Game 4 of the season series between the CBJ and the Chicago Blackhawks fires up tonight at 7:00 in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena. The squads are 1 -1- 1 thus far, with Columbus winning the most recent encounter, 5 - 3 in Chicago.
This season represents a brave new world for both franchises. With a playoff position effectively sewn up, Chicago is reaping the benefits from their group of youngsters and an early season coaching shakeup. Similarly, the CBJ are riding many of their young prospects and emerging superstars to unprecedented success, with a playoff berth within their grasp.
Of late, the teams have been experiencing different fortunes, with the Blackhawks losing three in a row, and winning only one game in regulation in their last 10 tilts. (2 others were won in OT). They are coming into town for the back end of a tough back-to-back, having served as the obliging visitors for Martin Brodeur's coronation last night in New Jersey, a 3 -2 victory for the Devils.
The Jackets, in contrast, are winners of 4 of their last 5, with consecutive wins against Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago before being drubbed 4 -0 by a very angry and determined Detroit team on Sunday. They are healthy, for the most part, and rested, ready to tackle the Dirty Dozen games left before the playoffs.
Clearly, the Jackets have more to gain and lose in tonight's contest, though Chicago is in a virtual tie for 4th place with Vancouver. The Blackhawks have a game in hand over the Canucks, and will face them in 10 days. The Jackets, currently in 6th, with a 3 point cushion over 7th place Edmonton and 8th place Nashville, are looking to nail down their first ever playoff slot. Home ice advantage in front of a rabid crowd will be key tonight.
The Jackets know what they need to do to win. First, play with energy and passion for 60 minutes. Do not give Chicago hope, and let them go remedy their ills against another team. No letdowns of the type we had in the 2nd period last game, where 2 quick goals tied it up. Second, stay out of the box -- Chicago has a tremendous power play. Third, play Hitch Hockey, taking care of the puck in our own end and making swift, sure transitions. Support each other with and without the puck, and keep the aisles clear for Mason. Finally, put lots of rubber on net. Goaltending has been an intermittent soft spot for Chicago, and Khabibulin is just coming back from injury, and Huet is vulnerable to early pressure.
Great contest at a great time of year. Late March, and in the thick of the playoff hunt for the first time!! Go Jackets!!