Monday, January 26, 2009

Heading Around The Far Turn . . .

Sorry for the lapse in postings, but have been enjoying a bit of an All-Star Break myself, and have been working on a couple of long pieces that are not quite yet ready for prime time.

Good time had by all at the Jacket Backers All-Star Game Watching party at the Garage Bar. Good food, some great giveaways (including a team autographed jersey), and general cheering for Nash's three points, the first penalty in recent All Star memory and an All Star Shootout.

Horse racing enthusiasts will recognize the title of this piece, representing the beginning of the long downhill journey to the finish line. It is not yet time for the stretch run, we are in position, but need to use a little whip to put us where we want to be.

Reading Puck-Rakers today, I was amused by Tom Reed's piece, breaking down the next 13 games, determining that the Jackets can and should go 9 - 3 -1 over this stretch, then basically crafting it into an expectation, strongly intimating that nothing less will do if we are to make the playoffs. Whoa!! Time for a sanity check here. Let's take a look at how the Western Conference would look at season's end if every team continued playing at the same pace they played up to the All Star break: (Division Winners get top 3 seeds)

1. San Jose -- 133 points
2. Detroit -- 121 points
3. Calgary -- 107 points
4. Chicago -- 106 points
5. Edmonton -- 91 points
6. Phoenix -- 91 points
7. Minnesota -- 87 points
8. Vancouver -- 87 points
9. Dallas -- 86 points
10. Columbus -- 85 points
11. Anaheim -- 85 points
12. Colorado -- 82 points
13. Los Angeles -- 80 points
14. Nashville -- 77 points
15. St. Louis -- 75 points

So, as it stands today, 87 points gets you in the playoffs, and 8 teams are vying for 4 spots (Nashville and St. Louis have huge hills to climb, and Los Angeles plays 24 of its final 36 on the road) Finish in the top half of that group, and you are in. Let's even be generous and say that everyone steps up their game, so that 90 points is the number.

If the Jackets follow Tom Reed's formula, and indeed go 9 - 3 - 1 over the next 13, that will put them at 68 points with 22 games left. A very easy calculation shows that .500 hockey (by points) gets them home -- 10-10-2, for example. Very nice situation to have, but hardly essential. 20 - 14 - 1 gets us to the magic 90, as does 18-12-5. All very doable. Here are the keys/reasons I see us having what it takes to reach the promised land, and bring playoff hockey to Nationwide:

Road Warriors -- The CBJ have only 15 road games left -- and only 1 significant road stretch -- a three game NW Canada swing, a home game vs. LA, then away at Detroit and Nashville. Three road games are against Eastern Conference teams, against whom we have enjoyed considerable success. In contrast, every other contending team faces more road games: Phoenix (17), Edmonton (17), Vancouver (17), Minnesota (20), Dallas (17), Colorado (18), Los Angeles (24). The CBJ have become increasingly good at home, and the fans have generated more energy. This symbiosis should continue.

Health -- At a time of year when most teams are getting hurt and exhausted, we are getting healthy and rested. Chimera, Novotny, Klesla all give us depth and options as we emerge from the far turn and head into the stretch.

Confidence -- The Jackets have gone through a baptism of fire with their brutal injury record and the most arduous road stretch of the season. Our offense, without many of its key parts, found its stride and scored lots of goals in the NW Canada stretch, enabling us to salvage 3 of 6 points on that trip. No matter what the score, they know they have the ability to bring the win home. As the pressure builds, the veterans will guide the youngsters and this confidence will serve as a buttress for the boys.

Pacing -- Hitch has had to go hard to the whip over the past several weeks, due to the injury situation. He knew it was a risk, but he really had no choice, if they were to stay in this race. Now that we are in the thick of it, watch him be a bit more judicious about overusing his resources. He won't jeopardize wins, but he will want fresh legs. Short shifts, maximum focus will be his bywords.

Howson -- If anyone had any doubts about Howson (after Tyutin, Commodore, Umberger, Huselius, how could you?), they should have been put to rest by the Jason Williams deal. Howson recognized that Atlanta was misusing Williams, who can make plays with the puck, and shared the line with Kovalchuk, who also demands the puck. Two guys, one puck, bad combo. We get Williams at a great discount, and it pays immediate dividends. Howson has at least one more up his sleeve and will pull the trigger once he sees what our true health situation is.

