Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Support Your Local Broadcasters!!!

According to the Dispatch folks, the broadcasting contracts with Matthews, Davidge, Gare and Rimer are all in limbo, though Rimer appears to be safe.  Check out the article here.  

Now, I can't speak for everyone, but I think this is a bad time to do a shakeup.  I, for one, think that the radio team is very good, with a great balance between the more reserved Davidge and George, who brings that uniqueness that you love in a play-by-play guy.  They have grown with the Jackets, and tearing that team out right now would leave a bad taste in the mouth of many fans.

Frankly, IMHO, if we were looking to make a change, the TV crew would be the one to go.  Don't get me wrong,  I love Danny Gare as a person. He is a great guy, and does know hockey.  He is a train wreck with a Telestrator, and really does not bring the depth that I want to see in a TV analyst.  His period break analysis of certain plays can be good, but all too often his fumbling of the Telestrator distracts from the point he is trying to make, and after several broadcasts in a row, you begin to realize that he is essentially just making the same point over and over.  A TV color guy really needs to bring a lot of depth to the table, as we can already see the game -- now give us more.

Rimer has a good voice and presence, but his constant name-dropping and gaffes in player (and sometimes team) names are really annoying.  He is also spectacularly predictable.  Every time we are in St. Louis , you know that Rimer will interview John Davidson, President of Hockey Operations for the Blues.  This is especially painful when you play road games in St. Louis twice within two weeks.  

Agree or disagree with me, but let's make our voices heard.  Email, call, fax or write  Larry Hoepfner, Marc Gregory or Russ Mollohan at the Blue Jackets and let them know how you feel about the broadcaster teams.  Post your views here as well.  

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Out But Not Down . . .

The Blue Jackets may have lost a game tonight, but they gained far more than that. In trading scoring blows with the Detroit Red Wings, taking the best they had and giving it right back to them, the Jackets climbed far up the ladder in seasoning, respect and character.

There will be plenty of time to analyze the brain dead call for too many men on the ice with 1:34 left, when there had been exactly zero penalties in the third period prior to that. Was it a penalty? Sure. Should a neutral zone line change be whistled on a play that would otherwise have been icing, at a critical point in a playoff game? No.

The Jackets remarkably came back from 3 - 1 and 5 -3 deficits, using goals by Nash, Umberger, Russell and Modin, on top of a 1st period beauty by Huselius. Two power play goals, lots of energy, good hitting. Our defense remained suspect, but prevented any meaningful chances in the second half of the game, until the fateful power play.

On top of it all were the fans. I was worried about the attendance and the attitude, but I needn't have been. Nationwide has never, ever been louder. Incredibly, the 18,889 in attendance made more noise than the 19,246 on Tuesday. The crowd stood for the entire third period. Kudos to all !!!!

I have player reactions and more concerning this one, but that will come tomorrow, followed by more analysis of this historic season as the days go by.

Proud to be a Jackets fan tonight, win or lose. Go Jackets!!

An Amazing Piece Of History . . .

I may have just witnessed the most amazing period of hockey in Bluejackets history.  In the playoffs for the first time . . .at home . . .against the Red Wings . . . elimination game . . . trailing 3 - 1 entering the period.  

First, under 2 minutes in, Nash on the far post tips in a Klesla feed for the Captain's first playoff goal to bring us within one.  A few minutes later, Umberger scores a second power play goal to tie it, with Steve Mason getting his first playoff assist!!!

Scene shifts to Detroit. Our defense has been awful tonight, and we allowed Detroit to hold the puck forever, with Hossa finally parking one with 13:01 left.  After a suspect cross-checking call to Nash, Hossa backs it up with a nifty power play goal to reinstate a two goal lead.  Lights out, thanks for playing, right?   Wrong.

With 4:15 left in the period, Russell takes the puck from Torres in our zone and leads a tight 3 on 2 break.  He looks off Osgood and parks it high far corner.  5 - 4 Detroit.  Finally, with 1:56 left, we cycled and cycled, looking like Detroit, and Modin scores with an assist from Rome.  Tie game.

The crowd is absolutely bananas. Here in the Press Box, lots of amazed faces.  (No cheering allowed, but there is a tacit understanding that this was an amazing period of hockey).  

Osgood is vulnerable tonight.  We have  a good chance, but need to support the puck better in our zone.  20 minutes  -- live or die -- promises to bring some more amazing hockey. 

Go Jackets!

Time To Shine!!!

About 20 minutes to puck dropping, and unfortunately this is a much different atmosphere than Tuesday.  Where the seats were packed long before the game started then, Nationwide is 70% empty right now, with the majority apparently still outside, perhaps engaging in the consumption of an adult beverage or two.  I am sure the energy will come, but it will have to go a long way to get to the buzz level of Tuesday.  

Looks like Hejda is out, but unclear whether it will be Backman or Rome filling in.  Top line will be Nash, Vermette and Umberger.  Malhotra, Modin and Huselius look like the third line.  

Need to build on the energy we started to build in the second half of Game 3, and the intensity we showed throughout the third period.  Lots of pucks to the net, lots of traffic, and do not let ourselves get caught in 1 on 1 battles in our own zone.  

I expect the team to leave it all out on the ice tonight.  No reason not to!   Go Jackets!!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Helluva Show!!!

I will be reviewing the game later, but full marks to the City of Columbus, the Blue Jackets organization, affiliated sponsors, and the fan base for putting on a great, great show.

From the carnival atmosphere on the Plaza, to the massive line for free Blue Jackets flags (nice idea, Nationwide!!), to the elbow-to-elbow crowds at the R Bar and all of the establishments on Restaurant Row, it was a truly amazing show of support, enthusiasm and civic pride.  We stopped at Buca di Beppo for a pre-game dinner, and virtually every patron sported CBJ paraphenalia, as well as the entire staff.  

