Sunday, November 29, 2009

On IR -- Retroactive To Saturday Night

Probably the most disappointing point earned this year last night vs Calgary.  This will be necessarily brief, as I have become the proud recipient of the nasty cold/bug my family has been sharing for the past week or so.  Playing hurt at the moment, but should be probable for Monday night's game with St. Louis, depending on my performance during the morning blogging session . . .

I am working on a few feature length pieces, to appear on The Hockey Writers, and a slightly abridged version of this review will be posted on Inside Hockey, but here is my brief take on the game and the current streak.

The Jackets showed all aspects of their game against Calgary -- ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The first 8 minutes of the game were troubling, to say the least.  Turnovers, inability to clear, defensive missteps were the order of the day.  At one point, the Flames had a 4-on-1 rush,t were fortunately confused by all of their choices and misplayed the pass.  My personal favorite was the rush where Stralman had the center of the ice staked out, Commodore joined him (close enough to hold hands), while two Flames streaked by on either side.  This prompted a particularly witty member of Press Row to quip :  " I didn't know Commodore and Stralman were dating . . . "

Fortunately for the Jackets and the assembled crowd of 17,772, Mason was brilliant, and the Jackets found their legs and began asserting themselves.  Nash notched #15 on a great feed from Huselius, with Boll and Methot adding clutch second period tallies on nice shots. (Those holding the Boll/Methot Exacta ticket cashed in big . . . )  As the third period progressed, with the CBJ holding a 3 -1 lead, they seemed to have things in control -- taking no unncessary risks, but still outshooting the Flames in the 3rd. However, with about 8 minutes to go, subtle changes began to occur.  Defensemen started abandoning the point at the offensive blue line a bit earlier than they had been, even though the forwards were doing a nice job of getting the puck deep.  This created gaps, and gaps are bad things in Hitch hockey.

Before you know it, Calgary parked two point blank shots off of feeds from (where else?) behind the net.  Overtime was uneventful, and the Jackets lost the shootout in 4 rounds, with Calgary netting 3 of their 4 chances (Mason stuffing Iginla,  Nash and Huselius scoring for the CBJ).  Done deal.

