COLUMBUS, Ohio — The most urgent stretch of play for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday came in the final minutes of the third period, when they scrambled to try and overcome a two-goal deficit against the Arizona Coyotes.
It’s the type of desperation you’d expect from a club that has won one game since Oct. 21, but the surprise — once again — was which players weren’t part of the final push.
Patrik Laine didn’t play for the final 9:53 of the game. Johnny Gaudreau was benched for the final 6:15. That’s 432 career goals watching from the bench as the Blue Jackets fell to 1-7-4 in their last 12 games.
Those two, who sputtered offensively along with linemate Yegor Chinakhov, were on the ice when Arizona scored its second goal in a 28-second span of the third period to take a 3-1 lead. Chinakhov didn’t play for the final 9:53, either, but that’s not as telling as Laine and Gaudreau getting benched.
Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent instead leaned hard on rookie Adam Fantilli’s line, with wingers Dmitri Voronkov and Kirill Marchenko, late in the game.
“I coach a team,” Vincent said. “I don’t coach individuals. Those guys were going, they’re going to play. That’s what we’ve been doing all year.
“Once the game starts, we have 18 guys and two goalies. Tonight it was those guys that were going, and that’s why they were on the ice.”
Asked if the opposite was true for Gaudreau and Laine, Vincent delivered maybe his best line so far this season.
“Asking that question is answering that question,” he said.
Not many people considered the Blue Jackets to be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference this season, although GM Jarmo Kekalainen has insisted that’s the goal, and Vincent echoed that possibility this week after an underwhelming 5-3 loss to Pittsburgh.
But the fact that they’ve landed in the basement of the conference standings — where they finished last season, remember? — is stunning. And it’s not likely to change until Gaudreau, Laine and others snap out of their early-season funks.
Gaudreau, who had two shots on goal on Thursday, has scored one goal all season, an empty-netter. He has one point, an assist, in his last seven games.
Laine, who was back at center on Thursday, had no shots on goal and won 2 of 8 faceoffs. He has one goal in four games since he returned from an early-season concussion, but his most noticeable act on Thursday was shattering his stick on the wall in front of the bench after a frustrating shift.
“I feel for our players right now,” Vincent said. “They’re working hard. They do so many good things that we forget about because of those little mistakes. And the first thing you know, when we make a mistake, the puck is in our net.
“I feel for them because they work hard. They really do. They’re all in. They want to do the right things. But when (the Coyotes) score that goal, we’re a little bit fragile.”
The game was tied 1-1 until the midpoint of the third period. Arizona’s Logan Cooley scored a power-play goal at 9:39 to give the Coyotes the lead, and it grew to 3-1 just 28 seconds later, when Lawson Crouse scored. Blue Jackets defenseman Erik Gudbranson had the puck stripped off his stick behind the Columbus net by Nick Bjugstad, who fed a wide-open Crouse.
That was it was for the Laine line. Gaudreau took one shift later in the period with Cole Sillinger and Boone Jenner, but was otherwise benched.
The Blue Jackets’ goals were both scored by veteran defenseman Damon Severson, his second and third of the season. They both came from a similar spot in the right circle, the first to give the Jackets a 1-0 lead early in the second, and the last to make it 3-2 Coyotes with 1:57 remaining.
Severson has as many goals as Gaudreau and Laine combined, a telling stat.
“We can’t be gripping our sticks too tight,” Severson said. “We’ve lost a bunch of games in a row now. The worst that can happen is we keep losing. So why not be aggressive and make something happen to be a difference-maker? We have to play our game and just be confident.”
Confidence is no problem for Fantilli and his linemates. Fantilli had 10 shots on goal on Thursday, while Marchenko had six and Voronkov four. Voronkov had a primary assist on Severson’s first goal, giving him points in four of his last five games.
“I’m bringing everything I can every night,” Fantilli said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go. But I’m trying to score, trying to do what I can for this team. I want to win. I’ve said it 100 times: I hate losing. I hate this series of losses. I despise it. I want to do everything I can every single night.”
“I thought we were tight defensively. I thought we were doing our best to transition, but didn’t capitalize on our chances. That seems to be a theme right now. It’s really frustrating.”
So far, this season doesn’t quite feel like last season, which was already over at this point. Not only were the Blue Jackets losing games, but they’d lost several starters for the season already due to injury. These Blue Jackets are mostly healthy, with the exception of Jack Roslovic (fractured ankle).
But the two seasons aren’t altogether different, either. In fact, the Blue Jackets were 6-10-1 (13 points) through 17 games last season. The 2023-24 version is 4-9-4.
“It’s the NHL,” Vincent said. “Nobody’s going to give you anything. We can’t feel sorry our ourselves. Tomorrow we’re going to get up and do it again. Find a solution, work together.”
(Photo of Johnny Gaudreau: Jason Mowry / Getty Images)