Inside the arena, the buzz was palpable, long before the teams took to the ice in pre-game.  "March On" flags adorned every seat, bunting hung from the Club Level facades, and fans were streaming to their seats far in advance of the usual last minute rush.  As Aaron Portzline noted in a tweet last night, some of the music selections during the pre-game skate were, uh,  .. different.  
The Pre-Game festivities themselves were spot on.  From John H. McConnell II  skating the flag around, to the "Miracle"-themed video presentation, the build up was simultaneously motivating and moving.  Great touch adding some highlight clips of Tyler Wright and some of the other originals.  Leo was on the money doing the anthem.  

Full marks also go out to Adam Proteau of The Hockey News, who appeared in full Civil War regalia to fulfill a promise in his blog back in December, when he predicted the Jackets would fall short of the playoffs.  THN did a nice piece on the atmosphere, which you can read here.

I did not think the smattering of boos heard were warranted, but that is to be expected in playoffs, when more fair weather fans jump on the bandwagon.  More on that in my game review.  The Game Ops people have been listening and observing -- in-game highlights appeared!!

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a huge WAY TO GO to the CBJ fan base for squeezing out the local Detroit fan poplulation.  Damn few Red Wings backers in attendance, particularly when compared to a regular season game.  We were much more visibly (and audibly) represented in Detroit than they were here.  Good job to those who worked to restrain the octopus-thrower in the third!

Columbus went a long way to showing the NHL and the hockey community at large that we are a vibrant hockey town with a helluva future. Win or lose, last night was a historic step for the franchise and for the community.  Well done, all!!   

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Time For A Deep Breath . . .

So Games 1 and 2 have not gone according to plan, from the Blue Jackets' perspective.  In fact, pretty close to as far from plan as could be expected.  Detroit has played like, well, Detroit.  When Detroit does that, virtually every other team in the league becomes spectators, to one extent or another.  The Jackets have fallen prey to that same syndrome during the first two games.

Having witnessed Game 2 in Detroit in person, where you can see the entire sheet at the same time, it is much easier to see what Detroit does, and how they do it so well.  When executed consistently and flawlessly, as they have managed to do thus far, it promotes a cascading sequence of events that overwhelms the opponent's game plan.  

The ability of their defensemen to stand up the opposition at the blue line disrupts the offensive flow. Play gets pushed to the boards, where the whole team excels.  Once they get possession, it is one or two controlled passes forward, through the neutral zone, and at least three wide coming into the offensive zone.  The whole team has played together so long, that passes, at least on the top lines, always go to the point on the ice where the recipient is going to be, rather than where they are. These fine points create space and time for their offense.  They move the puck from low to high better than virtually any other team, maintaining possession for extended periods.  They either create opportunities for quick passes in front, or shots come in on net from the point, with the wings crashing the net as the puck is on its way.

When they do not score, they always have at least a token forecheck in place, even during a line change.  This provides their forward time to set up shop in the neutral zone, and further impede the opposing offense.  The extended possession by the Detroit offense forces the opposing forwards to spend most of their shifts in their own zone.  Fatigued defenders commit hooking and holding penalties, which increases the possession advantage. The result?  Huge advantages in shots and scoring opportunities and power play time.

This is precisely the trap our guys have fallen into over the first two games.  In both games, we took control of the neutral zone early, but then power play opportunities arise, and Detroit assumes the neutral zone dominance, and the cycle begins.  This is enhanced at home, where Detroit can use their depth and experience by choosing the matchups of lines.  

We know how to defeat this system, but need to be at the top of our game to do it.  Detroit has a plethora of players who have played together longer than the Jackets have been a franchise.  We need to keep the puck deep, then establish our forecheck, which prevents those quick exits that support everything else Detroit does.  If we can force the puck East and West, establish our own neutral zone presence, and be strong on the puck, the whole equation shifts.  Detroit can be pressured into mistakes, as we have seen, but we need to take advantage of them when they happen.

  • The Modin experiment has to end.  Bringing Fred back at the beginning of the playoffs, at least on a top line, was a mistake.  He has no presence, and has disrupted the chemistry we were starting to build.  Better that his time is spent on the third or fourth line.  
  • Peca, Malhotra and Torres have been invisible on offense. Chimera has energy, but no finish.  Same with Boll and Dorsett, who are game, but lack the skill necessary to change the equation.  We need our senior guys to provide stability for the younger guys here. 
  • Voracek, Nash, Vermette, Umberger have been trying to do all the work on the offensive side.  Williams has had flashes in spots, but we haven't been able to put together a cohesive effort.  Huselius has also been invisible, but looked better last game than the first one. 
  • Hejda and Methot have been taken to school so far.  Hejda is not reacting well, and virtually all his mistakes have led to goals.  Tyutin has been fair, and Klesla was strong in Game 1, not so much in Game 2.  Russell has been good, as has Commodore, who has been in the unenviable position of having to cover for Hejda's mistakes.  Hence, he has taken more penalites that we should be seeing.
  • Our young guys (and some of our older ones) are showing signs of panic -- not making strong passes, dropping back in a prevent defense, clearing pucks along the walls without regard to who is waiting-- incomplete passes in our own zone.  Patience is the key -- we need to show more urgency in getting to the puck, instead of showing the urgency once we have it.
We now have them coming to our house, with Hitch dictating the matchups and 7 years of pent-up frustrations ready to be released.  We need to take this one shift at a time, get a win in Game 3, and then move on to Game 4.  Sure, it is a huge mountain to climb, but we have talent, and need to start showing it.  I know that 19,000+ will be on hand to root them on.  

Go Jackets!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Retribution Day!

A new day has dawned, and the bad taste left after Game 1 is gone. We have taken our initial hits, and know what we need to do. This is not an insurmountable task -- we have beaten the Wings 3 times this year, and played a strong 1st half on Thursday.

We are about to hop in the car and head North -- blue hair, blue fingernails (wife only), jerseys, t-shirts and full regalia in tow. Should be a huge presence from the CBJ fan base tonight.