Needless to say, the nay sayers and fear mongers are out in force. However, thanks to the mercurial nature of the Columbus season, the CBJ remain in the thick of the playoff hunt, and are showing just enough brilliance to create hope.   The players know what they need to do, Howson has nothing imminent that he will acknowledge, and when things click, it is clear that this is a talented group that can play anybody.  So, what's the problem?  Here is my take:
  • Some of my friends on Press Row are convinced that the lack of veteran leadership in the clubhouse is hurting this squad.  While I remain skeptical that this is the major factor in the uneven play, the sophomores are experiencing this flavor of adversity for the first time.  Sure, last year they had Mason's mono and some other injuries to deal with, but there were not the defensive lapses that we are seeing now.  Calmer heads would undoubtedly be helpful at this point -- Garon can only do so much and Commodore is struggling with his game, so can't offer much solace. 
  • Mason is experiencing new adversity as well -- in the form of a loose and unpredictable defense in front of him.  Frankly, he has played really well for most of the past few games, but has allowed the one goal at the wrong time.  Hitch hit the nail on the head last night when he noted that Mason is moving too quickly, which is causing the five hole (and others) to open.  In the course of the game, it is most often not an issue, as Mase is still big and players on the fly lack the accuracy necessary to exploit these gaps, in most instances.  However, players in the shootout do have the time to find those vulnerabilities, and they have been doing it.
    Last season, one of the major distinguishing characteristics between Mason and LeClaire was the smoothness with which Mason handled the crease.  Sitting behind him, it was amazing to watch him stand tall and basically glide from post to post with seemingly no effort.  LeClaire, in contrast was all arms and legs -- violent, jerky motions-- a high risk, high reward style of play. While much of that was Mason's natural ability -- it was also a factor of the stable, predictable defense in front of him.  With that taken away, he is forced to react quickly and violently far more frequently than last year.  That is not his comfort zone, and it shows. 
  • While there are some rumblings about players not "buying in" to Hitchcock's system, and more grumblings about some recent personnel moves, these grousings oversimplify the issue. 
    First, let's look at the personnel issues.  The Jackets had a shutdown pair last season of Hejda and Commodore.  Hitchcock decided early in camp that he was going to break up that pair, ostensibly to spread the leadership between the pairings.  Unfortunately, Commodore has had issues with groin and hip flexor strains, plus a nasty bout with the flu, dating to early in camp.  He has not had the time to get back in playing condition, simply in terms of stamina, let alone establishing relationships with new pairings.  Similarly, Hejda was shelved with a significant knee sprain, and has shown similar problems adjusting to new pairings.  Klesla has been erratic, and Methot has not shown the progress that many would hope to see. Fedor Tyutin, a mainstay last year, is off to a slow start. Newly acquired Anton Stralman has been a great addition to the ability of the blue line corps to move the puck and score, and has been better than anticipated in his own zone.  Kris Russell has been showing steady progress and good puck handling, movement abilities.  However, his diminutive stature has led to some puzzling healthy scratches of late, even against clubs where speed is at a premium. 
  • The Jackets are the youngest team in the league, averaging a mere mid-20's in age, and lack the collective experience to patch these holes consistently.  Hitch is known -- sometimes fairly, sometimes not--for not necessarily being encouraging of young talent.  His hard checking system produces results, but has difficulty dealing with the fastest, most skilled teams.  Hejda and Commodore are skilled, but not particularly speedy.  Before you hit them, you need to catch them.  Remember that Hitch's Stanly Cup ring came with a team that averaged 30.7 years of age, and fell during the "hold and grab".  While he has been able to show that it can be extended to the "new" NHL game, that is true only to a point.  He has a group of young, talented stallions on his hands, and he needs to find a way to keep them in the corral, while still allowing them to stretch their legs, within the confines of the system.  It is a process of governing, rather than breaking, and it is still a work in progress at both ends.
  • The knee-jerk reaction has been to change lines with alarming frequency.  The latest experiment, moving Raffi Torres to the #1 line and Voracek to the third line, lasted just over nine minutes.  The tinkering extended to the shootout, where Tyutin was tabbed as the third shooter.  To be fair, Tyutin has had some success, but the sound heard in the arena was the clunk of eyebrows hitting the roof.
  • Management is not in panic mode, but impatient fans will only listen to "we need to compete better" so long.  Time to return stability to the equation -- return Commodore and Hejda to the same pairing, establish some lines and stick with them to enable familiarity to take root, consider Mathieu Roy, who had a brilliant camp on the blue line, and who many thought outplayed Methot.
The Jackets have more talent than they have ever had.  They need to show more focus for 60 minutes, and management needs to given them a stable framework that does not have them fearing the next mistake.  Mistakes are inevitable -- but talent and familiarity can plug those gaps.  Time to allow that process to work.

Now, back to bed . . .

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mistaken Identity . . .

The Jackets are searching for their identity on the ice at the moment, and it is proving elusive.  They can appear to be in command of the game one minute, and suddenly lose all contact with the fundamentals and appear totally lost. 

Such was the case tonight in a 5 - 3 loss to the Canadiens in Montreal.  For much of the first two periods, the Jackets absolutely dominated play.  They carried the play to Montreal in the offensive zone, played solidly in the defensive zone, and were overall more responsible with the puck.

That the Jackets held only a 3 - 2 lead after two periods could be attributed to goaltending at both ends.  Carey Price was remarkable for the first two, making some key saves as the Jackets asserted
themselves and swarmed around Price's crease.   In contrast, Mathieu Garon was uncharacteristically soft in his own net, surrendering a very soft goal for the first one of the game.  This could have, and should have been a 4 - 1 or 5 - 1 contest heading into the third.

