Saturday, February 28, 2009

Saturday Night Feverish Items

Saturday night -- off night for the CBJ, trade deadline looming, and the perfect opportunity to look for interesting tidbits to share.

Umberger Getting Love -- Check out this link for a very nice piece on RJ Umberger over at THN, accompanied by the usual array of annoying comments.

Guerin Moving ??? -- TSN.ca is reporting that Bill Guerin was taken off the ice at the Islanders game tonight in pre-game warmups, apparently due to an imminent trade. No word yet on where, although sources indicate an Eastern team, not Boston. One version is that the Capitals will get him for a draft pick, while another has him going to Buffalo for Afinogenov. I'd be more inclined to believe the Caps angle.

Increased Chatter -- CBJ are involved in an increasing level of chatter, focusing in on Connolly, Lombardi, Antropov, with some discussion of a Staal for Leclaire deal. Of course, given how Howson operates, the more chatter there is, the less likely to occur. ;-)

Boogard Suspension -- The five game suspension handed down earlier today for Minnesota forward Derek Boogaard could not come at a worse time for the Wild. Right in the thick of a playoff race, and facing a brutal March schedule that features 16 games, 4 back to backs and 9 of the first 11 on the road, having Boogard unavailable is going to hurt.

Dallas Reeling -- In the midst of losing the first 4 of a 5 game homestand, Dallas is yet to figure out how to cope with the loss of C Brad Richards. They also face a tough March schedule, with 16 games and a full slate of tough road games.

Nashville Charging -- Don't look now, but somebody forgot to tell the Predators that they are out of the playoffs. Nashville waxed Detroit tonight, 8 - 0, to move to 66 points, just 2 points behind the CBJ, although the Jackets hold a game in hand on the Preds.

Redhawks Revenge -- After losing a 6 - 2 contest against Ohio State at home on Senior Night last evening, Miami turned the tables on the Buckeyes tonight, winning 7 - 5, spoiling OSU's own Senior Night at Value City Arena. Miami keeps their first round bye in the CCHA tournament, while the Bucks will need to work their way through the field. Good luck to both squads in the post season!

The heat is turning up across the board. News will be fast and furious, and I will do my best to keep up on all of it. Stay tuned, and feel free to post your own information, tips and rumors.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Go Miami, Beat OSU!!!!

As the proud father of a Miami Redhawk sophomore, and member of the marching and athletic bands, among others, I must pull out the allegiance here and root the Redhawk hockey team on to victory over the invading Ohio State Buckeyes!!

Go Hawks! Crush The Nuts!!!

Playoff Update & Rooting Guide For Friday

In order to satisfy the ongoing interest in all things playoff related, here are the latest projected standings at season's end, based upon each team continuing to perform at the same rate they have performed to date, accounting for the division winners taking the top three seeds:

1. San Jose 127 points
2. Detroit 118 points
3. Calgary 107 points
4. Chicago 106 points
5. Vancouver 93 points
6. Minnesota 90 points
7. Columbus 90 points
8. Dallas 89 points
9. Edmonton 87 points
10. Nashville 85 points
11. Anaheim 85 points
12. Los Angeles 83 points
13. St. Louis 83 points
14. Phoenix 78 points
15. Colorado 75 points

So, right now 89 is the magic number to get in. That is tenuous, and could move down if Dallas doesn't find a way to get some offense soon. Minnesota has some tough ones coming up, and Anaheim is rumored to be getting ready to punt and be a seller this season. Watch out for Nashville, who is getting some wins without scoring a lot of goals.

Rooting guide for tonight:

Detroit over Los Angeles
Calgary over Minnesota
Tampa Bay over Vancouver
Pittsburgh over Chicago (why not?)

and

Miami over Ohio State Go Redhawks!!! ;-)

Tomorrow -- some serious trade rumbling.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Clutch!!!

Ladies and Gentlemen -- please be seated, and Professor Hitchcock will review tonight's game with you and explain just how and why that was the finest example of how Hitch Hockey is played that the Jackets have ever put on the ice.

Oops -- I guess Hitch can't make it -- something about being in Alberta, having to go kick some Canuck tail in Vancouver. No worries, Hitch, I'll take it from here.

Do not let the 1 - 0 score fool you. This was a dominant an effort as the Bluejackets have provided all year, particularly when you consider the situation under which it was played -- 6th place, 1 point ahead of half the Western Conference, including Edmonton, on the road, coming off 2 losses and an exhausting 6 in 9 stretch. This was a matchup of two hockey teams desperate for the 2 points, as we arrive at the 3/4 pole of this race.

Not only were our best players our best players -- Nash, Huselius, Mason, Umberger, Commodore, Hejda, Tyutin--but our role players were also our best players. Torres, Dorsett, Boll, Gratton all played key roles. How beautiful was it that Torres got the lone goal??

This was not a situation where the Bluejackets caught an opponent when they were down. Despite the boos from the home crowd, Edmonton played tough defense, had what seemed like a hundred blocked shots, and had a goalie in Roloson who stood on his head all night long, aided by a post or three. Otherwise, this is a 6 -0 game. The Jackets simply denied space and time from the Edmonton forwards, and when they did get a moments worth of space, Mason stopped them cold. We were relentless on the puck in the offensive zone, stingy in the neutral zone, and cleared the puck out of our own zone with precision and speed. And we kept doing it, again, and again . . . in the end, we wore down their forwards by forcing them to spend the majority of their shifts in their own zone.

Let's review the pluses for tonight's game. Although we got no power play goals, and missed a few opportunities we should have cashed, I can't in good conscience assign minuses to those tonight.

++ Legs -- We skated, and we skated, and we skated . . . there was no place on the ice where the Oilers were safe. We forechecked relentlessly, stood people up at our own blue line, and got the puck deep almost every time down. That set up the forecheck, which set up turnovers, which set up opportunities. Hitch-Hockey!

++Hitting -- We made the Oilers pay the price every time they touched the puck. As much as we skated, we hit just as much. Boll, Tyutin, Commodore, Gratton, Williams all laid lots of wood on people tonight, and the effect was cumulative.

++Puck Control -- Terrifically strong on the puck all night long. No turnovers to speak of in our own zone, and crisp, decisive exit passes. We cycled well in the offensive zone, maintained position on the wings to keep pucks in, and moved the puck well on our power plays. Best puck control in a long time. 32 - 19 in shots, 29 - 17 in faceoffs. Done.

++Goaltending -- The Masonic Wall was back in spades tonight. Not overly tested, with only 19 shots, but his two consecutive saves on Cole in the second were sick. Two nice saves at the end while Edmonton pressed the action. All this at 20 years old, with the weight of the playoff race and the recover from mono on his shoulders. Good stuff. NHL leading 8th shutout, reduced his GAA, and is coming closer to locking up the Calder.

++Intelligence -- This was an intelligently played game, on and off the ice. We neutralized Hemsky, leaving him with only 1 or 2 real opportunities, "sandwiching" him from front and back, as Hitch described. We kept our heads up and avoided turnovers and stupid penalties. Zero penalties in the third period, which is huge in a 1 - 0 game, particularly when the other team has a guy like Sheldon Souray, who has an absolute cannon from long range. Great coaching job in rolling 4 lines on short shifts, never letting up on the pressure.

++Players -- Everybody played their part tonight, but some stood out. Boll, Torres and Dorsett were enormous tonight. A little more confidence in these guys in the offensive zone and who knows what we might have. Gratton was another guy who stood out -- some big hits, nice passing, won lots of battles down low. Peca was strong, and Tyutin, Russell, Methot, Hejda and Commodore all atoned for past sins.

