First, the hardcore numbers -- 20 Wins, 18 Losses and 4 OT/SO losses for 44 points. We have 111 goals scored and 114 goals against. This is the same point total we had at this point last year, and projects out to 86 points for the season, which would leave us 2 points out of the playoffs, if everyone continues at the current clip. This however does not tell the whole story. Let's dig a little deeper.
- In our first 19 games this year, we surrendered 65 goals. In the last 23 games, we gave up only 49. Overall we rank 8th in the league and 4th in the conference in Goals Against.
- Last year's squad had peaked, and was on the verge of a major collapse, leading to the Fedorov trade and Foote fiasco, and the final collapse in the last weeks of the season. This year, we are beginning to emerge from what we hope is our toughest stretch -- major injuries, the longest road stretch of the year, getting a roster to work together with 50% of the players being new, etc.
- 22 of the final 40 games are at home, and the only remaining road trips of any length are two 3 game stints to Western Canada for the Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton swings, and 1 trip to Florida for a Tampa Bay/Florida combo.
- We have been able to provide our younger players with some key experience under fire, without sacrificing our position in the standings. In fact, we are better off now than we were before some of these guys went down, in terms of record. This added depth will pay dividends down the stretch, provides insurance for other injuries, and gives Howson some flexibility on the trade front.
- 88 or 89 points looks like the magic number for a Western Conference playoff spot at the moment, and 92 could get you as high as 5th.
- Our scoring has been far more evenly distributed this year. While Nash leads the team in goals, as usual, he has 22 assists already. His career high for a season is 31, set last year. This shows he has other folks to score with.
- We have reached this point with almost no power play to speak of. Not much room to get worse, and it has shown distinct improvement as Russell and Tyutin get more comfortable at the points, which enables Huselius, Nash and others to be more creative down low. Filatov also shows good sense on the PP. If the PP starts clicking, watch out.
- 25 of our first 42 games were against teams that would make the playoffs today, projecting performance out at their current rate. Only 20 of our final 40 are against such teams.
First Half Highlights
Team -- Back to back to back shutouts of Philly, Anaheim, LA, with two of them on the road; 6 -1 road win over Buffalo; Canadian sweep vs. Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton; twin shutouts of Washington and Ovechkin. Ability to score in the third period to garner points. Having the NHL Rookie of the Month for all 3 months (Brassard, Mason, Mason).
Individual --Mason, Mason, Mason -- Calder, Calder, Calder; Commodore (18 pts, +10), Hejda (+14) Tyutin (18 pts) , Russell, Methot (+9) on defense. Brassard (25pts, +12) before his injury, Nash (especially his 22 assists and +9 rating). Huseliuis (25 points), Voracek (20 pts, +13), Umberger (21 pts). Filatov hat trick!!! Emergence of Peca and Malhotra with new line mates. Goats and Goats II.
Misc. -- Nationwide is starting to slowly fill up again, the Dispatch team is getting more positive, and we are starting to see some love from national media. Medical bills should soon be going down, and management appears poised to help the playoff run with some added talent.
First Half Lowlights
Injuries -- LeClaire (who has never recovered from initial injury, IMHO), Brassard, Chimera, Torres, Dorsett, Nash, Tollefson, Klesla, Novotny, Huselius. They came in a wave, and threatened to swamp the boat.
Getting Acquainted -- As Hitch warned, it takes time to get a group to play together, especially when you bring in half a roster's worth of folks. That led to some painful play at times that looked slow, inept and tentative. That is disappearing as time passes, even with the injuries.
Goaltending -- Whether injury related or otherwise, LeClaire's play has been awful, as was Norrena's before we let him decamp for Europe. Can La Costa provide necessary backup in case Mason goes down? We will need to see. Backup goaltending one of the big concerns going forward.
Toronto -- The local "black helicopter" club was in full session with conspiracy theories abounding after the Dallas fiasco involving Malhotra, and Nash's disallowed "high stick" goal in Minnesota.
Power Play -- Although improving, this has been just awful.
Goaltending -- A - Mason has been simply amazing, and gets A++. Norrena and LeClaire get D's.
Defense -- A - After some early problems with communication and playing style, they have emerged as a solid unit that is shutting down opponents while generating points at an unprecedented clip for a CBJ Blue Line. Commodore, Tyutin, Hejda, Methot have been tremendous, and Russell adds a dimension we have never had.
Offense -- B- Injuries have impacted this area more than any other, and early "getting acquainted" issues were also evident. However, Hitch has hit on some pairings that have proven to be Dynamite -- Goats (Brassard, Chimera, Voracek), Goats II (Peca, Filatov, Voracek), Nash, Malhotra, Huselius. Youngsters are getting comfortable, and we are starting to hit our chances. This was an A- early, a C- in the middle, and now is back to a B+ recently. More heathy bodies will help here, plus an acquisition.
Special Teams -- C- Last place power play, and penalty kill that was awful for awhile, but has been very good of late, which brings this up to a C- from an F.
Head Coach -- A- All things considered, Hitch has done a remarkable job of getting buy-in to his system at a level not seen in the past two years, adjusting to injuries, dealing with the care and feeding of a 20 year old rookie goalie, and coping with Columbus fan base. Not sure anyone in the league could have done any better.
Assistant Coaches -- B On the negative side, it has taken way too long to get something done on the PP, right handed shot notwithstanding. On the positive, they got the PK turned around, have adjusted to the injuries, and have handled the goalkeeping crisis (LeClaire, Norrena and Malarchuck) as well as can be expected. Giving the benefit of the doubt given injuries, new players and need for front office help.
Front Office -- A- Tyutin, Commodore have been absolute studs. Huselius has been solid, and sometimes spectacular. Umberger has been a consistent contributor, and sometimes tremendous. Torres was perhaps an unwarranted injury gamble, but let's wait and see on that one. Backman just looks like a fish out of water in Hitch's system. But, the deal was not about him anyway, and let's see if he settles in. Kudos for being patient on a deal to bring PP and C help. With the young kids chipping in to get us through the injury crisis, Howson's hand has been strengthened. We are only a few Toronto/Ottawa losses away from a deal.
Fans\Press -- B Fulll marks for surviving the Doug MacLean era, which was really more about bad coaching and young player handling than about the trading front. Now get over it, and understand that this is a professional team, with an 82 game schedule, in a sport where being intimately familiar with teammates's skils and tendencies is paramount. This takes time. Every win is not an achievement worthy of sainthood, and every loss does not demand immediate termination of the head coach or player in question. What is the direction? Are we better today that we were yesterday? I chuckle at the folks who will brag about our young talent in one breathe, then condemn the team for inconsistency in the next. Uhh, young . . .inconsistent, they kind of go together, as Hitch has warned. There is starting to be some appreciation of progress, understanding of the injury bug, and enthusiasm is returning. Let's get this town back to being a tough place for opponents to play.
In Conclusion . . .
So there you have it. Given the adversities and challenges, not a bad first half at all, and we are right in the thick of things in January, with our best hockey yet to come. Our youngsters have gained experience, we have players getting healthy, and the best damn goaltender in the land, to borrow a phrase.
Assuming no dramatic worsening of our heath situation, I am predicting the CBJ reach the playoffs as the 6 seed in the West, and will face Calgary in Round 1.
Give me your best shots . . . Go Jackets!