As we have said time and time again, you need to put games away when you have the chance.  This is especially true where, as tonight, you are on the road in the second half of a back to back.  To provide hope is to give life, and as the Jackets' legs wearied in the second half of the second period, the Habs began to assert themselves.  A late penalty by Fedor Tyutin at the end of the second created a kill the Jackets did not need, given their fatigue level.  Though the penalty was killed, and despite the timeout strategically called to provide some respite, the now-familiar littany of turnovers, missed passes and missed defensive assignments began.

In the brief span of slightly more than two minutes, Montreal cashed in on two opportunities borne of fatigue, turnovers and sub-optimal goaltending.  The officials were of little help, as Montreal was able to get away with some pretty substantial muggings of Nash and Vermette down low.  Too many passes sailed under the sticks of unprepared Jackets skaters, and pucks found Price's glove, rather than the back of the net. 

To be sure, there were some positives to come out of this one.  Vermette, Stralman and Nash were solid all night.  Chimera and Voracek were strong on the puck, and Brassard was far more visible than he has been in the past. The Jackets converted on two of four power play opportunities, and the last one was particularly notable for terrific puck movement and maintenance of possession.

The defense was better for most of the game, but again lapsed when they needed it most.  The defensemen just do not look comfortable with each other.  Pahlsson was invisible, Klesla and Hejda inconsistent (-2 & -3 respectively).  Again, it appeared that our defenseman were bewildered, hesitant and overly careful.  In the early stages of the game, the CBJ did a good job of knocking the Habs off of the puck.  That went by the wayside as the game progressed, and the Habs used the opportunity to gain momentum. 

The club needs to go back to basics-- get Commodore and Hejda back together, move decisively and confidently, and re-establish dominance in all three zones.  The Jackest remain 12-8-3, and a win over Ottawa on Thursday will make them 2 - 2 -1 for the longest road trip of the year.  No need to break the glass and pull the alarm, but less thinking and more acting needs to be happening on the ice.  Sticks on the ice, communication and responsibility are the keys. 

The Blue Jackets are heading into an important part of the season coming off of this road trip, and they need to find the identity they have grasped briefly, but have been unable to grip firmly thus far this season. 


Monday, November 23, 2009

Ritalin, anyone???

If this was a classroom, the teacher would be making every one of the Blue Jacket defenders (and a few select forwards) write on the blackboard 500 times "I will remember to take my Ritalin, I will remember to take my Ritalin . . ."

The schizoid Blue Jackets displayed both sides of their character tonight -- showing patience, grit and skill in the first ten minutes, while posting a 2 - 0 lead in the Garden.  The next 30 minutes of hockey were a Tim Burton production . . .  turnovers, odd man rushes, lots of standing around, while the Rangers skated around and through the Jackets defense.  A turnover by Huselius, a missed assignment by Vermette, and poof!! , the rout was on.

My full game summary is over at Inside Hockey , but here are a few observations:

  1.  Hitch is in a bit of denial about the need for speed when defending teams like the Rangers.  Sure, we can hit, and forecheck and set up the picket line in the neutral zone, but at some point you need folks who can skate with their forwards.  Only Stralman, Russell and Tyutin can keep up (and Tyutin only in spurts).
  2. Tagging on to #1, scratching Russell for the second consecutive night was a puzzler against this team.  Sure, there are a couple of Rangers who are heavy hitters, but this team is built more on speed and skill.  Fight fire with fire -- you can't hit 'em if  you can't catch 'em.
  3. The Methot experiment needs to end . . .now.  He was simply awful tonight.  Bench him, send him down, waive him, sell him for three magic beans . . . don't care at this point.  He needs to go.  Mathieu Roy provides a much more versatile skill set, which is what this club needs on the blue line.   If Roy is not the answer, then let Howson work his magic.
  4. Re-unite Commodore and Hejda.  This was your shut down pair last year, and no reason to think that they can't do it again.  The defense is lacking confidence and consistency, which bleeds into the goalkeeping and the offense.  Indeed, many of the issues tonight stemmed from players "assuming" that the puck had been captured, or that somebody else was going to get the puck.  With the defense of last year, those assumptions were valid, for the most part.  Not so much right now. 
Keep in mind that we are still 12-7-3, and have 3 out of 6 possible points on the trip thus far.  We are 2 games away from completing the longest trip of the year, are still above .500 on the road, and will have more than a third of our travel completed, including half of our west coast travel.  We are in a good position, but have to find consistency. The existing defensive configuration won't cut it.