The heat was on from the hysteria crowd after two losses, and the Jackets came through with flying colors. Not only did we take care of business, but St. Louis beats Dallas 3 - 1, Boston creams (sorry, had to do it) Anaheim 6 -0. Phoenix and Colorado both lose, so stick a fork in them, they are done. Minnesota has a tough double in Calgary and Edmonton, then has a night off before going to Vancouver.

Tied for 5th with 68 points with 20 games to go. 10 - 10 gives us 88 points, which might do it this year. 10 - 8 - 2 or 11 - 9 gives us 90, which is looking very good right now. We are 9 - 5 - 1 since the All Star Break, slightly ahead of the 60% rule standard. If we stick with winning 60% of the remaining games, that will give us 92 points, a virtual lock for a good spot in the West.

An effort like tonight is going to fuel more. Opponents are not going to get goaltending efforts like this every night, so some of those shots are going to start going in. When that happens, watch out!

Great win tonight! Go Jackets!

Medication Time . . .Medication Time . . .

I think that famous line from Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is only appropriate right now, as a couple of losses have brought the Nash bashers, doom sayers, Fire Tressel fanatics and other black helicopter folks out of the woodwork, as evidenced by comments I am seeing elsewhere. Let's put a few things to rest:



1. Nash Is Awful --Well, no. Simply not true. He has already tied a career high for assists for a season, is on track for the high 30s in goals, has been a force on the penalty kill, and has taken the team on his back more times than I can count. Is he going to do that every game? No. Nobody does. In one particularly inane comment I read, Nash was taken to task for not being as energetic as Iginla. Huh? He can sometimes appear not to be moving fast, due to his size and build, then you notice he is pulling away. Look, he is averaging 1 point per game that he has played. He is on pace to break his own mark for points, has already tied his career high for assists, and has done all of this while taking only 187 shots thus far, compared to 329 last year (for the season). Give him 4 shots per game for the rest of the season, and it still is signficantly below last year's total. He is not going to be a star every night, but he will be a big contributor down the stretch.

2. Mason Is Awful -- A variation on #1, people are wailing over the last two games and bemoaning the fact that Mason has "come down to earth." Again, let's look at the facts. The whole team was exhausted for the Anaheim game, so I am not even going there. Let's look at Calgary -- 3 goals scored against him, which would represent a game you would expect a good team to win more times than not. Goal 1 -- he makes the stop on the shot and drops the puck right in front of him. As his glove reaches for the puck, our defenseman and the Calgary forward fall and slide into the puck and Mason. Instead of going forward, the puck kicks dead left onto the stick of a waiting Iginla. Goal 2: Phaneuf is at the point, and Hejda is directly between him and Mason. Hejda braces for the block, but misses it, succeeding only in screening Mason, who never saw the puck. Goal 3: Extra man on for the delayed penalty. Hejda gets caught with his head down and a great cross ice pass finds the Flame at the right post. Mason gets a piece of it, but it goes in. 9 out of 10 goalies don't even touch that shot. Sorry -- "Myth Busted"

3. The Jackets Are In Trouble -- This is a kind of summary of all of the other whining and moaning that is going on, ranging from stuff like "We need to go 15 - 6 over the last 21 to be in the playoffs." to "trade Leclaire, Klesla and our first round pick to get somebody here now!". First of all, yep, we have lost 2 in a row. Know what? We are probably going to lose between 4 and 8 more before the season is over, too. Calgary is a very good team, playing at home. Anaheim was desperate and we were exhausted. Based upon everything we can tell at this point, the 8th playoff spot in the West will go to a team with between 88 and 90 points. There are 6 teams (Vancouver, Dallas, Edmonton, Minnesota, Anaheim, Columbus) really in the hunt for 4 slots. They all play each other and/or teams ahead of them a bunch during the home stretch, so difficult for enough teams to get hot enough to raise the bar of points. If we go 11 - 10, we have 88 points. 11 - 8 - 2, 90 points. We are in 6th, even though a couple of pursuers have games in hand. They have to overtake us, and we are only 2 points out of 5th. Look at it this way -- we just need to fall in the top 2/3 of the contending teams to make the playoffs.

Coming down the stretch, every team is confronting issues. Dallas has lost their center, and is having trouble scoring goals. Edmonton, Minnesota and Anaheim have inconsistent goaltending, and difficulty stringing goals together. Minnesota has a brutal March schedule, as does Edmonton. We have games in hand on Anaheim. So it goes . . .

We are in the best shape we have ever been in --- by far. This is the best team the Bluejackets have ever put on the ice -- by far. Howson will be providing more help over the next few days. After this trip, the majority of our games are in the friendly confines, and the only trip we take other than Nashville, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis is to Florida and Tampa. 13 of the last 21 are against teams below us in the standings.

As Portzline pointed out in his excellent piece the other day -- this is professional sports, people. 82 games. There are ups and there are downs, particularly when you have a young team like ours. The prediction here remains a 6th place finish and a rough and tumble first playoff series against Calgary.
Go Jackets!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Outdueled

Calgary deserves their slot atop the Northwest Division. They have lots of skill, speed and know how to handle time and situation. We challenged them for 20 minutes, but failed to cash in on the opportunities and allowed Calgary to control the pace from the mid-second period on.

A bad omen when a normally harmless rebound is kicked by a falling player, bouncing right to Iginla. Down 1 - 0 45 seconds in. We then turned up the heat, and did a great job of possessing the puck in the offensive zone, but could not solve Kiprusoff or hit open nets. The Torres miss was a killer -- put that puck away and the whole game changes. Two goals that Mason had no chance on in the second, and Calgary went into shut it down mode. Game over.

Simply stated, the Jackets did not make plays when they needed to. Shots from the point did not get through. Pucks in the crease did not find our sticks. Defensemen were not strong on the puck and were slow to react. Calgary's second and third goals were the direct result of Hejda being slow to react. On Phaneuf's shot, Hejda is standing right there, ready to block it, and fans on it, succeeding only is screening Mason. The cross-ice pass to Cammaleri was the same thing. Hejda had his head down and was slow to react. Mase almost made a phenomenal save, but couldn't do it.

+/- for the night:

+ First Period -- We took it to them after an opening bit of misfortune, and dominated every facet of the game, although we were technically outhit. Umberger's goal was a gem, and we created a bunch of opportunities. We controlled the tempo. Even after the second period, we had more opportunities and had limited their shots.

+ Players -- Umberger, Huselius, Voracek, Russell, Methot, Williams all played consistently well. Russell and Methot were the only reason we could get the puck out of our own zone.

--Finishing -- We could have taken the game by storm in the first, but failed to take advantage. Need more shots from Juice and Voracek. Torres has to finish that opportunity. Dorsett, Boll, Murray, Chimera, Torres showed energy in spots, but are not consistently displaying the ability to finish.

--Defense -- For the first time in a long time, Hejda and Tyutin were poor. As noted above, Hejda had a direct role in the two second period goals, and was generally weak on the puck and unable to move things along. Tyutin was similarly weak on the puck in our own zone, and mishandled several pucks at the blue line on the power play. We gave Iginla and company way too much space.

--Special Teams -- We needed to take advantage of the penalties and failed to do it. We are spending too much time in moving our feet, and not enough time in moving the puck.

We lost to a very good team tonight, but we could have won it. We were not run out of the arena -- we just lost the battles.

