Maybe the switch to John Tortorella is a good thing for the Columbus Blue Jackets going forward. I don't mean in the sense that he's probably going launch Brandon Dubinsky into the sun, which would be an unarguably interesting and scientifically important thing for the team, but in the sense that he'll
force upon threat of death encourage his 0-8-0 Blue Jackets to get down and block some shots, because they're going to need to if they want to dig "zero confidence" goalie Sergei Bobrovsky out of this hole.
In the course of a historically-bad 8-loss start to the 2015-16 Blue Jackets season, Bobrovsky has started 5 times, allowed 26 goals on 162 shots, and gently shoved Todd Richards under a bus. That's not to say all of this is Bobrovsky's fault, though if you saw Nino Niederreiter's goal, you can probably guess how much of it is. The Blue Jackets' defensive coverage actively makes space for opponents to take shots, their forwards turn the puck over at an impressive rate, and their leaders in Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen have played like anything but leaders. To say things are rocky in Columbus is an understatement.
Of course, before last night I had been thinking the same shot-blocking recommendation might be good for the Minnesota Wild, who have struggled in goal in past seasons. Early in the season, Devan Dubnyk, the Wild's rock over the last half of the 2014-15 season, has struggled tracking pucks through traffic, establishing his space in the crease, and preventing weak goals. Similarly, the normally-stout, efficient Wild defense, despite losing no players, has looked like a completely different group, not insulating Dubnyk in the way they did in the back half of last season, offering up easy chances, and leaving the slot unprotected.
That this weak play hasn't cost the Wild much in the standings is surprising to say the least. Heading into tonight's game against the win-starved Blue Jackets, though, there was a real sense of angst that the Blue Jackets couldn't keep losing at this pace and that they were due. Through the first period, the Wild played without a clear sense of direction or purpose and, despite scoring early, went into the intermission down 2-1 on goals by Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky. While Dubinsky's goal came off a rebound near the crease and is typical of the weak rebound goals we've seen early on, it was Wennberg's goal from an impossible angle that touched a nerve. Dubnyk couldn't square himself to the shot after his skate (or pads? even on replay, it's not entirely clear) prevented him from finding his footing, forcing him to adjust on the fly and giving Wennberg the space he needed to light the lamp.
Heading into the second period, however, the Wild came out with a better sense of identity and established their game. The defense was more solid, clearing pucks, making simple plays, and allowing the forwards to establish a rhythm on the transition. Goals from Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek early in the period lifted the Wild to a 3-2 lead and the team played a more solid, structured game, stifling Blue Jackets passes, zone entries, and shots.
Despite stronger play early in the period, the Blue Jackets were able to steal some momentum on an unstructured attack late in the period. As the Wild attempted to clear the puck from their defensive zone, Scott Hartnell stole the puck and streaked below the red line. Instead of regrouping and organizing a more systematic attack, Hartnell sent the puck shallow through the slot on a centering attempt. The puck eventually ended up near the right dot and Cam Atkinson, who seized the chaos and launched it back on Dubnyk. Reacting to the frantic pace, Dubnyk had just enough time to square himself to Atkinson's shot and kicked a rebound out to the low right slot. Wennberg reeled the puck in, pulled left and, diving over Dubnyk's stick, launched the puck toward the open side of the net. Already committed to the right side of the ice and Atkinson's shot, Dubnyk could only extend a pad to block the puck, leading to this crazy save.
Sprawled out across the crease, Dubnyk made the save by virtue of his reactions, positioning, and confidence. Despite the chaos of the Blue Jackets' short attack, the Wild goaltender played to his potential because he could rely on the system his defense plays. It's the pivotal moment of the Wild's game last night not only because it held the score at 3-2 and helped them hold on for the win, but because it affirmed the quality of the goaltender Dubnyk can be and the responsibility the Wild defense has for his play. Much of Dubnyk's early season play has been a product of his own limitations. But every player has limitations. Teams are built around systems which compensate for individual limitations and allow their strengths to shine.
In the end, Dubnyk's save on Wennberg is a testament to his footing: in the crease, in the defensive scheme, and in his development as a player. It's a product of the confidence he can have when the Wild plays its system and remembers its fundamental strengths. The Wild defense and Dubnyk turned a corner last night with that save, and got back to that foundation. It raises the question of what happens when you have no fundamentals to get back to, no basics to remember, and no footing to find? The answer was on the ice last night and if you've followed the Blue Jackets, you've seen it all season.