Keys for tonight:

1. 60 minutes of effort, not 50, 40 or less . . .
2. Simplicity and persistence -- keep putting the puck deep, stay in the zone, force the puck to the net. It will eventually go in. If we have the puck, Detroit doesn't.
3. Defensive pressure -- we started giving Detroit way too much space, much like a cornerback giving the receiver a 10 yard cushion off the line. We have a great goaltender -- rely on him to stop the puck, and create opportunities through pressure.
4. Let Mase see the puck -- be mindful of clearing lanes and getting the puck out of the crease.
5. Tempo -- we need to dictate tempo, not Detroit.
6. Control the neutral zone --- we let the Red Wings possess the neutral zone on both sides of the puck. Take it back. When our defense sets up camp in the neutral zone, we frustrate their offense and create odd man rush opportunities for ourselves.

As with all seven game series, a split for the road team is the goal for the opening pair. We can do that tonight, and get to the friendly confines of Nationwide all even.

Hitch is right, this is a great time of year! The Joe will be rocking with CBJ blue tonight! Go Jackets!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lessons Learned

As the commercials for the PGA Tour say -- "These guys are good. . . "

Detroit fired on all cylinders tonight in a 4 - 1 victory over the Jackets, aided by deflections off of Manny Malhotra and Jan Hejda.

For the first thirty minutes, this was a breathtaking hockey game. 27 shots fired in the first period -- no goals. Columbussquandered some choice scoring opportunities, including 4 power plays, and Chris Osgood stood tall. Even when Detroit took a 1 - 0 lead on a 2 vs 1 breakaway, the CBJ responded right back with a beautiful give and go from Voracek to Umberger, who buried a nifty twisting backhand to tie it.

Unfortunately, within the next minute the two deflections found home, and after Franzen roofed a wraparound, Detroit went into shut down mode and stifled the Jackets for the rest of the way.

A loss, to be sure, and to a very good team. But the problems that led to the loss are fixable, and quickly. Hitch alluded to that in his post-game remarks, noting that there will be personnel changes for Game 2.

We inexplicably began losing faceoffs halfway through the second period, which deprived us of possession and allowed Detroit to dictate the pace, whicy we avoided for the first 30 minutes. Our defensemen, and even our forwards, were too quick to abandon the offensive zone, which deprived us of the opportunity to keep the puck in, force it deep and make plays.

Not being able to keep the puck deep, we could not establish the strong neutral zone presence that has worked so well in past games against Detroit. Methot, Tyutin and Hejda played nervous hockey in our own zone, and were too guarded on the first outlet passes. Detroit beat us at our own game by dominating the neutral zone for the last half of the game.

Despite the score, we were not blown off the ice. To the contrary, we proved that we could stay with them for long stretches of time, but need to bury our chances when we get them. Umberger and Voracek were huge, and Nash did everything he could with the defensive attention he was getting. Huselius looked like he had missed several games, as did Modin. Malhotra was invisible.

Next game, don't be surprised if Boll sits, Malhotra moves down, and Williams moves up. I expect Novotny will make an appearance as well. We could also see Picard make his playoff debut, but I don't envision seeing Filatov play in this series, at least not on the road.

No need to panic. We lost to a great team that played great hockey tonight, in their house, in our playoff debut. I don't think anybody expected that we would waltz in and sweep the Red Wings in the Joe. We need to work tomorrow to fix the shortcomings, and attack with new vigor on Saturday, secure in the knowledge that we can, and have, beaten these guys, and took their best shot tonight.

The Time Has Come!!! -- Some Playoff Day Ramblings

Hard to believe that after 82 regular season games, 226 goals and 2,363 shots on goal, the playoffs are about to begin!!!  Hitch has had several days to review his options and draw his battle plans, we have had the chance to get the bumps and bruises healed, rest up and get in shape for the (hopefully) long road ahead.

Fortune Tellers -- It is difficult to find any of the pundits out there willing to go out on a limb and predict a CBJ victory in this one.  There is my piece, predicting CBJ in 6, and Maggie the Monkey on TSN, also picking the Jackets, but other than that, the pickings are slim.  My wife pointed this out to me, with the unstated (but perhaps valid) implication that similar degrees of intellect may be involved.

Fantasy Island -- THN's Fantasy expert is giving some love to Antoine Vermette, saying that  he expects the newest Blue Jacket to have a big series against Detroit.

First Round Notes -- The Rangers looked unexpectedly competetive and sound in their 4-3 win over Washington last night.  The Caps are going to need more than offense if they hope to win this series.  New Jersey also dispatched Carolina with surprising ease in yesterday's contest, reversing the trend seen at season's end.  The Penguins looked very scary in their win over Philadelphia, and may be peaking at the right time.  Finally, Vancouver looked good in edging the Blues, but you have the sense that this one may go seven. 

Surprising Whistles -- In watching the games last night, I was amazed at the number of penalties called, contrary to the customary "swallow the whistle" rule in the playoffs.  Also a couple of real, honest-to-goodness fights.  Strange . . .

Dress Code Reminder -- For those heading to Detroit for Games  1 or 2, remember to WEAR YOUR BLUE!!!!  Blue jersey, blue hair, blue nail polish .  And for the ladies. . . .   :-)  It was an incredible show of support in the Joe for the 8 - 2 victory, and this should put that to shame.  Let's get a victory, then assemble under the broadcast booths to salute our on air teams (and simultaneously annoy the Detroit broadcasters, who complained about us the last time we were in Columbus.

Good Omen -- The last time Detroit was the defending Stanley Cup Champion, they were swept in the first round by Anaheim.