No time for post mortems, as the two most important games of the trip lie ahead. We remain in 6th place, but now have only a 1 point edge over Anaheim, Minnesota, Edmonton and Dallas. All but Dallas have a game or more in hand on us. However, those teams also have brutal schedules down the stretch.

Our defense has to get back to playing Hitch Hockey, and our forwards need to show up across the board, for 60 minutes. If we do that, we will be fine.

Go Jackets!





--

Need To Douse The Flames

The last extended road trip of the season for the CBJ begins tonight, with the Jackets sitting in 6th place in the West. I think any of us would have been thrilled to death at the thought of being in 6th at February 24th. However, the crown sits uneasy on our head, as Dallas, Minnesota, Edmonton, Vancouver and Anaheim are all in the thick of the race for the 5th through 8th slots in the West. (A more detailed discussion of the goofy playoff race, the implications for the trade deadline, etc. will be featured here tomorrow.)

This is the 3rd meeting between the Flames and the Jackets this year, with each team claiming 1 home victory so far. Way back in game 15, the CBJ posted a 3 - 1 victory over the Flames, with Mason stopping 22 of 23 shots in his 3rd start (and 3rd win). In the last contest, an exhausted and battered Jackets team gutted out a point in a 5 - 4 shootout loss, which featured the Phaneuf game misconduct, the cross-check to Dorsett's face and assorted other extracurricular activities. Mason was in the midst of his mononucleosis, and we were without Huselius, Chimera, etc. etc.

Calgary has a comfortable 8 point lead in the Northwest Division, and will hold the 3 seed in the West. barring some truly bizarre events. They are starting to feel the injury bite, with Mark Giordano, Rene Borque and Daymond Langkow all out with injuries. Despite being undefeated in regulation at home against the Bluejackets in his career, netminder Miikka Kiprusoff has played in 55 games, sporting a .907 save percentage and a 2.76 GAA overall this year, and has to be aching for a bit of a rest. Jarome Iginla, like Rick Nash, has ramped up assists this year, and has 40 coming into this game. Calgary has uncharacteristically dropped 3 out of 4 at home in February, but has won its last 2. Their challenge will be motivation, with some injuries, an overworked goaltender and a virtual lock of the # 3 seed.

The Jackets need to show that the Anaheim game was an aberration, and come out firing after 2+ days of rest. The game need to be much closer to the 23 shot 3 - 1 game at Nationwide than the 34 shot effort in Calgary. We don't want a track meet, and need to dictate the pace. Factors to consider:

--Masonic Wall -- Mase needs to stand tall, have focus, and stare down Kiprusoff. When Mase stands tall, everyone in front plays better.

--Puck Control -- Be strong on the puck at both ends, clear the crease, crisp outlet passes, no turnovers. Calgary are an opportunistic lot, and we need to make them work for their possessions.

--Shut Down Top Line-- with the injuries Calgary is facing, the top line will be Conroy centering Iginla and Cammalleri, with Bertuzzi on the second line. While you can never overlook Bertuzzi, the top line is clearly the key. Disrupt their flow in the neutral zone, check them all over the ice, and keep them facing the boards.

--Opportunism -- Kiprusoff does not give up a lot of easy garbage, so we need to make life difficult for him and cash in our chances. Simple, straightforward puck movement and rubber on the net. Calgary leads the league in shorthanded goals allowed, so take note Nasher.

-- Controlled Passion -- don't get pushed around, but don't be stupid with trying to prove a point. We don't need stupid penalties or fights that do not server our purposes. Strong checking and forecheck from the drop of the puck for 60 minutes.

As a sidelight, keep an eye on Matthew Lombardi, centering the 3rd line for Calgary. Some say he will be moved at the deadline to create some cap space.

Finally, as part of our ongoing public service, here is your rooting guide for tonight:

Buffalo over Anaheim
Montreal over Vancouver
Tampa Bay over Edmonton
Los Angeles over Minnesota
Chicago over Nashville

Go Jackets!!!!

Hejda Get's Some Love

You know you are deeply involved in the playoff hunt when your soft-spoken, stay at home defenseman starts getting some love in the media. Click here to read a great piece over at THN on our very own Jan Hejda.

Go Jackets!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Parable

Once upon a time there was a professional hockey team. This was a brand new hockey team in the NHL, in an area where hockey was not necessarily the primary sport of interest. The fans were enthusiastic, and a shiny new arena was built for the team, after some debate and delay.

But this team was bad -- very bad. It finished in last place 4 of its first 6 years. In its second year, the team had 71 losses, a record that stands today. It took 9 years before the team won more games than it lost, and 10 years to get 40 wins. The franchise had 5 coaches in its first 8 years.

However, the franchise never gave up. They added a piece here and a piece there, they became regulars in the playoffs. Though they have not yet won their conference or the Stanley Cup, they are one of the premier franchises in the game today -- the San Jose Sharks.

The moral of the story is that success takes time. I was there for the Sharks first three years, and it was ugly. "Dump and chase" was the only offense, except they had nobody fast enough to get to the puck. 71 losses is not pretty, even though the season was 84 games at the time. The CBJ and the Sharks have the same number of Stanley Cups and Conference championships. After this season, they will hopefully have the same number of rookie goaltenders who won the Calder Cup. (Evgeni Nabokov won it in the Jackets inaugural year of 2000-2001). Yeah, the Sharks made the playoffs a few times in the first several years, but would not likely have made the playoffs in this era with those records.

A similar story played out in the Bay Area about 10 years before the Sharks came to town. Another pro team with a history of futility had just 2 wins the prior year. They brough in a new silver haired coach, who insisted on taking an undersized player in the 3rd round of the draft, and staking the franchise on it. The coach was Bill Walsh -- the player was Joe Montana, and the rest is history.

We are seeing the transformation in front of us, and it promises years of competetive hockey. We may or may not see the playoffs this year, though I think we will, and we believe that we will do well. The point, at least for me, is that we are competetive every night, are fun to watch, and we can all be proud of both the effort and the results we are seeing as this team begins to mature. A few pieces more, carefully added, are needed, but with our arsenal of young talent, both on the big club and in the minors, the future is gleaming.

As we head down the stretch for this season, let's root hard for the boys to win, relish the victories, agonize over the losses. But let's not lose sight of the big picture and appreciate the transformation we are seeing. We can now start trusting that it is here to stay, and that is huge. Go Jackets!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Misfire

This one will be a head scratcher to those who did not witness it. Anaheim was grossly outshot, outhit, out face-offed, out-everythinged on the statistical side, except the score. Proof once again that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.



Clearly, the mental toll of the past 9 days finally caught up with the Jackets tonight. Anaheim played like the desperate team that they are right out of the box, and we were left flat footed. Aided by some questionable early calls from the guys in black and white, we were in a 2 - 0 hole before you knew it. We were losing every race for the puck, every battle behind the goal in our own zone, and were not communicating at all. Not sure about the first goal, which floated in from somewhere near the blue line -- I am assuming Mase was screened, but can't really tell from the video. Looks like some traffic may have just breezed through his field of view as the puck came. The second goal, off a turnover in our own zone, was a little wrap-around number from well beneath the goal line, that caromed off Commodore and caught Mason off guard.

The common theme for us tonight was the inability to get or keep the puck on the tape. We got behind and pressed. Passes were sloppy in all zones, and we just were not crisp. Mental fogginess was apparent. Giguere made some nice saves, and got the benefit of another post by Juice and an early whistle by the refs that negated a goal for us.

