Thursday, December 31, 2009

Afternoon Scrum 12/31/09

Hockey headlines for the CBJ and from around the league. Mmmmm... hockey

Jackets play the Predators... again. I was really hoping this Jackets team would continue the play they showed against the Red Wings when they went to the Island the following evening. They didn't. They played just well enough against a crappy opponent to get 1 point via the shootout. Clark and Jurcina were decent, nothing glaringly wrong with their debuts. Jurcina actually played a solid game I thought. He stayed at home and didn't give up any breakaways. Late in the game when the Jackets needed a late goal just to tie it, he picked a couple of spots to jump in and try to get something. Overall pretty good. Sorry, this post isn't supposed to be a review of the last game.

  • The boys over at Puckrakers tackle all the important issues facing the Jackets in their podcast, Cannonfodder. Trades, playoff chances, leadership, Olympics... they cover it all. BTW, I really enjoy Michael Arace's writing and he does a fine job of moderating the podcast, but dude has got to stop the heavy breathing into the microphone... sounds like Vader.

  • Good news Jackets' fans! The team has decided that now's the time to start competing for a playoff spot... so nothing but wins, points and good times as we ring in 2010. Maybe F Kristian Huselius should wear two of them, just in case.

  • Puck Daddy has completed his NHL Top Ten lists of the past Decade. The final category was Top Ten Goals... yes Nash's winner against the Coyotes makes the list. Check out the whole enchilada to see where he ranks.

  • Steve Yzerman announced the roster for Team Canada yesterday. I'll be rooting for Team USA, but Canada will be awfully tough to beat. That roster is sick.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Four Lines Deep - 12/29/09

Blue Jackets at NY Islanders; Nassau Coliseum
7 p.m. (EST); Fox Sports Ohio

The Jackets will see if they can maintain the winning formula tonight in Long Island.

Bet you didn't expect a physics formula, did you? I really have no idea what this even means, nor how it translates into hockey, but I certainly got the impression that the Jackets started figuring out how to win some games after last night's thrilling OT victory over Detroit.

They out-hit the Wings. They drove to the net with purpose. They were solid on the PK and moved the puck very well on the PP. Mason was tremendous. It was classic Hithcock/CBJ hockey. There has already been plenty of discussion about the impact of the Chimera trade. What can't be denied is that the Jackets showed up last night and played 60 minutes of solid hockey. Can that be sustained? It's likely that Clark and Jurcina will work their way into the lineup tonight, so it will be interesting to see how that affects the chemistry.

At this point, I think it's a lot more difficult to determine who sits on the blueline to make way for Jurcina than it is for the forwards. Stralman played a great game last night and he moved the puck very well on the powerplay. Tyutin looked more dependable and his slapshot was really going. Roy is playing extremely well -- he's in my top four right now. Hejda was blocking shots and throwing his body around -- he's coming back into form. Russell is necessary to skate the puck out of trouble and gain the zone in transition -- so that leaves Commodore as the odd man out. Puck Rakers reported that Russell would be on the bench for Jurcina, but I don't see the advantage to that. Jurcina is basically the same type of player as Commodore - big body best used behind the red line. The Islanders have a terrible PK unit (bottom five in the league) and I think Russell -- if nothing else -- helps a lot on the PP unit. We'll see what happens tonight.

The Jackets actually have a good history against the Islanders (7-1-2), but they are surely a little tired after the high-energy OT game against Detroit. The Islanders have an identical record to the Jackets (15-18-7) and the exact same goal differential (-28). They are another team being led by young players --with first-round pick Tavares being the most notable. He leads the Isles with 16 goals and 28 points, although he's in a bit of a slump right now. The Isles really depend upon he and Moulson to score, and the two have only combined for 1 goal in the last eight games. Let's hope they don't break out of the slump with a few goals like so many scorers have done to the Jackets this year. Shutting down these two will go a long way in getting the Jackets two points tonight.

The Jackets have a definitive edge in special teams. I wouldn't be surprised to the Jackets' PP unit do some damage tonight, as they were moving the puck really well against Detroit and developing some great scoring opportunities. Roloson will be in goal -- he's been pretty dependable with DiPietro out to injury, and has a .910 SV pct. He has 17 wins. He is also 40 years old and isn't getting tremendous support from the blueline. For example,  Brendan Witt is (-20). Wow.