Keys To Victory -- We have done six game previews this year, so really do not need to rehash in detail all of the pluses and minuses involved in this matchup.  Here are the big picture items:
  • Tempo -- Stay within ourselves, and avoid the track meet.  
  • Play The System -- Stick with what got us here.  Get the puck low, put lots of rubber on the net -- nothing fancy.  Traffic in front.  Get the picket fence going in the neutral zone and forecheck aggressively.
  • Take Care of the Puck -- We need to be prudent, but not timid.  Make quick, sure passes in all zones, rely on our skaters to move the puck out of trouble, and keep the Detroit forwards at the perimeter.
  • Mind The Crease -- Mason needs to stand tall, be aggressive, and avoid rebound in front.  Defensemen need to clear pucks from the crease, and hammer Holmstrom when he tries to set up camp in the blue paint.  
  • Even Keel - This is the first playoff experience for many of our guys, so the coaches and the veterans will have to make sure that we do not get overly high if we get a lead, or overly low if Detroit gets on a roll.  It is a 7 game series, and there are going to be more than enough ups and downs to go around.
Bottom line is that we know Hitch will have the boys ready, and that they will play a hard, competetive game.  We have lots of talent, and no expectations resting on our shoulders from outside.  That should allow us to play loose.  Let's see that next gear -- the one we saw at Nationwide in the 5 - 0 drubbing of the Flames.  Buckle up -- this is going to be a wild ride!!

Go Jackets!!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

JacketBackers Get Some Love In The Dispatch!!!

Check out this article in the Dispatch!! Liberally quoting from JB Treasurer Brian Maurer, President and spouse Julie, and yours truly, among others. We are starting to get noticed for our travels (remember the Code of Conduct folks!!)

I have a feeling this will be the largest, loudest and proudest group to haunt the friendly confines of an opposing arena ever! Nice job!!!

Go Jackets!!!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Jacket Backers Promoting Tix For Detroit Games 1 & 2

The JacketBackers are announcing potential ticket deals for Games 1 and 2 of the 1st Round playoff series in Detroit.  We have the chance to get $60 seats for $45, provided that we get at least 20 participants.  

We are getting the word out on this any way we can, so that Jackets fans can represent in Detroit.  My wife and I were in Detroit for the 8 - 2 rout of the Red Wings, and it is an experience to behold.  We will be there for Game 2 as well, so go to the JacketBackers website or email for more details.

This is a tickets only trip, so transportation and lodging are on your own.  I will add a personal plug for the Greektown Casino & Hotel, which took very good care of us on our trip.  

Go Jackets!!

Playoff Schedule Announced

Here are the days and times for the Round 1 series vs. the Red Wings.    Times for games 6 and 7 are yet TBD.  

GAME 1: @Detroit, Thu. 4/16, 7 p.m.
GAME 2: @Detroit, Sat. 4/18, 6 p.m.
GAME 3: @Columbus, Tue. 4/21, 7 p.m.
GAME 4: @Columbus, Thu. 4/23, 7 p.m.
*GAME 5: @Detroit, Sat. 4/25, 7 p.m.
*GAME 6: @Columbus, Mon. 4/27, TBD
*GAME 7: @Detroit, Wed. 4/29, TBD

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Look Out, Detroit, Here We Come!!!!

St. Louis has just defeated Colorado, 1 -0, which means they assume the 6th place slot, and we take 7th, due to St. Louis winning the head-to-head series with the CBJ.  St. Louis is off to Vancouver, while we will travel to Detroit.  Anaheim will battle San Jose, and Chicago will go up against Calgary.

There are some real advantages to this matchup -- a better travel schedule, the chance to get some of the CBJ fans up to the away games, and an opponent we know very well.  Detroit is formidable, particularly in the playoffs, but their goaltending is a potential chink in the armor, and we will not be intimidated by them.  I would rather face Osgood at this time of year than Luongo.  

Nothing easy in the playoffs, but we have what it takes to win.  Hitch will have them ready, and it will be a helluva series to watch. We will be working on our tickets shortly.

Go Jackets!  

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Not What We Wanted . . .

Tonight was certainly a mixed bag of emotions for local hockey fans. First, the CBJ came out of the box firing on all cylinders, with Nash scoring his 40th and Boll his 4th to put up a 2 -0 lead on Minnesota after 1, and it seemed like all we needed to do is check the cost of flights to Vancouver. Then the roof falls in, and we end up on the short end of a 6 - 3 score. (More on this below)

Then, Miami University has a 3 - 1 lead over juggernaut Boston University with 3 minutes to go in the game, and BU pulls its goalie. They end up scoring two goals in the last :59 seconds to tie it. 11 minutes into OT, BU takes a slap shot from the point that is blocked by the Miami player, but the puck arcs wildly through the air and over the shoulder of the unsuspecting Miami goalie, who never saw the puck after it hit his defender. Rotten way to lose a game that nobody expected Miami to win. They have a young squad, though, and could be competetive at this level for awhile. A well done to everyone associated with the program for overcoming some uncharacteristic down times during the regular season and the CCHA tournament to be a force in the Frozen Four.

On the positive side, Anaheim just lost to Phoenix in a 4 round shootout, so the Jackets can do no worse than 7th, depending upon the results of the St. Louis vs. Colorado game tomorrow (in Colorado). Sure, it seems like that should be a walkover for St. Louis, but these are funny games. Look around the league, and you will see teams that have clinched losing to some teams you would not consider competetive. That time in between clinching and beginning the playoffs is one big emotional trap that it takes some experience to get through. We will see how St. Louis handles it tomorrow.

Back to tonight's game. Again, we started with all kinds of energy, but even with a 2 goal lead, we were being outshot. Our defenders were giving too much room, and Minnesota was correctly playing as if they had nothing to lose. They fired from everywhere, tried some Hail Mary passes, and were able to exert more pressure. Was it just me, or did it seem like Hitch did some weird line experimenting during the second period? I sure think that contributed. Murray did leave the game with a hamstring injury (off on crutches -- is it time for Filatov???) Once we lost the momentum, we just could not pull it back.

We must lead the league in pucks deflected into our own net, and again tonight it was one off Malhotra's skate that started the slippery slope. Too many penalties, resulting in a 4 vs. 4 and a power play goal, sandwiched around a shorthanded goal when Russell lost the handle on the puck at our blue line. We also had two pucks (both shot by Umberger, I believe) camp amazingly on the threshhold of the goal line, but not sneak across.