We also had our share of misfortune. The aforementioned post, the puck bouncing off of Commodore, the early whistle, and the 4th goal, where the puck bounced way up in the air from below the goal line. The players behind keep moving to Mason's right, so he tracks them with his head, not knowing that the puck is about 6 feet over his head. It lands in the slot, right on Kunitz's stick, and it was no chance for Mason from there. Goal # 3 was a real softie by Mason, and the last goal was not a lot better. All in all, I think Mase would probably want 3 of those 5 back.

+/- for tonight:

+ Power Play -- while we had our problems on some of them, we ended up 2 for 8, which is a good stat overall. Could have been more, but give credit for much improved work in the zone. Anaheim did a good job of denying entries, but our overall puck handling problems were more at fault than the defense. That was not a power play issue, however, that was across the board.

+ Nash, Huselius -- With virtually no help, the guys played hard and put us on the board, and created chances that were not cashed in by others. Williams played hard as well.

-- Skill -- we did not have any of the skills on hand tonight. Passes were tentative, we missed one timers, open nets, etc. etc. 'Nuff said

--Mental Readiness -- we can't keep being the last one out of the starting gate. It burned us tonight. I think this is the cumulative impact of the recent schedule, and while the games do not get easier, the schedule does.

--Fighting -- While I'll go with the first fight to change the mood and momentum, the other two were meaningless, and Boll's second one was more destructive than constructive. While Dorset did a nice job in his fight, what was the point? Same with Boll in #2 -- at that point we had 6 shots to none, had all of the momentum, and he breaks it for a stupid fight. I could see if we were protecting our own or such, but this was stupid. At that point, these guys are acting more like the Chill used to -- compensating for lack of talent with fighting.

--Coaching -- Sorry, a big fat zero here for going to the well once too often with Mase. Listening to George and Bill after the game, it was apparently clear that Mase was not sharp in morning skate, and he had no focus tonight. Tough when you only see a few shots, but when Anaheim has 5 total shots for the last 2 periods, and 3 of them go in, it ain't good. We need to be careful with Mase, as we still have 22 tough games ahead. We will need to rest Mase or risk having him go down for the count. If we can't trust Dubie, then take the risk, put him on waivers for Syracuse, and bring up La Costa.

--Officiating -- Even with 8 power plays, we should have had more, and they were wildly inconsistent on boarding, etc. Quick whistle was a critical call at the time.

A subpar effort combined with some bad breaks and a desperate team. We have still outperformed expectations coming out of the break, and are ahead of our "60%" rule pace. Dallas and LA lost tonight as well. Vancouver and Minnesota won (thanks, Detroit, for playing your rookie goaltender). Edmonton and Calgary play tonight, so we will remain in 6th.

We have come through the most arduous part of our schedule physically. While plenty of tough games to play, we have more space going down the stretch. Teams like Los Angeles, Minnesota and Edmonton have brutal March schedules ahead. Time to take a deep breath, get a lot of rest between now and Tuesday, and practice hard to get our sharpness back. I think it's more mental than physical. We knew we weren't going to win every game coming in, as much as we would like to.

On to the last trip to Western Canada, after which the majority of our games for the rest of the year will be at home. Go Jackets!

Duck Season!!!


Duck season comes to an end tonight in Nationwide Arena, as the CBJ host Anaheim in the 4th and final meeting this season. This also culminates a stretch of 9 games in 15 days, including 6 in the last 9 days. After a loss to Pittsburgh, the Jackets have gone 6 - 0 - 1 over this stretch, leading up to tonight's contest.


Anaheim, on the other hand, has lost 3 in a row, including a 5 - 2 loss at Detroit last night. That game represented the start of a 6 game road trip for the Ducks, which will go a long way toward determining their playoff fortunes.

Anaheim has had an interesting saga playing out between the pipes this season, with Jean Sebastian Giguere being sorely challenged by Jonas Hiller, who brings a 2.27 GAA and a .922 save percentage into tonight, when he is the likely starter, given that Giguere played last night. Giguere, in contrast, has a 3.15 GAA and .901 save percentage coming into tonight. Hiller has been cold lately, however, with an .860 save percentage and GAA north of 3 over the past few games in which he has played.

Anaheim won the first two meetings between the squads this season, but the Bluejackets shut them out 2-0 in Anaheim in the last outing. Anaheim has fallen into a habit of taking stupid penalties, and their penalty kill has not been bailing them out. Detroit dissected them last night. Anaheim does have a top ten power play, however. The Ducks will be a desperate team tonight, as they sit 1 point behind Edmonton for the 8th playoff spot, 4 behind Dallas and 5 behind the CBJ. The Ducks surrender games in hand to all of those squads, however.

Here are the keys to a victory tonight:

Special Teams -- Take advantage of power play opportunities, keep out of the box, and continue the strong penalty kill that has emerged of late.
Strong on the Puck -- Teams have taken to pressuring us more in our own zone, and we need to be more secure with the puck through the neutral zone and behind our own Blue Line. Can't use fatigue as a factor tonight -- this is an opportunity to make Anaheim's job just a bit tougher down the stretch, and we need to take full advantage.
Shut Them Down -- From the goal outward, we need to check hard, keep Getzlaff and company to the perimeter, and clear the pucks from the middle.
Chimera is out tonight, and Tollefson will be on the shelf for awhile, with knee issues. We picked up Chris Gratton (C) from the Tampa Bay organization today, via Howson's ever-popular waiver claim strategy, so we will have to see how that move plays out. We can set ourselves up nicely for the final big road trip of the year with a win tonight, so a maximum effort is needed. The schedule remains tough, but less frenetic from here on out.
THIS JUST IN: Chicago 3, Dallas 1. Thanks to the Blackhawks for the help!
Go Jackets!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Factoids

A rare off day for the Jackets lately, with no skating today. A well deserved rest. I think I need a day of rest as well -- it will be some late nights next week with the Western Canada swing. I'll take a stab at a live blog during one of those games. Tonight, sitting here watching the NHL Network, surrounded by our two sleeping dogs, so thought I would share some curious facts/events that have come across my radar over the past few days:

Ottawa A Buyer ?? -- This one is a puzzler. Ottawa trades C Dean McAmmond and a first round draft pick (acquired from San Jose), for C Mike Comrie and D Chris Campoli from the Islanders. Now, admittedly, in a very tiny universe consisting only of the Islanders and the Senators, Ottawa would be the buyer and the Isles the seller, but the real world is much larger. Despite a recent 5-1-1 stretch, the Sens are still 13 points out of the eighth spot in the East, and 9 points shy of 10th place Pittsburgh. Considering that Comrie is a UFA this summer, this makes no sense. That is, unless we look at this as just the first deal. Now, what if Ottawa turns around and trades Vermette to the CBJ for a 1st Round pick? Ottawa gets a better pick than they had from SJ, they move the $2.55 million cap hit over the next two years, and can fill in with more youth. Vermette has been hot lately, despite an overall sub-par season, meaning that this may be the time to move him. The CBJ would get a young (26 y.o.) center with lots of up-side, a year left on his contract, and who would fit in well here. Worth considering . . .

All My Habs -- Could you possibly have scripted the saga of the Canadiens this year? Kovalev told to stay home by the General Manager, the young stud goalie going through a string where he couldn't stop a beach ball, rumors of drinking and carousing by said goalie and a few others, and finally, the coup de grace, published reports linking several Habs with a known member of the criminal establishment. My French language source, originally from Quebec (but an avowed Habs-hater) says that things are even worse than are being reported here. Too bad the Expos aren't still around -- A-Rod could swing a trade there and not even be the biggest crook in town!

