This season, The Hockey Writers will have a recurring “Three Takeaways” feature after every Columbus Blue Jackets matchup, meant to serve as post-game quick hits.
1) Milano and Bobrovsky Keep Rolling
Raise a hand if you predicted Sonny Milano would be the first Columbus Blue Jackets youngster to break out in the early going of the 2017-18 season.
In a roster filled with names like 19-year-old rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois, a sophomore-season Zach Werenski and Oliver Bjorkstrand poised to build upon his end-of-season numbers, Milano himself has accounted for half of the Blue Jackets’ goals so far this season.
With his two goals against the Hurricanes on Tuesday, Milano has scored four goals in three straight games to start the season. That matches the Blue Jackets franchise record set by Kristian Huselius to open the 2010-11 campaign.
Aside from his scoring touch, Milano has shown chemistry with Bjorkstrand and impressive stick-handling ability. But, despite the way he is playing, Columbus is tempering expectations.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has continued to post Vezina-like numbers to open his season. In his first two games, the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 goaltender has stopped 66 of 67 shots faced for an 0.985 save percentage in 124:12 played en route to a 2-0-0 record. Not bad.
Bobrovsky was 85 seconds from his second straight shutout, but Carolina’s Jeff Skinner scored off a Markus Hannikainen turnover to tie it late. He finished the night with 37 saves — a big performance against a Metropolitan Division opponent teams cannot afford to sleep on this season.
2) Face-off Woes
After a preseason filled with face-off violation penalties, the Blue Jackets opened the season tentatively in the circle. Their 39 percent success rate against the Hurricanes on Tuesday was abysmal at best, and needs to improve if they want to help drive possession and build momentum.
The Blue Jackets are No. 26 in the NHL in face-off win percentage with a 46.7 success rate. That number is even lower in the defensive zone — a paltry 43.9 percent. Not a great statistic in situations when the team is looking to get the puck out of their zone.
Center Alexander Wennberg has been the most disappointing in this category with a 34.4 face-off win percentage. He is taking the second highest number of draws behind Brandon Dubinsky, who often finds himself in the NHL’s top 20 in that statistic.
Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno, who transitioned to center for the season, and has a 79.2 success rate on 24 face-off attempts, including 8-for-9 in the offensive zone.
Yes, face-off wins do not entirely drive play alone. There are several factors that go into puck possession and scoring chances. However, there is no denying that teams who do not win a face-off spend the next few seconds scrambling or trying to regain possession from the other team.
There is plenty of time for the Blue Jackets to work on this skill, and head coach John Tortorella knows it is an area his team is lacking in so far this season.
3) “Not Pretty” Hockey
The past two Blue Jackets games have been pretty ugly. After an up-and-down offensive display in their season opener, their style has been more of a stop-and-grind mindset. They are clogging passing lanes and checking hard, but not developing much once they gain possession. Skaters are passing more often than shooting.
The younger half of the roster — like Hannikainen on the turnover that led to Skinner’s game-tying goal in the final two minutes of regulation on Tuesday — are going through growing pains, as expected.
Three games in, line combinations are anything but set (aside from the defensive pairings) as Tortorella and team work to figure out who has chemistry. In his first game back on Tuesday, though, forward Josh Anderson on a line with Dubinsky and Matt Calvert was the epitome of a grind-it-out-style line.
Again, expect growing pains along the way with this team. There are several names on the roster not used to playing a full 82-game NHL season. Responsibilities are bound to shift around as inevitable injuries occur and certain players become hot. It will not always be pretty, but the Blue Jackets intend on competing for a coveted playoff spot in a tight Metropolitan Division.