Hitch -Hockey -- We have found some offensive legs, now time to return to the stingy defensive ways that got us where we are. We are only 4 goals short of being even in the goals for/goals against column. (In contrast, Phoenix and Edmonton are -13 and -6 in this stat). We need to dictate tempo, stand people up at the blue line, and create lanes for our goaltenders to see. Keep the blue paint clear, and we will do well.

Special Teams -- Yes, the power play needs to improve, and the PK needs to regain the form it had before the Vancouver/Edmonton/Calgary trip. Here, I think our confidence and return to Hitch-Hockey will take over. We have a bunch of guys playing well together now, and a PP quarterback who can really move the puck. Look for big improvement here.

In short, there are tons of reasons to be optimistic for the last 3/8 mile of this 1 mile race. Keep in mind that the listing above is premised upon everyone playing at the same pace as they have for the rest of the season. In the CBJ case, that pace includes an early season when our guys were learning each other's names, let alone playing together. Other teams were wildly hot. Things have a way of evening out, and this works to the CBJ's advantage.

Win or lose, playoffs or not, this team is by far the best we have ever fielded, and are a lot of fun to watch right now. Nationwide is a great place to be on game nights, and excitement is building. We know we will get effort every night, and that we will be in every game. Those are great things to have going for us as we head into February. Go Jackets!


Rick said...

Well said, my friend. The large turnover in this team does, I think, work to our advantage. Stay healthy, play Hitch-hockey and everything will work out right.

With the way I've seen them play thuss far, I see them going 20-12-3 for 92 points and a trip to our first playoff appearance.

I'll be at the Sens game on Friday. If you're going, let me know. I'll buy you a beer at the Rbar pre-game.

roadman said...

Well done. Thanks for your insight.

I have posted this elsewhere but will repeat. 35 games @ 60% and round it out for an easy look, 20-10-5. 45 points gives us 94 which should be better than 8th place given how competitive it's going to be. These are doable numbers. I would love to see a 9-3-1 start. But I don't think it has to be that or even should be that. 8-4-1 or even 7-4-2 gives us a good leg up. Don't want over ambitious expectations to be a buzz kill.

Hitch hockey, 60 minute effort, and maybe one more roster move if necessary.

And down the stretch they come......

JAL said...

Rick/Roadman --

Hard not to be optimistic. A lot of things falling into place, but we just have to play one game at a time. I also see us ending up in the 90 - 95 point range, again assuming health.

We will be at the Ottawa game, as we are at every game. We will be there tonight, snow or not. My wife and I were chuckling this morning getting ready for work, that we were both thinking that we are going tonight, barring an absolute white out blizzard.

I don't drink, but will be happy to lift something else with you! Send me an email and we will arrange it. Maybe set something up for all 5 or 6 of my readers. ;-)

jemhuff said...

Other than the PP/PK, the one thing that frustrates me a little bit about this team is that the offense and defense haven't seem to come together at the same time.

At the beginning of the season, our defense wasn't great, but we were scoring a lot of goals. Then it switched for awhile where our defense was dominant (with the help of Mason) and our scoring went downhill. Then before the ASG break, our offense woke up and started scoring again, while our defense didn't look too hot.

Here's hoping that both are clicking on all cylinders as we head around the far turn and into the final stretch.

JAL said...

Actually, if you look at the season, we have actually been kind of in lockstep. For the first 17 games, we scored 54 goals -- 3.18 GPG, and gave up 55 goals (3.19) slightly more.

Over the next 20 games, we scored 42 goals (2.1 GPG), and gave up 48 (2.4 GA).

Finally, the last 10 games have seen 33 goals scored (3.3 GPG) and 30 goals against (3.0).

So, the play of late has been encouraging. A bit more defense and a well rested goaltender, and our GA will fall to the 2.5 range again, which gives us more flexibility on offense.


Rick said...


I'll buy you the first soda (or pop as they say in the Buckeye). I'm originally from NY, so I still say soda.

jemhuff said...

I guess I didn't word it right, but I would like our GPG to be 3.3 and our GA to be 2.4 for the rest of the season.
Most of the season so far it's been about even. When we've been scoring our GA goes up and when we've been in a scoring slump our GA goes down.