The Osgood, The Bad & The Ugly -- Detroit Red Wings management is apparently reading the same chapter in Hockey Management for Dummies as Bob Gainey in Montreal. Goalie Chris Osgood has been struggling a bit, so he too has been told to stay home, while Ty Conklin takes over full time. Not exactly what you want to have happening with 23 games left before the playoffs.

Expensive Goal -- Adam Foote scored his first goal of the season tonight. $3.5 million per goal -- nice deal . . .

Sign of the Times -- Last season, the CBJ had 9 players with 20+ points. This season, we already have 11 with 20+ : Nash, Huselius, Umberger, Tyutin, Voracek, Williams, Brassard, Malhotra, Modin, Commodore, Chimera. Another 4 -- Peca, Russell, Hejda, Methot -- stand a fighting chance to get there by year end.

Nash Generousity -- Nash already has 55 points this year. The really impressive thing, IMHO, is that he already has 30 assists (31 is his career high). This is another transformation that has come from his maturation as a player, and Howson providing other skill players to help.

No D for the Big Z -- The New York Rangers coaching staff, team members, the NY media and their fans are all starting to discover what we have known for awhile -- Mr. Zherdev is not really a fan of playing a full court game. As his offensive production has fallen with the Rangers' record, his defensive production (oxymoron) has dropped as well, and everyone is grumbling. Although he is a +1 for the season, most of that was accumulated early. The Big Love in the Big Apple could be wearing off.

Late Glory -- In the old days, 3rd periods were never kind to the CBJ. This year, the Jackets rank 8th in the NHL with 63 3rd period goals!

That's it for tonight. Let's get everybody out to Nationwide tomorrow night to stand up and give the love to Hitch for 500 NHL victories, and send the boys off to Western Canada for the last road trip of 3 games or longer of the year. Detroit did us a favor tonight by beating Anaheim 5 - 2 in Detroit, the first game in a 6 game road trip for the Ducks.

Go Jackets!

Where there's a will . . . there's 500 wins!!!

That was one tired bunch of guys on the ice last night in Toronto. The first period was painful, until 19 minutes 59.3 seconds in, when Nash and Huselius teamed up on a magnificent "time and score" goal. Second period was a little better, and it was truly a fantastic effort in the 3rd, OT and the SO.

Had this game not been for Hitch's 500th win in the NHL, and had it not been in Toronto, the cradle of Hockey, I'm not sure we would have had the spark to pull this one out. The boys found enough gas in the tank to grab another 2 points, and really put themselves well in the thick of things. (More stats, playoff data, etc. in my Friday Factoids piece later today)

First, let's briefly talk about Hitch. The 13th coach in history at the 500 win plateau, and a winning percentage better than most of them. In Columbus, he has shown what can be done and how hockey should be approached. We have spent several years bitching and moaning about the trades, the drafts, the free agent signings, when our real problem was the presence behind the bench and the lack of a system. Sure, could a few deals have gone differently? Absolutely. But we could have signed the illegitimate child of Wayne Gretzky and Katarina Witt, and it would not have made a bit of difference without a system to fall back on. Ken Campbell put out a nice piece on Hitch the other day at THN, which you can find here . You know he would like to have had #500 at home, but he has to not-so-secretly love the fact that #500 came in Toronto. Well done, Hitch!!

The game itself was not an artistic effort by either club, so let's go straight to the +/- to figure it out:

+ Tenacity -- I may not have seen a game this year when the Jackets were that slow on their feet, particularly in the first 18 minutes of the 1st period. They were an exhausted boxer, slightly ahead on points, hanging on for dear life. But as they have so many times of late, they picked it up a bit with about 2 minutes left in the 1st, got that great goal from Nasher with 0.7 left. Came out well in the 2nd, but faded toward the end, giving up two goals that looked more in place at a beach volleyball game than a hockey game. Finally took some measure of control in the 3rd, getting that key tying goal from Juice early.

+ Players -- Everybody left it out there last night, but Mason, Nash, Juice were huge. Peca was strong and got robbed on a nifty little backhander that nailed the crossbar. Malhotra and Voracek were solid. Boll, Murray and Torres did a lot of dirty work in keeping the puck alive.

- Skill -- When you are that tired, it is just a matter of getting through it. Puck handling, anticipation, forget about it . . . This was done on pure adrenaline and guts.

-Officiating -- "Three Blind Mice" should have been the fight song last night for the ice borne zebras. Wow, they were bad. How Toronto doesn't get called for knocking the net off when we are in scoring position is a mystery. Some ticky-tack holding and interference calls on us, and the same conduct was overlooked when the Leafs were involved. OK, black helicopter crew, I'll say it : "Toronto strikes again!"

By the way, kudos to all the Jacket Backers who showed up at the R Bar last night for the game. A good time was had by all. Those who caught the 11:00 PM news on Channel 10 last night got a glimpse of some of us, and a more expanded piece, including an interview with Jacket Backers President Julie Maurer, will air on Saturday.

66 points in 59 games, taking full advantage of the post-All Star break home schedule, two consecutive home/road back to back sweeps. Wow! Go Jackets!





Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nothing Is Ever Easy . . .

As the 3rd period was beginning tonight, my thoughts were along the following lines:

"Gee, this is great. A 4 - 1 lead after playing two great periods of hockey, and no need to have the cardiologist on call, for a change. We always dominate the third period."

My profound apologies to the CBJ faithful for apparently jinxing the hell out of the team. But who could blame me?? We score something like 2 seconds into our first power play, we dominate both ends of the ice, make a great "time and score" goal on Malhotra's steal, give up a dumb one, but then roar back immediately with a gorgeous Backman to Malhotra to Nash (yes, I said Backman) play, followed up by a Murray goal. We are perfect in games where Murray scores, so who could worry??? Geeez . . .

As Hitch said after the game, we got casual with the puck, gave up the shortie, followed by a tough power play goal, then were forced to hang on. 13 - 3 against us in shots in the 3rd period. However, we still end up with the victory, the 2 points, and are 5 - 0 -1 in our last 6 games, 7 -3 -1 since the All Star break. We are taking advantage of the opportunities we get, albeit with perhaps a bit more drama than some of us would like.

For the +/- tonight, I am going to do this in reverse, and get the big, ugly minuses out of the way first.

---3rd Period -- We were guilty of looking at the scoreboard, and looking at our watches to figure out when we had to be on the plane to Toronto. We didn't pass the puck, we shoved it. We appeared to be cycling well, except we were in our own end and didn't have the puck. We all know that Hitch conveyed the message loud and clear, and we don't need to belabor it. However, for future reference, hockey games are 60 minutes long.

--Penalties -- The big key was to stay out of the box, and we did a nice job of that in the first period. However 5 penalties later, including another stupid too many men penalty that they scored on, we taxed our forwards on the PK too much.

Now for the positives:

++ Dominance -- Although shot totals were fairly close, I have not seen the Jackets so totally dominate an opponent on every square inch of the ice as they did for 2 periods. The lone St. Louis goal came while one of our defenders was being pinned to the ice below the goal line, and the puck caromed around a bit in the high slot. We were disciplined, maintained good puck control, forced them to dump and chase, and cashed 4 nice goals, including the highlight reel number with Backman, Nash and Malhotra.

++ Control -- A subcategory of dominance, perhaps, but we were so calm, calculating and proficient during the first two periods, it was a joy to watch. No sense of scrambling, we took our time with the puck, made good passes, and created space and time seemingly at will.

++ Hustle -- Everyone got back on defense, defensemen jumped up where warranted, we kept pucks alive and back checked threatened breakaways.

