With their coach potentially on the chopping block, the Blue Jackets faced the Anaheim Ducks in a fight filled battle that would see the struggling Columbus squad claim their second win of the season.
With rumors running rampant that Columbus head coach Scott Arniel and GM Scott Howson were both on the verge of being replaced, the Columbus Blue Jackets held a players only meeting an hour before the team was to start their pre-game routine. None of the players would discuss the exact message, but in the words of rookie Ryan Johansen, Rick Nash and some of the other team leaders "said some things before the game that got us really motivated."
On Sunday night, the Jackets weren't just motivated against the Anaheim Ducks. They were furious, and it was marked from their first shift on the ice, with the Ducks equally fired up in search of a win after their 3-0 loss the previous night to the Nashville Predators.
After a rapid push on Ducks' backup netminder Dan Ellis, the Blue Jackets drew a 5-on-3 powerplay within the first 90 seconds of regulation after Saku Koivu delivered an illegal hit along the boards to Jackets' defenseman Grant Clitsome, and injury added to insult when, in the rush to try and touch up on the puck, Teemu Selanne would strike Clitsome again with a high stick, putting both in the penalty box for a full two minutes.
On the ensuing penalty, the Jackets would make the Ducks pay quickly, with Rick Nash taking a puck from James Wisniewski, sliding into the faceoff circle, and waiting for a long heartbeat before unloading a hard wrist shot past Ellis less than a minute into the two man advantage.
The Ducks, however, did not fold from the early deficit, killing the remaining penalty and withstanding several solid scoring chances for Columbus. Selanne and linemate Bobby Ryan were able to grab the rebound from a Derick Brassard shot and rush up ice, splitting the defense of Kris Russell and Aaron Johnson before Selanne fed his younger teammate with a beautiful pass that he one-timed past Steve Mason.
Even as Columbus fans steeled themselves for another back and forth effort -- or worse, an Anaheim eruption -- the Jackets took the game directly back to the Ducks, unleashing a torrent of hard checks that quickly began to spark escalation from Anaheim, spilling over into the first of three first period fights. Derek Dorsett and Sheldon Brookbank dropped the gloves, with Dorsett leaving the ice briefly for maintenance on his hand afterwards.
Next, an unlikely battle came between Jackets' blueliner Kris Russell and Anaheim's Andrew Cogliano, triggered by Russell delivering a heavy hit along the boards that Cogliano felt deserved retribution. Much like the matchup between the two teams, however, Russell refused to back down, unleashing several punishing blows before the two eventually fell to the ice.
That battle did not seem to slake the need for payback, however, as another battle began shortly after play resumed. This time, it would be Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf who challenged Columbus checking forward and semi-enforcer Cody Bass -- and found himself slammed to the ice in brisk fashion for his trouble, a trade the Jackets were no doubt happy to make.
The period would come to an end with no further scoring or fisticuffs, but not without incident - shortly after Getzlaf and Bass went to the box, Selanne would challenge Rick Nash in the Anaheim defensive zone, clipping him with a high stick, and the Finn clearly made the decision that if he was going off of the ice, he would attempt to take the Jackets' captain with him. Pushing Nash and taunting him to fight, the Jackets captain seemed game, but referees converged before anything could escalate, sending Selanne to the penalty box.
The insult was clearly not washed over by the on-ice punishment, however. The two frequently could be seen exchanging words after whistles and shadowing each other in play, but never found an opportunity to settle their differences.
Instead it would be Ryan Johansen, playing in the critical ninth game of his rookie campaign, who would make the next impact on the game. Working as part of a line with Antoine Vermette and fellow WHL product Matt Calvert, Calvert would spring Vermette and Johansen on a 2 on 1 of their own against Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman. Looking off Vermette the entire way, Johansen protected the puck, adjusted, deked in, and seemed to wait almost too long before firing the puck and finding the perfect gap between Ellis' blocker side and the post to give the Jackets an early 2-1 lead.
The Ducks would turn up the pressure after being heavily outhit and outshot in the first period, drawing back to back penalties against Grant Clitsome and then Wisniewski almost immediately after the first successful PK. But Steve Mason formed the iron core of a motivated and effective PK unit, making an incredible series of three saves against two quick whacks at the side of the net by Corey Perry and then launching himself over to knock away a follow up attempt by Saku Koivu.
Energizing the team with his saves, Mason would see his play rewarded when Fedor Tyutin extended the Jackets lead to 3-1 with a blistering shot from just above the left faceoff circle after the Jackets broke out and trapped the Ducks in their own zone, feeding off the energy from the PK and taking advantage of tired legs after an icing call.
Now down two goals on four shots, the Ducks looked to go back to the well of truculence. Perry would start whacking at Steve Mason after a whistle, drawing the ire of Fedor Tyutin, and the two tangled into something too brief to truly call a fight, but seemingly worth a better label than "roughing".
Both teams would find chances in the ensuing 4 on 4 sequence, but no satisfaction, so once again it would be time for Brookbank and Dorsett to face off. Brookbank took exception to a hard hit along the boards and retaliated, knocking Dorsett down from behind, and the gloves came right back off.
After such fireworks in the first 40 minutes, the final period was almost anticlimactic, with no goals or further physical confrontations, but an air of strong tension as neither side backed down from their willingness to hit and Anaheim put major pressure on the Columbus defense. Mason and the Blue Jackets were able to hold on.
The win is the Jackets' second of the season and second at home, both against Western Conference opponents. When asked about the physical tone, captain Rick Nash clearly felt it the physical tone was a major part of the victory, particularly the early fights, and how their performance shaped the flow of the game: "It was huge. When you're struggling, you expect guys to step up and maybe do some things that are out of their element...We have to earn our respect, and the way we played tonight we definitely did that."
For Scott Arniel, it was a welcome relief to conduct a press conference after a victory, and his demeanor was of a man who had a weight taken off his shoulders. "You're facing good opponents, night after night and have to keep doing the right things, but we played a little pissed off -- with a little bit of an edge -- we got to the puck first, not second, and it made all the difference tonight."
When asked about the players going out and trying to play for the coaches, Arniel was humble, but also did not put himself above the effort. "I don't know what was said. I don't care what was said. I just liked that they got together and took control of what they have to take control over They competed tonight and played for each other, sacrified for each other, and that was a lot of what they probably talked about."
Finally, when asked about Johansen, and the possiblity of returning him to Portland, Arniel made it clear that the team has a decision to make, not just for the present, but Johansen's future development. "We've got a few days here, but he'll know soon enough."