More tomorrow.  Look for some upcoming features on The Hockey Writers as well.  Tell your friends, and support the  Blue Jackets!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Place Foot On Throat . . . Press Firmly

The Blue Jackets turned in the type of effort everyone had been looking for since the early games of the season -- taking control of the game early, and removing all hope late.  The fact that it happened at the start of their longest road trip of the season is a bonus.

Playing in the back half of a road-home back-to-back, following a solid win over Detroit on Wednesday, Dallas apparently decided that the best way to overcome fatigue is through thuggery.  Dallas came out hard and nasty, as evidenced by the 52 minutes of penalties handed out in the first period, featuring three "official" fights (Daley/Dorsett, Chimera/Ott, Boll/Barch), a double minor to Nash for roughing & boarding, and penalties against both goaltenders for leaving their respective creases to assist in the shenanigans.  (Due to proximity, Turco was in the middle of the melee, while Mason was turned back by the officials as he approached center ice.)

To their credit, the Jackets responded definitively and cohesively.  Though appearing somewhat tentative in the first few minutes of play, they quickly upped the tempo and the intensity.  After successfully killing off an early penalty to Klesla, the Jackets got their first extra man opportunity when Neal went off for hooking at the 7:52 mark.  The power play, ranked 7th in the NHL coming in, maintained possession and crashed the net, with Nash able to finally drive it home for a 1 -0 lead -- a goal Hitch had to be smiling over.

The Dallas response was a physical one, and the Jackets responded in kind.  At with 5:34 left, Dorsett and Neal started a scrum down low, with Trevor Daley then stepping in and escalating it to a full fledged fight with Dorsett, who drew the extra minor for cross-checking.  20 seconds later, Chimera and Ott mixed it up, followed by a predictable square-off between Boll and Barch.  All of this ended up with no impact on the scoresheet.

With 1:43 left in the first, a fracas started in the corner to Turco's right -- with Nash and Robidas as the focal point.  Both squads rushed into the fray, with Turco in the middle of it, apparently having taken umbrage at Torres' dash through the trapezoid.  When it was all sorted out, the penalty boxes were SRO, and the Jackets were again on the penalty kill, with Nash having taken the extra minor. 

The Jackets turned an apparent burden into a benefit.  Returning to the aggressive PK style of the early season, they pressured the puck, got solid clears, and denied Dallas any real scoring opportunities.  With 6 seconds left in the period, Huselius caused a turnover at the blue line, and led a two on one break , with Vermette charging hard to his left.  Counting down the clock in his mind (according to his own statement), he looked off Turco, veered to the center, past Vermette and the defender, and unleashed a wicked wrister that beat Turco through the pads with just 0.3 seconds left in the frame.  The perfect exclamation point to an intense period of hockey.

The Jackets started the second with energy, but failed to convert on a few chances.   At the 6:49 mark, Dorsett was tangled in a scrum for the puck along the boards to Turco's right, when Neal cruised across the ice and laid a vicious shoulder to Dorsett's head, pounding it against the glass.  The image of Dorsett, clearly out on his feet, slumping to the ice, then vainly trying to regain his feet, will be one of the images that finally gets some league action on head shots.  The officials quickly imposed a 5 minute major and game misconduct, and Neal will undoubtedly enjoy some unpaid time off, courtesy of the NHL disciplinary officials.

At this point, the Jackets did what they have so often failed to do in past seasons -- applied the knockout punch.  With a five minute major, they were patient, but persistent, creating some good opportunities.  At the 10:23 mark, Huselius notched his second of the night, with assists from Tyutin and Klesla.  Just 20 seconds later, Voracek made a beautiful feed to Torres on the right, who parked the puck for a 4 - 0 lead.  The margin should have been extended to five just a few seconds later, but Torres' shot to a wide open net maddeningly caromed off the post.  No matter -- the damage had been inflicted.