++ Players -- Top line was good, Peca was very solid, as was Boll. Voracek plays hard and well every game these days. Backman is a great suprise -- leading that rush resulting in the Nash goal was terrific. Commodore and Tyutin were good, as usual, and Methot showed well. Zippy (nickname for Russell) showed more decisiveness. Mason was solid, if unspectacular. Maybe start him tomorrow to let his folks see him in Toronto, then let Dubie come in for 2nd and 3rd??

We outworked the Blues for 2 periods, and got away with it . . .barely. My cardiologist is getting pissed . . . Probably a good lesson, and inexpensive enough. Two more big games coming up tomorrow and Saturday. Although we then go on the road for our last extended (3 game) trip, the pace of those 3 games is rather leisurely compared to what they have faced over the past two weeks. Compare our schedule to Minnesota, who inexplicably has had 4 days off for no apparent reason. They pay for it in March, however, when their schedule gets really brutal.

A good win, extending the points earned streak to 6. 11 out of 12 possible points is terrific. Well done, boy! Go Jackets.





Can You Say "Stay Out Of The Box"?

Been a busy, busy day today, so my Blues preview will be necessarily abbreviated.

Stay Out Of The Box -- Simple enough, right? St. Louis gets a huge percentage of their points from the power play, so we can't allow them to take advantage of that. Play smart!

Simplicity -- As Hitch would say -- North to South game, not East West. Let's not play Harlem Globetrotters hockey here. Traffic in front, shoot the puck. First person attempting a drop pass in the slot I will personally ship to Elmira.

60 Minutes of Hitch Hockey -- Let's jump on them early, check hard, get the puck deep, forecheck all over the ice, and bury our chances.

Top Line Dominance -- Let's get our top guys back on track with points across the line.

We are 0 - 2 against this team, and need to assert ourselves now. Last loss was Mason's last mono-ridden game, so we have a fresh goaltender tonight and things should be different. We are in a race, and need to play loose, fast and hard.

Go Jackets!!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday Viewing Guide

Since I know my intrepid readers would not want to waste this off-night from CBJ hockey, please channel your viewing and rooting in the following directions tonight:

Ottawa over Colorado
Calgary over Vancouver
SJ over Edmonton


Particularly the last two, if you please, as if Calgary and SJ win, we will have a true, flat-footed 3 way tie for 6th in the West. Still need to control our own destiny by winning, but a little assistance never hurts, eh?

Go Jackets!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hard Fought, Missed Chances, Still A Point

If this were the old Bluejackets, I would probably be stomping around, cursing Doug MacLean and everyone he ever associated with. Sure, they missed opportunities tonight, and yes, they had two defensive lapses that resulted in goals. But when you outshoot the other team 43 - 22, lay 48 hits on them, and their goalie stands on his head to turn away some terrific opportunities, all you can really do is credit them with a well played game and move on with the point. We remain 6 - 3 - 1 for the first 10 after the All Star break, so slightly ahead of our 60% target.

Maybe I am getting soft in my old age, but there was a lot to like about the way the team played tonight, and some things that need work. In 4 games played with Dallas this year, 3 are decided in OT or SO. All are physical. The Jackets lose Brassard in Dallas, and now it looks like Dallas loses Richards for the season with a fractured wrist. Nothing official, but that's what was reported on Jackets post game. These teams are going to have some more wild ones down the road.

Let's jump right to the +/-:

++ Hitting -- We hit Dallas all over the ice, coming, going and in between. After the indignity of the first 45 seconds, we definitely won the physical battle.

++ Offensive Aggressiveness -- we held the puck for long periods in the offensive zone, put plenty of rubber on net, and dominated long stretches of the game. We took the first 15 shots of the second period. We score 2, and should have scored 3 or 4 more, but for Turco's acrobatics.

++ Defense -- Commodore and Malhotra were caught flat-footed on Richard's goal Mason made the first save, and Richards had time to jam it up and over. Defense was just slow getting back on the second goal -- nothing Mase could do there. Other than that, we kept Dallas at bay all night. Some frustrating cycling behind our net against the wall, which always creates some discomfort at Nationwide, but it ddin't result in anything. Solid effort.

++ Special Teams -- Yeah, we were only 1 for 6 tonight on the PP, but could easily have been more but for Turco. 1.5 stinker PP shifts (see puck handling below). PK was perfect again.

++ Players -- Umberger, of course, with Voracek, Backman and Torres all playing hard and well. Boll, Murray provided energy, and Dorsett was an agitator, but not a big contributor otherwise. Commodore was huge with 8 hits.

--Puck Handling -- After we got 2 goals, we started getting fancy with the puck. Huselius, trying hard to make plays, ended up making more turnovers with ill advised drop passes or other looks that did not connect. Williams did the same thing several times. That hurt both our 5 on 5 game and the PP. However, that is something easily fixed, and with the way we dominated the offensive zone, tough to harp too much on it. We were better with the puck in our own zone.

--Officiating -- No excuses, but my Koharski and his partner were bad. As many power plays as we had, it should have been doubled. Nash was hooked, held, slashed all night, and some comical trips down low were never called. Comical moment when Koharski left his mike on while berating Dorsett in the 1st. Oops . . .

Another point, and nothing veering off course. Apparently came through the game healthy, which is more than Dallas can say. You hate to see that, but also tough to have too much sympathy for the Stars, given what we have been through on the injury front this year.

As I put the finishing touches on this, I note that Ottawa beat Nashville, Atlanta is beating LA 4 - 2, and Edmonton is tied with Phoenix 1 - 1. Edmonton has a tough back to back with Phoenix and San Jose tomorrow.

Shake off the missed point and focus on St. Louis, who might be getting a bit cocky, thinking they have our number. We need to prove otherwise. Go Jackets!!!

Last Roundup With Big D

Game 4 in what has been an edgy, controversial, uncharacteristic series with the Stars from Dallas this season. Starting with premiere goaltenders Turco and Leclaire for the first 2 games, the teams netted 20 goals, 10 apiece, as they split 3 point games in Dallas. Last time at Nationwide found a mono-plagued Mason giving up 3 goals on 8 shots, and an overmatched Wade Dubielewicz surrendering 4 more in a 7 - 3 thumping by Dallas.

Things could well be different in this matchup. Both teams have been playing very well over the last 2+ months, with Dallas earning points at a 63% clip since 1/1, and the Jackets at a 61% pace for the same period. Mason is back and healthy, as are the majority of the other Jackets, though Modin is out for a week due to a marginal hit he took at the end of the Carolina game, forcing his knee into the post.

Dallas has shown some signs of cooling off of late. They are just 4 - 3 in February, having lost 2 of the last 3, while scoring just 4 goals in that stretch. This includes a 1 - 0 shutout at the hands of the Coyotes in Dallas, and a 6-2 thumping at Chicago in their last outing. According to the Dallas bloggers, Lehtinen skated this morning, but was obviously favoring a leg injury. Steve Ott did not skate, and is considered a gametime decision. Dallas has a big homestand coming up, and needs to be healthy for the likes of Chicago and San Jose. Their road record is comparable to the Jackets at 11-14-3.

No doubt the Stars will try the same attack as last game -- come out with a rush and try to overwhelm the Jackets forwards in the defensive zone, and crowding the net on Mason. While we lose a little muscle in Modin, we now have a healthy Chimera and Torres, and both Murray and Dorsett in the lineup, which we did not have last time.