For all of that, we were only down 3 - 2 going into the third, and we looked like were were taking control, having the first 6 or 7 shots of the period. Nash had a breakaway chance thwarted by Harding, and that seemed to kill any momentum. Two quick goals for Minnesota (who scored 14 over the past 2 nights), and an empty netter after a nice goal by Dorsett, sealed the deal.

Jacques Lemaire did announce that he was stepping down as coach tonight, and supposedly made it known to his team at the first intermission. Dunno if that is true, but from the change on the ice, I would not be surprised. Once they got the emotional edge, we could not wrestle it away. They had a mission and absolutely nothing to lose, which is a dangerous combination when you have somebody like Marion Gaborik on the ice.

Make no mistake, this was not an evil omen for the playoffs. Yes, we had two flat efforts down the stretch, but given the pressure cooker coming home, a letdown was damn near inevitable. The CBJ have done us proud this year, and have the stuff to go deep into the playoffs. Tonight, we got caught up in our offensive success, and tried to play track meet hockey, which we can do on the offensive end, but not on the defensive side, at least not yet. Hitch will remind them, none too gently, that scoring starts in the defensive end.

Still a great time for Bluejackets hockey. Though I will have a piece on everything they went through this year at some point down the line, we have nothing but possibilities awaiting us. I am sort of hoping we end up in 7th, as I would like us to get the chance to pepper Osgood, and would love to see large groups of Jackets fans make the trek north for Round 1.

This was the first Fan Appreciation Night in history that we knew we were not saying "goodbye until next year." (Great crowd, by the way!) Let's join the team in taking a break for a few days, and getting ready to bring it for the playoffs.

Go Jackets!!!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Game Day Ramblings

Still basking in the glow of the clinching victory in Chicago, here are a variety of random observations, tidbits and trivia as we get ready for St. Louis tonight:

Team Records -- As a team, the Jackets are poised to set a number of franchise records for the regular season, including Most Wins (currently 41, old mark 35), Fewest Losses (currently 29,old record 36), Most Home Points (currently 53, old record 47), Most Road Points (currently 39, old record 33). In fact, a win tonight will put us at 17-17-7 on the road this year, by far the best showing ever.  

Performance Under Pressure -- After requiring the first half of the season to integrate all of the new blood and adjust to rampant injuries, the pressure was put on the CBJ to perform in the second half.  Once they got above the bar, more pressure was put on to outperform their competitors down the stretch.  With such a young team, there was reason for doubt, but the team responded remarkably.  Thus far, 19-9-5 since the All Star Break -- over .650 percentage of points available.  For the Dirty Dozen down the stretch, they are 5 - 1 - 4 coming into tonight-- a .700 points percentage.  Nicely done!

Nash -- With 39 goals, 39 assists and 78 points, Rick is on the verge of being the first 40/40 player for the CBJ, and garnering his second 40 goal season.

Work Left To Do -- Count on the fact that Hitch has reminded the squad that regular season work is not done.  We still need 1 point to clinch 6th place.  St. Louis will be a desperate lot tonight, and we hopefully learned our lesson last time in the Scottrade Center, where it took a third period comeback to salvage a point from the eventual SOL.   Minnesota needs to win both remaining games to reach 89 points.  They would then need either Anaheim or St. Louis to lose both of their remaining games. So we are likely to have two very motivated opponents over the next two nights, and need to respond with energy and discipline.  5th place is out of the running, with Vancouver's 1 - 0 victory last night.

Trophy Watch -- Though many observers say he is a lock, Mason needs to put on a good show tonight to wrap up the Calder Trophy, and enhance any consideration he may have for the Vezina.  A win tonight could mean a start for Dubie tomorrow, but that is an open question. Hitch might feel that the rest between the last game and the first playoff game will be enough.

Fan Appreciation -- Whatever happens in tonight's game, the Army of the Ohio needs to show up loud and proud tomorrow night for the regular season finale!   (It is really nice to have to specify regular season!)  No matter what may or may not happen during the playoffs, this team deserves every bit of support and appreciation we have to offer!

Go Jackets!!

Thursday, April 9, 2009


As I type this, the puck is dropping on the first game in this year's Frozen Four, featuring the Miami University Redhawks against Bimidji State.  Vermont takes on Boston University in the nightcap,  with the winners vying for the national championship.

This is the first Frozen Four appearance for the Redhawks, who appear to be peaking at the right time, after suffering some dramatic ups and downs during the course of the regular season, including an uncharacteristically early exist from the CCHA Tournament.

Go Redhawks -- bring the title home to Ohio!!!


In what was likely one of the most improbable victories of the 80 games played thus far, the Columbus Blue Jackets achieved the goal that had been in existence since Robert Kron won the first-ever faceoff for the Blue Jackets (over Alexei Zhamnov of the Blackhawks) in October 2000 -- a seat in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The import of the victory, how it came about and the other themes that will dominate conversation in the months ahead will be reserved for another day. Tonight, it is all about Blue Jackets 4 Blackhawks 3, in a shootout, on the road, under the pressure of a playoff chase the team had never experienced.

Fittingly, it was a combination of the old and the new that brought this victory home. The "new" -- Steve Mason, Antoine Vermette, Jason Williams, Jakub Voracek, Raffi Torres, Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, Jan Hejda -- all played key roles in the victory. The "old" -- Rick Nash (to the extent you can call anybody "old" at age 24) came through in the clutch.

This victory did not seem likely in the first period, during which Khabibulin denied Nash on a penalty shot, Seabrook scored on a breakaway and Nash inadvertently knocked in another puck , for a 2 - 0 deficit after 1. In the second, Jared Boll, Antoine Vermette and Jason Williams combined to bring the Jackets back in the game. Boll earned a tough draw with Ben Eager in a dust-up by the Chicago bench, and turned the show over to Vermette. First, Vermette entered the zone hard, dishing to Torres, who shot hard from the left wing. The rebound was captured by Nash, who put another wrister on net, and Vermette was on the doorstep to plant the rebound to bring us within a goal.

