For the third time in six games, the Columbus Blue Jackets were shut out on Monday in a 2-0 loss to the Islanders.
While there's little denying the Blue Jackets didn't have much going for them in the first shutout, which happened last Saturday at home vs. Edmonton, the last two blankings have been a little more difficult to figure out.
Columbus felt it played good hockey Thursday in a 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh and in the most recent 2-0 whitewash suffered at the hands of New York. The Jackets had the territorial edge against the Isles, with Columbus sending 62 shots toward goalie Thomas Greiss while the New York had just 33 shot attempts of their own.
Yet none went in for the Jackets, continuing a maddening stretch of offensive struggles. It begs the question: Is it just bad luck, or does Columbus need to do something different to put the puck in the net?
Three observations from the loss follow.
1. Blanked again: Well, you have to start here. The Blue Jackets left the game feeling they deserved better, especially considering the time the team spent in the offensive zone and the shots they sent at Greiss, who has allowed just two goals in three games vs. Columbus this year.
"We just need to score. That's the only difference. We do everything but score," captain Nick Foligno said. "That's all there is. The teams that are in the thick of it are finding ways to score. It's not a knock on us. We just have to find a way to get the puck in the back of the net. We have to stop, 'We did this well, we did that well.' We have to get serious about putting some goals in there."
So going back to the original question: Is it bad luck or does Columbus need to do something better to get the puck in the net?
It's probably a little of each. Take the two times Cam Atkinson came in with speed and drilled shots that beat Greiss clean but clanged off the iron in the opening 21 minutes. Atkinson is the team leader in goals with 38 and its best sniper, and he was twice mere inches away from adding to his total this season.
But there are probably some areas where the team can do better, too. Matt Duchene said the Jackets were outstanding creating and maintaining possession in the offensive zone, which is true, but that still allowed the Islanders to play the pack-the-crease, five-man defending they have excelled at all season long.
Where Columbus could probably be better is in transition, another point Duchene raised after the game. There were a few times Columbus appeared to have numbers but couldn't get the spacing or the tempo right and instead allowed the Isles to get back in the play.
Then there's the matter of shots wide and shots blocked. Two games after Pittsburgh blocked 24 Columbus shots, the Blue Jackets had 15 blocked by the Islanders and 16 more sail wide. One of the team's best chances of the game came in the second, when Duchene threaded a beautiful pass through to Zach Werenski only to have the defenseman miss the net from about 20 feet out.
"I think you have to give their goaltender a little bit of props tonight for making some saves," head coach John Tortorella said. "I think some of our main chances, we don't get to the net. Z has a chance right down the pipe there in the slot, shoots it wide. We had a couple of others.
"It's a team that has been able to score goals this year. Since the deadline, it's been inconsistent, but we'll keep -- it's frustrating, but I liked the way we played, I liked the way we forechecked, I liked a lot of things about our game. But we just did not finish."
2. Another slow start: Yet Tortorella had a caveat: Columbus' first few minutes of the game, when the team was outshot 5-1, weren't great. Included in that span was the Islanders' only non-empty-net goal of the same, as an icing led to a faceoff in front of Sergei Bobrovsky. New York won it, and a blocked shot went right to Ryan Pulock at the point, and the defenseman found it in his wheelhouse and blasted a slap shot past Bobrovsky and into the far corner.
"You take out the first eight minutes of the first period, which was frustrating to me how we started, but after that I thought we played really well," Tortorella said.
What made the start particularly damaging is that falling behind the Islanders is akin to getting caught in a Chinese finger trap -- the harder you try to pull out of it, the worse it can get. New York is 24-9-5 when scoring first this season, and for a team whose identity is defense first, second and third, a 1-0 lead can feel like a two- or three-goal advantage.
In addition, the Jackets have now fallen behind 1-0 in five of seven games and lost four of those five.
"We could have had a better start tonight, that's for sure, but at the same time, we let up one goal," Duchene said.
3. So now what? Columbus has to keep playing its game, and it doesn't get easier. While the Isles are first in the NHL in scoring defense and second-best at preventing 5-on-5 goals, Tuesday night's opponent is Boston, which is second in the NHL in scoring defense and the best in the league at preventing 5-on-5 goals.
Foligno has called frustration a "useless emotion" and cautioned against falling into that trap, something echoed by Seth Jones after the game.
"We can't right now," he said. "We're in no position to do that. We just have to continue to learn from each game and move forward, move ahead."
What did the defenseman like about the team's game, and what can it hang its hat on going into a crucial clash against the Bruins?
"The main thing is we're being competitive," he said. "Being hard on every single puck, every 50-50 battle, we're getting our nose over it and playing just a hard-nosed, straight-ahead game."