The keys to success:

Puck Control -- This is first and foremost -- do not turn the puck over in our zone, or at either blue line. We do not want to give Dallas any momentum or the opportunity to start a track meet. Keep your heads up, be aware of time and space, and support each other. Move it briskly, but not rashly.

Be Physical -- We can sometimes act a bit afraid to hit hard against teams that we fear in transition. Can't do that. Put up the picket fence in the neutral zone, and hit hard. Win the battles for the puck as we did in Carolina. Block shots and do the little things well.

Offensive Movement -- Use all of the ice and get Turco moving, both at full strength and on the PP. Traffic in front, and put good shots on net. Get the puck deep to set up the defense in the neutral zone.

Dominate The Circle -- After having our head handed to us on faceoffs in Carolina, let's return to dominance. If we have possession, we can be a very scary team.

Strong Backbone: Mase will feel he has something to prove after his last outing, so I fully anticipate a monster game from him.

Interesting stat: The team with the most shots has lost in each of the first three games of the series.

Big home game with likely a huge crowd to get them through the lulls. A 4 game week, but 3 of them in the friendly confines, so energy needs to be high. Sole possession of 5th place at stake, and evening up of the season series.

Go Jackets!!!

Monday Miscellany

Just a few tidbits to share as we start off a very busy hockey week for CBJ fans:

Playoff Math -- Chapter 1 Here are the updated standings, projected to year end, based upon each team playing at the same pace they have season to date: (Division winners get top 3 slots)

1. San Jose 126 points
2. Detroit 118 points
3. Calgary 104 points
4. Chicago 106 points
5. Dallas 91 points
5a. Vancouver 91 points
7. Minnesota 89 points
7a. Edmonton 89 points
7b. Columbus 89 points
10. Anaheim 86 points
11. Los Angeles 85 points
12. Nashville 83 points
13. St. Louis 79 points
13a. Phoenix 79 points
15. Colorado 76 points

As you can see by my liberal use of a, b, c, etc., you can throw a blanket over 5 teams vying for 4 slots, and only a slightly larger blanket brings 3 more teams into it. Even the bottom 3 are just a long winning streak away. Keep in mind that Phoenix was solidly in 5th place on January 20th. . .

Of course, teams do not play at the same pace all season long. Of the 7 contending teams, here is how they look in terms of percentage of possible points won over recent time spans:

Since 12/1: Dallas 64%, Edmonton 59%, Columbus 58%, LA 52%, Vancouver 50%, Anaheim & Minnestota 45%

Since 1/1: Dallas 63%, Columbus 61%, Edmonton 61%, LA 59%, Minnesota 55%, Vancouver 53%. Anaheim 48%.

As you can see, Columbus fares pretty well in either analysis. No matter which way you view it, it reads the same: dogfight to the end.

Playoff Math -- Chapter 2 In today's Dispatch, it was noted that the average point total of the 8th place team in the West since the Jackets entered the league is 93, and then moved on to discuss the kind of record the Jackets would need to reach 93. Fair enough, but not terribly valid, in my opinion. Here's why -- there are a finite number of points possible in any given season, even allowing for 3 point games. How those points get distributed depends upon both divisional make-ups and performance of all of the other teams in a given conference.

This season provides a bit of an object lesson. Look at the West vs. the East. Right now, it would take 64 points to get a sniff of 8th place in the East, while 61 points in the West puts you in a virtual tie for 5th. However, using the same projection methods above, the East has the bottom 5 teams in the league. With divisional play, the strong prey upon the weak, escalating point totals above.

Historically, playoff points have demonstrated a strong correlation to the competitive level of the conference. Last year is instructive -- 91 points took the 8th slot, with 3 teams right behind with 88, 2 more over 80, and nobody lower than 71. This year is even more competetive, with the lowest team projected at 76 points. With this massive, tightly bunched group beating each other up, the point threshold gets lowered. Unless there is a significant shift over the next 2 - 3 weeks, it is looking like 89 or 90 points will do it in the West.

Since the new CBA went into effect, there has been a linear relationship between the points required for the 8th slot and the number of teams with fewer than 85 points. In 06-07, there were 6 teams below that mark, and it took 96 points to get in the playoffs. In 05-06, 5 teams were below 85, and it took 95 points. Last year only 4 teams fell below 85, and not by much, hence the number was 91. This year, it will be 3 or 4 teams, with the points at the bottom even larger. 89 - 90 is still my projection.

Remembering When -- With 28 wins already under their belt, the Jackets have equalled their win total for their inaugural season of 2000-2001, and have exceeded the win totals for 01-02 (22) and 03-04 (25). With a win tonight, they will equal the win total for the 02-03 season. The club record for wins is 35 in 05-06. We are on pace to score 224 goals this season, which would beat the record of 223 in the 05-06 season by 1 goal. Finally, our current pace would have us giving up 227 goals for the season, just off of our record of 218 set last year. Keep in mind, however, that we are 7th in the NHL in Goals Against per Game.

Fun numbers to play with, but the bottom line is that we need to just take one game at a time. Go Jackets!


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Viewing Guide

As part of our ongoing public service efforts -- here is your viewing/rooting guide for tonight:

Atlanta over Anaheim
Detroit over Colorado
Montreal over Vancouver

Need some love from the Eastern Conference tonight. Wouldn't want the West trashing them too badly, after all. . .

Here's a pleasant thought to carry you through your Sunday -- when the CBJ square off against the Dallas Stars on Monday night, the two teams will be playing for undisputed possession of 5th place! How does that sound???

Go Jackets!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nothing Could Be Finer

OK, everybody SING:

Nothing could be finer
Than 2 points in Carolina
In a playyy--off race . . . (repeat as often as necessary)

This one had all of the earmarks of a very scary game for the CBJ -- road game, back end of back to backs, on the heels of an emotional, heavy hitting game vs. Detroit, against a team that is desperately trying to stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

These, however, are not your parents' Bluejackets. After taking a bit of time to find their legs and their tempo, the Jackets used opportunistic offense, a Hitch approved defense, and emerging special teams expertise to take control of the game and turn it into a St. Valentines Day onlsaught that Al Capone would have been proud of -- 5 - 1 Jackets. Oh, did I forget to mention the guy in the picture? Yeah, him. As Hitch would say "He was good. OK. Yeah, he'll play next game." Mase made the improbable seem routine, and lowered his GAA while increasing his Save Percentage. Only a tip play in the 3rd deprived him of his 8th shutout.

Some nice firsts in this game -- first road win on the tail of a back to back this year. First 5 vs. 3 goal this year. Though outshot, they held a shot-crazy Carolina team to 27 shots on goal. They played smart hockey, which compensated for some fatigue and lack of focus at times.

Here are the +/- for the night:

++ Top Line -- Nash, Huselius and Malhotra combine for 3 goals and 8 points. Nasher has 3 assists. Malhotra won some key faceoffs for us, and we physically wore down the Carolina defense.

++ Special Teams -- Power play was 2 for 4, PK was perfect. Absolutely filthy pass from Nash to Russel to set up Huselius' tap in. Good movement, though we gave up a few scary short handed chances.

++ Control -- Though we clearly did not have all of the jump we would like to have had, we compensated by playing smart. Very few penalties, won most of the battles for the pucks, hustled for open pucks, blocked a lot of shots, and generally did all of the little things you need to do to win. Despite not clicking on all cylinders, we wore down a very determined Carolina team to the point where we were in total control early in the third. That is a mark of real maturity as a team.

++Goalie -- Duhhhh!