Just a few minutes later, Vermette split two defenders at the left point, drove to the crease, gave a little shimmy shake and dished a perfect pass to the right to a waiting Jason Williams, who buried the one-timer for a tie game. Quenville called a timeout, and the game was on. Just 2:30 before the end of the period, Peca lost a battle down low in our zone, and the pass came out to Havlat, who buried a one-timer to the high glove side of Mason before Mason had a chance to react.

The third was an amazing period of hockey, despite the fact that the teams combined for only 9 shots on goal. Chicago was content to dump the puck for most of the period, and the Jackets fought to gain some traction in the offensive zone. With about 6:30 left, Jake Voracek took a shot from the right dot that was blocked in front, and caromed directly to Raffi Torres, waiting in the slot. Raffi slapped the puck toward the open net, only to have Khabibulin dive across the net and deflect the puck with the shaft of his stick, in almost a carbon copy of the save he made against Hejda on Sunday. However, just a minute later, Chimera fed the puck to Nash, drifting across the slot, who buried a backhand for the tying goal -- quite possibly the biggest goal in franchise history.

The Jackets gave up a few anxious moments during the balance of regulation time, but ultimately got the game to OT and the clinching point. Chicago dominated the OT period, with 1 minute consumed by a penalty to Tyutin. Mason turned away all 5 Chicago shots,including an amazing, tumbling,pad-stacking save as time wound down and the SO was in order. Mason stuffed Toews. Nash beat Khabibulin, but angled the puck off the far post. Kane was denied by Toews. Next for the CBJ was . . . Tyutin????? I'm not sure Hitch makes this call if we hadn't already clinched the playoff slot, but he looks like a genius from here. Tyutin takes the puck, gives a little fake, and roofs it on the stick side. Mason then induced Bolland to go wide, and 2 points was ours, and a seat at the playoff table .

We now are 1 point away from clinching 6th place. If we win both remaining games, and Vancouver loses both remaining games, we take 5th. If we end up 6th, we will face either Vancouver or Calgary. More analysis on that later. For now, let's just revel in a victory that required unparalleled grit and determination from everyone in the locker room.

Most of all, let's all show up and demonstrate our appreciation for these guys on Saturday. Let's also remember Mr. Mac, who is smiling right now and tipping his cap to Hitch and the whole crew. I've never been prouder to be a Jackets fan than I am tonight.

Kudos to LTL, by the way, for running an awesome live blog during the game. More tomorrow. Go Jackets!!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Thanks, Blackhawks!!! (Reprise)

Chicago has just defeated Nashville, 4 - 2 in Nashville's home finale!!! The Jackets now just need one OTL or better over their final three games to clinch their first playoff spot in history!

Nashville can only reach 90 points if they win their last two games, and the CBJ already have 90. If Nashville were to win both remaining games, they would have 41 wins, and would take a tiebreaker if we tied at 90 points. Thus, we need 1 point in the final games.

Thanks Chicago. Now, I hope you are really tired, and that Calgary wins, so you have little motivation tomorrow! ;-)

Winning In the West . . .

Time once again to take advantage of an "off night" and do some serious rooting for teams we might not otherwise care about:
  • Chicago over Nashville --  Nashville is at home, last home game, and clawing for a playoff spot.  Chicago is striving to hold onto the 4th slot, and gain the home ice advantage for Round 1 of the playoffs.  Nashville has the edge in emotion, but Chicago has the talent and the ability to score that Nashville lacks.  Root for Chicago to win, and for Nashville to tire Chicago out in the process.
  • Phoenix over St. Louis -- The hordes of new talent that arrived in Phoenix after the Trade Deadline have started to learn how to play together, and Phoenix has been very competetive.  St. Louis is on the road yet again.  Root for St. Louis to go down.
  • Calgary over Vancouver -- This one is for all of the marbles in the Northwest, with a Calgary win icing the division for them. A Calgary win also helps Chicago nail down 4th spot, which could impact their motivation on Wednesday.  5th place is still technically in play, so Flames over Canucks is the play here.
This will be the 5 biggest days in Bluejackets hockey history.  Go Jackets!!!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Playoff Math -- Revisited

Upon further review, some of my statements about playoff possibilities were incorrect, due to my failure to account for the number of wins each team might have.  That is the first "real" tiebreaker, assuming all teams have played the same number of games.  My bad.  Here is the "real" scoop (honest!):
  • 1 win and 1 OTL by the CBJ put us in the playoffs, and in 6th place, no matter what Anaheim, St. Louis and Nashvill do.
  • 1 loss by any of the 3 teams (Nashville, St. Louis, Anaheim) means that we only need 1 OTL in our last three to be in the playoffs.  
  • 1 loss and 1 OTL by any of our opponents means we are in, regardless.
Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of the NHL playoffs!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

New Writing Gig

As if I don't have enough to keep me occupied, I have joined our own Hitch Rules (aka Ed) as a columnist covering the CBJ for Inside Hockey. They gave my piece on tonight's game a nice link on the front page, so check it out when you get a chance.

Ed will be covering the Minnesota game next week, and we will hopefully be alternating coverage during the playoffs. Let me know what you think!


Updated Stretch Performance

By popular demand, the following is the updated list of performance over the course of the Dirty Dozen last 12 of the season:
  • Anaheim 8 - 2 - 0 16/20 possible points .800 points percentage
  • Chicago 6 - 2 - 0 12/16 possible points .750 points percentage
  • St. Louis 6 - 2 - 1 13/18 possible points .722 points percentage
  • Columbus 4 - 1 - 4 12/18 possible points .667 points percentage
  • Nashville 4 - 2 - 3 11/18 possible points .611 points percentage
  • Minnesota 4 - 4 - 1 9/18 possible points .500 points percentage
  • Vancouver 4 - 3- 1 9/16 possible points .563 points percentage
  • Calgary 3 -5 - 0 6/16 possible points .375 points percentage
  • Edmonton 3 -6 - 0 6/18 possible points .333 points percentage
  • Dallas 2 - 5 - 2 6/18 possible points .333 points percentage
  • LA 2 - 5 - 1 5/16 possible points .313 points percentage
A pretty graphic example of how those single points add up!