The lone Dallas marker came on a defensive lapse, which left Modano wide open at the right dot.  A sharp cross-ice pass found him, and Mason had no chance to recover.  Undaunted, the Jackets shut everything down for the remainder of the second and the third, providing the Stars with few opportunities.  Unlike prior games, however, the Jackets were not in retreat -- they kept the pressure up in the offensive zone, and actually outshot the Stars in the third.  That may have been the best indication of all that the team is beginning to make progress.

Mason was terrific between the pipes, looking very much like he did last year.  He was alert, active and aggressive.  At one point, he was perhaps a bit overly aggressive.  Apparently influenced by Turco's wandering habits at the other end, Mason strayed far afield to play the puck up the left-hand board.  It was intercepted, however, forcing Mason to act like a diving shortstop to smother the return shot heading for the far corner.  Other than that, Mason controlled the puck and projected confidence -- signifying a mental recovery from the Detroit debacle of last week.

Confidence was the by-word for the evening.  While still not as sharp with passing as we would perhaps care to see, they were decisive and deliberate with their exit passes, and consistently showed speed through the neutral zone.  Tyutin had his best game of the season in all three zones, and Commodore looked much improved.  Brassard was strong, and Torres brought life to the offense as well.

In summary, a great start to the road trip. The combination of intelligent play and physical presence has to be reassuring to Hitchcock, particularly heading into Nashville on Saturday.  With Dorsett's status unknown, plan to see MacKenzie stay with the big club for perhaps the entire road trip, and for Sestito to be a big factor against the Predators.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Good Fight Lost . . .

  We lost one of the really good people today when Stefanie Spielman lost her battle with cancer at the age of 42.  Supported by Chris, Stefanie became the face,voice and spirit of the battle against breast cancer in Central Ohio, and the fund established in her name at the James Cancer Center has helped untold thousands in their individual struggles with this awful disease.

Our collective thoughts and prayers are with the Spielman family tonight.

Thursday Updates

Check out my latest in-depth story on The Hockey Writers -- this one on the Nikita Filatov saga.  You can access it here.  

Don't forget that the CBJ are in Dallas tonight -- Mason in goal, Raffi questionable.  Puck drops at 8:30 PM!

Two game watching parties to choose from tonight:

Jacket Backers are hosting one at the BW3 in German Village -- 515 South High Street.  

The "official" game watching party is at Jed's Barbeque and Brew, 110 Hutchinson Avenue.

Either way, show up and root on the Jackets!!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Support Your Local Hockey team!!!

Business First is doing a poll concerning the importance of the Blue Jackets remaining in the community.  Here is the link.  Show your support, and send a message that we want and need the Blue Jackets and the Arena.

Remember, the financial shortfalls are due to the fact that the CBJ pay for the Arena, yet have no ownership interest in it, and do not have access to revenues that most other NHL teams have.  Comment to support your vote!!!

Monday, November 9, 2009

I'm Baaaack!!!!!

For better or worse, I am dusting off the old blog and firing up the engine once again.

Lots of reasons for resuming, but with various developments and opportunities arising, here is the bottom line:

1.  I will continue covering the Blue Jackets for Inside Hockey, where you will see my game analysis and such.

2.  I have started as a regular contributor to The Hockey Writers, where you will see more feature-type material, some on the Blue Jackets, some on collegiate hockey, some on hockey in general.  You can check out my most recent piece on the Arena issue, where I attempt to bring some focus and rationality to the discussion.  Upcoming pieces include analysis of what other cities around the league do with their arenas and hockey clubs, and a three part series on the Doug MacLean era with the Blue Jackets, looking at the reality of performance as a President, a General Manager and a Coach.  Also some up-close looks at the Miami Redhawks hockey team. 

3.  I will regularly post items of interest to the blog here -- at least daily, with the usual blend of humor, insight and craziness.

4.  I will pop my head in over at Light The Lamp from time to time, just to keep John on the straight and narrow.

Pass the word!!!!