sitting back -- heck, the Blue Jackets scored a goal in the last game with two defensemen passing each other the puck from down low -- but it does mean being smart and choosing the right times to be aggressive.  

There were hiccups early -- the 7-2 loss at Pittsburgh certainly comes to mind -- but after a 2-1-0 week in which Columbus faced three opponents that were a combined 10-1-0 when they took the ice, it's fair to say things are coming along nicely. 

The Blue Jackets kept both Buffalo, which it beat 4-3 in overtime on Monday, and Anaheim, which gutted out a 2-1 win over the Jackets on Friday, to single digits in scoring chances against per the team's internal calculations, according to Tortorella. And on Saturday, Columbus went up against an unbeaten Carolina team that was not just averaging 4.2 goals per game, it was second in the league in shots on goal, and still the Blue Jackets left with a 3-2 victory. 

Speaking Monday after having had time to digest the week of action, Tortorella was pleased with how his team has come along from a defensive standpoint. 

"Other than losing total composure in Pittsburgh in the second half of that game, I think we've averaged (about) 12 scoring chances against us each game," Tortorella said. "The way we played our third period against Carolina, we were on our toes, tried to keep on scoring a goal, didn't generate a lot of chances, but held them to two chances in the third period. 

"So that part of the game is really what we have to be. As I stated right from the start of the year, we have to be conscious about our play away from the puck. They should feel really good about themselves. Even though we're only 2-3, really all these games other than the second half against Pittsburgh, we have really done a good job of that." 

Perhaps just as encouraging is the fact the Blue Jackets were able to repeat the solid defensive play in two very different games on Friday and Saturday night. While Anaheim is a heavy, grinding team that tries to control the puck, Carolina is all about quick attacks, with a very active defense pushing the play forward.  

A glance around the NHL shows the Blue Jackets have also been among the best in the league at preventing chances at 5-on-5. The team's mark of 5.4 high-danger chances allowed per game at 5-on-5 is tied for fourth best in the league, per Natural Stat Trick

The Blue Jackets' overall numbers show 3.60 goals allowed per game, 21st in the NHL. But some mitigating factors include the struggles in Pittsburgh, up-and-down goaltending and a penalty kill that struggled in the first three games.  

Over the last two games, things are looking up in the latter of those two categories, with Joonas Korpisalo posting a save percentage of .927 in a pair of starts over the weekend and the penalty kill being perfect in those two contests as well. 

"We're playing well defensively," David Savard said. "Guys are coming back. Obviously our goalies are doing the job, too. If you can limit good teams to only a few scoring chances, you give yourself a better chance to win. I think we've created more than we usually give up, which is a good sign. Hopefully we can score a little more going forward." 

Now, what of scoring? 

Savard then touched on another major question facing the team: Would it be able to score enough goals after the offseason departure of three forwards who topped 20 goals last year? 

That list includes Artemi Panarin, who notched 87 points, a team record. While there were plenty of reasons to be confident in the CBJ attack coming into the year -- 12 of the top 13 point scorers from last year's team returned, as did almost 80 percent of the team's goals -- losing a player who had a hand in 34.0 percent of the team's goals a year ago is tough. 

So far, the raw numbers are admittedly not super, with the team's 2.20 goals per game near the bottom of the pack in the league. But there are reasons to believe some regressions to the mean are coming. 

The team's shooting percentage of 5.43 at 5-on-5 is, per Natural Stat Trick, second worst in the NHL. The reality also is no team will keep shooting that poorly; last year, the league's worst shooting team at 5-on-5 was Arizona at 6.61, while the middle of the pack teams were closer to 8 percent.  

In talking to hockey players and coaches, there's two levels to offense. First, a team must create chances, then they must finish them. Columbus has been middle of the pack thus far in creating high-danger chances, but the hope is more are on the way. 

In the last two games, per Natural Stat Trick, Columbus has eight high-danger chances at 5-on-5 in each game. Slowly but surely, perhaps, the offense could be coming. 

"We developed, I wouldn't say enough, but the thing for me last night, I thought there were some chances we could have created but that last pass or last play that needed to be made, we didn't make it," Tortorella said after the Anaheim game. "It wasn't through lack of effort. I just thought we weren't sharp as far as making that next play." 

"We need to get guys in front of the net, taking away the goalie's eyes and getting those ugly, greasy goals that we know we're capable of doing," Cam Atkinson added.  

Wennberg? Now 

A player off to a solid start is Alexander Wennberg, who has three assists and is plus-2 so far. In fact, he's one of two Blue Jackets not to be on the ice for a goal against this year at 5-on-5, joining Oliver Bjorkstrand. 

While a focus to many for Wennberg coming into the season was shooting more, he has just five shots on goal through five games. But to the coaching staff, the important thing for Wennberg was to be harder on the puck and making plays with it, and he's done that. 

As an example, on the team's first goal Saturday night against Carolina, he had a huge hand in the tally. The whole play happened because Wennberg took a check along the wall in the corner, held on to the puck, and then found Ryan Murray racing off the bench to a dangerous area. Wennberg fed Murray the puck, and the defenseman found partner Markus Nutivaara at the back post for a tap-in goal. 

Tweet from @BlueJacketsNHL: .@AlexWennberg ��� Murray ��� @mauripellervo 🚨

The way Wennberg held the puck on the play and then made a play caught the eye of Tortorella. 

"I think where he's made a huge improvement in his game is that he has the puck more and wants the puck more," the head coach said. "He makes a play before Nuti's goal, he forechecks in the corner, he knows he's going to get hit, holds on to the puck, takes the hit and skates out of there. I think maybe last year he might just go to the puck, throw it in behind the net and spin out of there. 

"But he wanted to hold on to the puck, took the hit, brought people with him, Murr comes down the wall, dumps it off to Murr and that's when Nuti ends up wide open at the back door. I just think he's had the puck more and I think he wants to play in the middle of the ice more with that puck. I think it makes him a better player." 

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