The Frozen Water Torture . . .

Somebody needs to ask Scott Howson if the player contracts have incentive clauses that kick in if we can delay clinching the playoffs as long as possible.

Tonight's 1 - 0 OT loss to the Chicago Blackhawks was a playoff caliber affair, a defensive struggle highlighted by the goaltending of Steve Mason and Nikolai Khabibulin. The two teams combined for only 45 shots over 63 minutes, 10 seconds of action, much of which took place along the boards and in the neutral zone.  

While this was a tight-checking affair, it lacked the nastiness and brutality of, say, a Nashville game.

This was all speed and skill, positioning and strategy.  A lightning chess match more than a wrestling match.  Playing their second overtime game in under 24 hours, the Jackets started a step behind the Blackhawks, who are now in the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and looking to secure home ice advantage for Round 1.  Once they got their legs, they more than kept up with the frantic pace at both ends of the ice.  Particularly in the defensive zone, the Jackets were tenacious, and kept the highly talented Blackhawks at bay.  When an untimely turnover or defensive lapse occured, there was Mason to shut the door. He was amazing all night, stopping some point blank opportunities, and enjoying the clearing support of his defenders.  Even Versteeg's eventual game winner caught a lot of Mason, and Versteeg himself characterized it as "lucky."

Khabibulin, almost old enough to be Mason's father, was as crafty and resourceful as ever, and had to put a smile on Quenville's face as they proceed into the playoffs.  Huet and Khabibulin have had their moments of intrigue this year, and if this signals a resurgence by Khabibulin, Chicago will be a force in the playoffs.  He made an absolutely sick diving, shaft-of-the-stick save on Vermette in the 2nd, and squelched Russell's breakaway bid just before Versteeg netted the game winner.

While the Jackets were not quite "on" in their passing and execution in the offensive zone, definitely missing the skill of Huselius, they were tenacious and had their chances.  This was just one of those nights where a little fatigue and a few breaks made the difference.

I know that these are critical games coming down the stretch, but I wonder whether this would have been a prime opportunity to give Filatov and his skill an opportunity?  Hitch knows all, sees all, but still . . . 

The usual +/- would not mean much tonight, as this was a taut, well-played game with a few lapses, a little gap in execution, but tons of desire, a boisterous crowd and 100% effort.  That's all we can ask for.  One note:  How can we only have 15,947 in the house at this point in the proceedings?? C'mon people!!!

Since the Bluejackets seem intent on doing this playoff thing 1 point at a time, here is the latest playoff scoop:
  • With another point (the 12th time in the last 14 games we have earned at least a point), we now have 90 (for the first time in club history), with 3 left to play, still in 
  • Anaheim lost to San Jose tonight, so remains in 7th with 88 points.  They have only 2 games left, so we have a game in hand on them.
  • Edmonton and Minnesota, with 83 points each and 3 games to play, have been eliminated from catching or passing the CBJ, as they each have a maximum point total of 89.
  • Three teams remain with the possibility to catch the Jackets -- Anaheim, Nashville and St. Louis.  All have a maximum possible point total of 92.  Bottom line is this -- 1 win by the CBJ or 1 loss by Nashville, and we have clinched a playoff spot.  1 win puts us at 92, and we hold the tiebreaker over Nashville by virtue of our OT point last night.  Even if both Anaheim and St. Louis win out, we would beat out Nashville on the tiebreaker.  
  • A record of 1 -1 -1 or better over the last 3 guarantees us 6th place, as we would have 93 points, and Nashville, St. Louis and Anaheim have a maximum total of 92.  
A couple of days of rest coming up, which we can hopefully use to heal the wounds and gird up for the final sprint.  First clinching opportunity comes on Tuesday night, when Chicago visits Nashville and St. Louis visits Phoenix.  Anaheim doesn't play again until Friday, when they host Dallas, then travel to Phoenix for the finale on Saturday.  We resume @ Chicago on Wednesday, catching them on the back end of the back-to-back, followed by @ St. Louis Friday and Minnesota here on Saturday.  Any way you shake it, I am predicting an all time record crowd for this regular season finale!!]

Go Jackets!!

Sunday Morning Sanity Check

With 8 days left in the regular season, time to take stock of where things stand in this insane playoff race. The Tracker at the right has been updated through the games of last night, so you can view some of this there. But to summarize:
  • CBJ hold 6th place with 89 points. We have 40 wins, a 1 point lead over 7th place Anaheim and 3 point leads over 8th and 9th place Nashville and St. Louis.
  • We have a game in hand over Anaheim, St. Louis and Nashville
  • A win tonight formally eliminates Edmonton from the ranks of those who could pass us, and forces Minnesota, St. Louis and Nashville to win out, while we lose the remainder, to pass us.
  • Any regulation loss by Nashville in the remaining three games means we need only have 1 OTL to shut Nashville out from passing us.
  • We can shut St. Louis out from passing us by beating them in Game 81, regardless of what happens in other games.

Bottom line is that we are in control of our own destiny and some pretty special things have to happen to knock us out of the playoffs. Here are the records of all of the contending teams during the Dirty Dozen -- the final 12 games of the regular season.