++ Jacket Backers -- Though not an "official" trip, Craig, Julie, Brian and some of the others were there in all their glory, and got lots of air time and mention from Rimer and FSOH. Craig must have paid for Rimer's drinks last night . . .

++Players -- The whole top line, Commodore, Tyutin and Backman again. Russel rebounded after a couple of indifferent games. Modin, Umberger and Peca were forces. (Hope Modin didn't do too much damage when he whacked his leg on the post near the end of the game.)

--Puck Handling -- The lone down side to the game tonight was the puck handling in our own zone. Our clearing was not crisp, and our fatigue level had the puck staying on our sticks a bit long. However, we reacted quickly to support, and once we got to the blue line, we made some really nice entries to the offensive zone.

OK, folks. Even the most serious and dedicated curmudgeons must now begin raising at least one eyebrow and concede that these guys are for real. 61 points after 56 games. 28 wins before the middle of February, and they are getting better.

Remember my 60% rule? Win 3 out of 5 for the 35 games after the All Star break, and have as close to a guarantee of a playoff spot as you can get by a formula. Well we are 9 games out from the All Star break, and are 6 - 3, so the worst we can be is right on pace after 10 games.

We are becoming a very heavy team to play, and there is absolutely no quit. One game at a time, but if the all time record crowd for the Detroit game is any indication, Nationwide is going to be the last place in the league any team will want to enter. As it should be . . . Go Jackets!

Going To Carolina In My Mind . . .

With apologies to James Taylor, I will not be physically present in Carolina tonight (though a few of my intrepid friends in the Jacket Backers will be), but I will be glued to the tube for the latest installment of Jackets vs. the Eastern Conference.

Both clubs come into this match with records of 27-23-5, 59 points, and both sit 9th in their respective conference standings, knocking on the proverbial playoff door. However, unlike the CBJ, who stand in a virtual tie for 7th, and are only 2 points from 5th, the Hurricanes sit 5 points out of the 8th slot in an Eastern Conference where the upper echelon has feasted on the likes of Toronto, Ottawa, Atlanta and Tampa Bay all year. That inflates the point totals and makes the playoff race in the East a different animal than the West, where the tightly densed pack of teams cannibalizing each other makes the race a toss up, and actually reduces point totals.

The clubs rank closely in Goals Scored (CBJ are 21st, Carolina 22nd), but the CBJ have been far stingier in goals allowed, ranking 9th in the league, compared to the Hurricanes' 18th. Neither team lights it up on the Power Play, with Carolina ranking 23rd @ 16.6%. While the Jackets are last, they have been over 16% since December. Jackets are 17th on the PK, while Carolina sits 22nd. Like Detroit, Carolina loves to put rubber on the net, ranking 5th in shots. In contrast, the Jackets rank 5th in fewest shots allowed.

Carolina has been relying on some of their veteran talent to lead the way in scoring. Former Jacket Ray Whitney leads the way with 17-27-44, while 38 year old Rob Brind 'Amour has 8 - 21 - 29 in duty that has been limited by injury. Eric Staal has 39 points for Carolina, and 10 power play goals. Sergei Samsonov has 16-16-32, and has 4 points in the last 2 games. Plus/Minus rating is a different animal for Carolina -- Whitney is -13 for the season, and Brind 'Amour is a horrific -30! There are some 5 vs. 5 opportunities there.

Cam Ward has had the bulk of the work in goal for the Canes, with a 21-17-3 record, 2.6 GAA and .910 save percentage. Over the past 3, however, he is 1 - 2 with a 4.04 GAA and .855 save percentage. Carolina is coming off a 5-0 bushwhacking at the hands of the Florida Panthers, but is 6-4 over the last 10, including a 7 - 2 thumping of Phoenix on the road, and a rare 4 - 3 SO win at San Jose.

Though not laden with top to bottom talent like Detroit, Carolina likes to approach the game in a similar way. They have aggressive defensemen and experienced forwards who can keep the puck in play and will shoot from anywhere. Their goaltending can range from spotty to superior, but will show leakage when put under pressure.

Recipe is the same as last night:

--Stifling Defense -- Challenge the neutral zone, strong forecheck, support our goaltender.

--Puck Presence -- Although better, we still were too shaky on the puck in our own zone, and the second Detroit goal was directly tied to a turnover. Be strong on the puck, get good clears and transition passes, and get the puck deep.

--Shooting Gallery -- Shoot hard, shoot often, keep the sticks on the ice, and be ready to tip it.

--Legs and Jump -- Road game, back half of a back-to-back, so we need to come out of the box strong and take the crowd out of the game. Keep our legs moving, and stay 1 step ahead for 60 minutes.

We are 8 - 4 vs the East this year, so need to keep that Mojo going. Both teams fighting for the playoffs, so we need to show that we want it more. We are playing well, but do not have the home crowd to provide jump for us tonight. Let's take charge on our own and show the ability to dominate a game for 3 periods.

Go Jackets!

He's Baaaaack!!!

OK, so my penalty for not doing this last night, instead of today, is that everybody else got to the whole Jason/Friday the 13th bit before I did. My bad . . . However, to hear the Red Wings talk after last night's 3 - 2 loss to the CBJ, the Jasons (Chimera and Williams) aside, Steve Mason is enough to give them nightmares for awhile.

Because of other commitments, I couldn't be on hand in person last night -- only the second time this year that I've missed -- but caught the end of the second on the radio and all of the third on the tube. The difference in Mason is stark and mind-numbing. Compared to the NW Canada trip, when he was unknowingly suffering from Mono, he is now much smoother, much more aggressively dominant in the crease. His athleticism was fully apparent last night, and the team reacted to it.

After every game, and on the days in between, I scour the Canadian websites and catch NHL On The Fly on the NHL Network, as well as any other broadcasts I can get my hands on. After last night's game, NHL Network was wrapping up the Calder and mailing it to Mason's house. Now, what about the Vezina? LIkely will take 30 wins and continued statistical dominance for him to earn it, given the league prejudice in favor of "established" players. How beautiful would it be, though, for him to win the Calder and Vezina, and then let the league explain why he wasn't an All Star?

Since I don't do the +/- deal when I haven't personally seen the whole game, I'll make just a few observations. First, gotta love that Chimera, Williams, Voracek line. Wow! Voracek was huge last night, all over the ice, Chimmer scores a classic Chimera-style goal, and Williams plays sniper with the game winner. What's not to like?

Strongly disagree with those who are dissing Nash right now. First of all, my bet is that he has played through a bout with the flu. Secondly, he is doing tons of the dirty, nasty stuff that is making things possible for other guys. Watch him in the corners, moving the puck, being a force at the blue line on the PK. Missed another breakaway, but he had been on a real roll, and the fact that we are winning with Nash and Huselius in a bit of a scoring lull is really good. When Nash is on defense, on the PK or otherwise, other teams are having to change their passing up high, as with his long stick and reach, he is always a threat to go deep. That sort of influence doesn't show up on the scoresheet.

All the credit in the world goes out to Backman, who is looking more and more comfortable and in charge at both ends. He has taken a load of crap this year, much of it deserved, but has refused to simply go through the motions. That, folks, is character.

Total team effort last night, and another big psychological step by taking the tying goal in the 3rd, and simply stuffing it back at them. At the beginning of the season, we are looking at that three game stretch of San Jose, Colorado, Detroit and hoping for 3 points. We get 6. Wow!

Mase is back, the team is playing well, and big things are ahead. 18 days to the trade deadline, and Howson has more magic up his sleeves, I am sure. First things first -- Carolina preview is next!

Go Jackets!