DETROIT - The Columbus Blue Jackets didn't act like playoff rookies for the first 30 minutes against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.
But by the end of a 4-1 loss to the reigning Stanley Cup champions in Game 1 of the Western Conference playoff series, the Blue Jackets looked like schoolkids at the knee of a learned teacher. "They turned up the heat a little, then we started turning the puck over," defenceman Mike Commodore said in the sombre dressing room.
Coach Ken Hitchcock said even though the game was scoreless midway through, the Blue Jackets did not play well.
"We can play better. We will play better," Hitchcock said. "We had some people play better, and we had some play below the bar."
Through the first half of the game, the Blue Jackets held their own and were tied 1-1. When the Red Wings scored on Jiri Hudler's even-strength goal off a 2-on-1 pass from Valtteri Filppula, Columbus came right back less than a minute later to tie it on R.J. Umberger's backhander from the slot. Rookie Jake Voracek had flipped a pass to Umberger from the back wall to set the score in motion.
But it was one of the Blue Jackets' most experienced players, Manny Malhotra, who made the first costly mistake of the matchup. On an otherwise innocent slap shot from the right point by Detroit's Jonathan Ericsson, Malhotra inexplicably reached out with his left glove as if to catch the puck. It deflected off his glove and past a surprised Steve Mason for a 2-1 Detroit lead.
The Blue Jackets never really recovered.
"We were battling so hard and then to have one go in off you is demoralizing," Malhotra said.
Wizened veterans would say it's just another example of the breaks a team makes in the post-season, but the Blue Jackets also helped out on the next goal.
Columbus' Antoine Vermette was whistled for hooking and just eight seconds later, Niklas Kronwall's shot - again from the right point - almost hit teammate Johan Franzen who was parked right in front of Mason's face in the crease. The puck went off defenceman Jan Hejda's hip past Mason never had a chance to stop it.
"We put two in our own net," Hitchcock said.
Franzen then added another goal early in the third period and the Red Wings were content to play keepaway with the puck the rest of the night.
Mason, who stopped 30 of the 34 shots he faced, said after a strong start the game got out of hand.
"Obviously, it's not the outcome we wanted," Mason said. "We know we have to do better. We played great the first period, from there on it was all downhill."
The crowd of 20,066 was a sea of red with an occasional blue jersey breaking up the monotony. Red Wings fans were given fake playoff beards on their way in, making many of the spectators look as if they took a horse and buggy to the game.
Between "O'er the land of the free" and "the home of the brave" during the national anthem, someone threw an octopus on the ice. The tradition comes from the days when it only took eight victories to win a Stanley Cup.
That turned up the decibel level to that of a 747 taking off at Detroit Metro.
The Blue Jackets had their chances early, thanks to four Red Wings penalties. After all the talk about Columbus' players inexperience in the post-season, it was the playoff-hardened Wings who made most of the early mistakes. But the Blue Jackets, last in the NHL with a man advantage, failed to score on any of those power plays.
They also did their fair share to help out the Wings, who didn't need the help.
"We've got to use what we learned from this game and move forward," Umberger said. "It's a loss. It's over with. There's more hockey to be played. Next game is a big part of the series here."
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