  • Anaheim 8 -1 - 0 16/18 possible points .889 points percentage
  • St. Louis 6 - 2 - 1 13/18 possible points .722 points percentage
  • Chicago 5 - 2 - 0 10/14 possible points .714 points percentage
  • Columbus 4 - 1 - 3 11/16 possible points .688 points percentage
  • Nashville 4 - 2 - 3 11/18 possible points .611 points percentage
  • Minnesota 4 - 3- 1 9/16 possible points .563 points percentage
  • Vancouver 4 - 3- 1 9/16 possible points .563 points percentage
  • Calgary 3 -5 - 0 6/16 possible points .375 points percentage
  • Edmonton 3 -6 - 0 6/18 possible points .333 points percentage
  • Dallas 2 - 5 - 2 6/18 possible points .333 points percentage
  • LA 2 - 5 - 1 5/16 possible points .313 points percentage

To put this in perspective, if the CBJ had played at this pace all year, they would have 112 points for the season. It also shows how tough it is to make up points down the stretch. St. Louis is on a tear, yet if the CBJ win tonight, they will have made up zero points over the Jackets in the stretch. Under the same circumstances, i.e. a Jackets win tonight, Nashville will have lost 2 points to the Jackets, despite playing over .600 in the Dirty Dozen. Anaheim is playing in another celestial sphere right now, and you can only tip your hat to them and say "well done."

Jackets are playing some excellent hockey at the moment, and are showing the kind of grit you need to earn tough points down the stretch. Jackets earned 20 points in March -- slaughtering the old record. It is a nerve-wracking experience, to be sure, but the boys are getting it done.

This promises to be a fun week in Central Ohio. Fat lady ain't singing, but she is practicing her scales! Go Jackets!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

What A Battle!

Who did not know that this one was going to be a war??  With Nashville having its back very much against the wall after a loss last night in Chicago, they were in a "must win" situation to keep their playoff hopes realistically alive.

Every write-up leading up to this game focused on the first 10 minutes, and the need for the CBJ to avoid getting blown out by the Nashville intensity.  Well, the Jackets accomplished that mission in spades.  In fact, they dominated the first period and the first half of the second.  They were swarming, playing solid defense, and taking advantage of overly aggressive Nashville defensemen to create scoring opportunities.  Nifty goals by Nash and Novotny should have provided a 2 - 0 cushion, but Peca's unfortunate deflection of a Nashville shot made the cushion only 2 - 1. However, we were outplaying Nashville at both ends, and when Nash scored again off a great feed form Williams 6 minutes into the 2nd, it seemed that the Somet Center Curse had been fully exorcized.  Of course, this is Nashville, in Nashville, so we know that was a silly thought.

Another screwy bounce, this time off of Methot's skate, enabled the Predators to narrow the gap to 1, with Jacket-killer Arnott getting credit for the goal.  A few minutes later, the Preds knotted the game with their only power play goal of the season against the Jackets.  After a tentative first half of the 3rd period by both clubs, Bonk knocked in a puck that bounced around the crease for what seemed like an eternity. 4 -3 Nashville, and it looked like the CBJ fortunes were once again going to take a hit in the Music City.  Again, this is not the CBJ team you have been accustomed to watching.  The boys found another gear, and a gorgeous feed from Vermette to Williams, and the ensuing sniper shot, tied it up, and 5 minutes later guaranteed a point.  Not as easy as it sounds, however, as Tyutin got called for a 4 minute high sticking penalty that was imposed only after the play and some extended conversation among the officials.  Nobody raised an arm at the time of the infraction.

Nonetheless, the Jackets dispatched the remaining time in regulation, and the balance of the penalty in OT, and maintained consistent pressure thereafter.  Credit Mase for an outstanding save on Suter coming in all by himself near the end of regulation.  

The shootout was what you would expect for these goaltenders.  Nash got an unlucky bounce off the crossbar, and Rinne handled Williams and Novotny. (Sorry, Hitch -- don't get the Novotny over Vermette choice for the SO).  Mason dispatched Fiddler and sullivan, but Koistinen made a nice forehand move to get Mase down, and roofed the backhand for the winner.  

Here are the +/- for the night:

+  Early Energy -- We came out strong and skilled, and really had Nashville scrambling early.  We took advantage of their aggressiveness, while limiting their scoring chances.  Although shots were relatively even early on, we kept them to the perimeter.

+ Offense -- We showed some real skill at the offensive end (subject to the hibernation minus given below).  Two goals to the back door, one in regulation and one on power play.  If we can start doing that kind of thing consistently, we will be very dangerous in the playoffs. Nash, Vermette, Voracek, Williams, Chimera, Umberger all showed great energy in the offensive zone.  Great resilience getting the tying goal in the last 5 minutes.

+ Special Teams -- True, we gave up a power play goal, but we killed 6 others in solid fashion, including that potentially lethal double minor to Tyutin with 1:48 left in regulation.  We only had 3 power play chances, but cashed in on one of those in beautiful fashion.

-- Hibernation -- When we went ahead 3 - 1, we pulled our heads inside the shells and tried to play prevent defense.  2 SOG in the 2nd period is all the proof you need.  We stopped hitting, took no shots, got sloppy in giving away the puck, and made no takeaways.  No wonder that we lost all of those statistics for the game.  Perhaps natural to have a let down after getting so geared up for the first 10 minutes, but this is the playoff chase, guys!!  

--Details -- 1 goal indavertently deflected into your own goal is unfortuate.  2 is sloppy. Taking 7 penalties in a game as important as this is inexcusable, no matter what you think about the officiating. (Hey, we won 2 Toronto reviews and got a double minor when the damage was done by our guy, not theirs).  Also need to do better than 50% in the faceoff circle.  Need to clear those pucks out of the crease crisply and quickly.

--Injury (?) -- Huselius left right away, then returned, then went away again.  Have looked, but not found any updates as yet.  Hopefully nothing major.

Not the win we wanted, but the single point is extremely important.  First of all, it gives us the second tiebreake, should we end up with the same record as Nashville.  Secondly, it lets us keep 6th over the almost surreal charge put on by Anaheim (8-1-0 during the Dirty Dozen).  Finally, it reduces our magic numbers toward a clinch.  Right now, our magic number is 0.5 vs. Edmonton, 1.5 vs. Minnesota and Nashville, 2 vs. St. Louis, and 3 vs. Anaheim.  Can't technically clinch on Sunday, but Tuesday should be the day, assuming a win over the Blackhawks.  

Hitch will have the boys ready to vault over that 90 point mark, and get primed for a playoff celebration that will be soon to follow.  Go Jackets!!