The bottom line is that the Islanders are mired in a scoring slump - much as the Jackets are - because their young players (Tavares, Okposo) are struggling with the compressed Olympic schedule. As a side note, I can't wait for the Olympics to be concluded. I think it's messed with a lot of player's heads. I'm sure it will be amazing to watch, but I'm just sayin'...Moving right along -- if Mase shows up like he did last night, the Jackets have a very good chance to win this game. Further, the defense has to replicate their play from last night. They jumped on loose pucks, kept their sticks active and did a good job of forcing the opposing forwards to the outside. The big question mark is obviously how Jurcina will fit into the lineup and how quickly he can develop some chemistry with his partner.

That's More Like It!

To paraphrase Harry Doyle, "Jackets Win, Jackets Win, OH MY GOD THE JACKETS WIN!"

Ok, so Freddy Modin's overtime winner wasn't to win the pennant after Willie Mays Hayes beat the throw from the Yankees first baseman after Jake Taylor's bunt, but for those in Jacketland who have been without a win in 9 games it felt GOOOOOOD!

On the heels of the Jason Chimera trade, those watching got a chance to see the Jackets play a very strong game and finally get rewarded with two points. Heading to the game last night, I was worried that the natives would take out their frustrations of having to spend too much time with the in-laws over Christmas on the home team at the first opportunity. It didn't happen. Mainly because from puck drop to the red light in overtime, the Jackets played like the 2008-2009 version of the CBJ. They outhit and outworked their opponents on every shift and when there was a breakdown, last year's version of Steve Mason was there to provide the big save. His glove save on Holmstrom and his stupid goatee (thank you, TopShelf) in the second brought the crowd to its' feet.

Speaking of the crowd, it was great. Jacket fans are always amped up when Detroit fans come in representing with their stupid Yzerman and Shanahan sweaters, wanting to send them home with a tear in their beer. Credited with 39 hits, 40 shots on goal and two fighting majors, the Jackets gave ample reason for the sold-out crowd to be so throaty. Nonetheless, the crowd was dug in (even this blogger is going 2008-2009), so was the team and when Freddy Mo backhanded in his own rebound in overtime, all was right with the world.

Let's hope the team gains a little more confidence from the win, a little jump from the trade and start to make amends for what has been an awful December. Gotta win two in a row before you win 5 in a row, so here's hoping the guys play like they did last night, tonight on the Island.

Afternoon scrum 12/29/09

Hockey headlines for the CBJ and from around the league. Mmmmm... hockey

Monday, December 28, 2009

Trade Update

The trigger has been pulled. Say goodbye to Jason Chimera, and hello to the newest Blue Jackets: F Chris Clark, and D Milan Jurcina, now formally of the Washington Capitals. Jurcina will be a short-term fix to the blueline as he is an Unrestricted Free Agent after this season. Clark has another year on his current deal and will be a UFA after the 2010-2011 season. Jackets added 2.15M to this years cap in the deal (Jurcina: 1.375 + Clark 2.65 - Chimera 1.875).

Please Make It Stop

Those of us in Jacketland are convinced we’re in the midst of a nightmare. How else could a team that was on pace for a hundred points now have only one point between it and the Western Conference cellar? It is mind-boggling to say the least. Think about it, a team whose only significant injuries are two a second pairing defenseman and a third line winger is now 2-15-2 in its’ last 19 games. I keep hearing Arthur Rooney say that it’s been ‘NIIIIINE GAMES’ since the Blue Jackets have congratulated their goalie on the ice at the horn.

As someone who has watched every single one of those games during ‘The Stretch’ (and that’s how I’ll refer to 2-15-2), the only thing I find as painful as watching is how there’s no one thing that stands out as being the reason for the losses. They’re finding different ways to lose every time. The stretch has featured performances where they’ve looked like the better team and lost, games they were outworked and outplayed, games they looked like an average AHL team, games their defense was poor, games their defense wasn’t bad but they couldn’t get any scoring, games that were routs, shootout losses….you name the way to lose, the CBJ have done it. Losing steaks in seasons past have offered very simple, very obvious reasons for ‘why’. It was either: the talent on the team was inferior to the competition, the coach didn’t know what he was doing and/or have a winning track record in the NHL, or their best players were past their prime or several years from their prime.

Unfortunately (in terms of the stretch), none of those reasons hold much water. The talent is there. It’s basically the same roster as the team that made the playoffs last year with a better backup goalie and a core of young players that are a year older and more experienced. Ken Hitchcock has a Stanley Cup ring, numerous playoff appearances and success at every level to his credit. He knows what he’s doing. While the CBJ do have the youngest team in the NHL, most of these guys played crucial roles last year so added responsibility didn’t look to be a leap of faith like, say, Jan Hrdina as your first-line center.

There’s no one guy stinking up the ice either. It’s different guys on different nights doing the Jackets in. Sure, there have been some guys that have played poorly more often than others, but there isn’t anyone on the roster that hasn’t blown a clear, made a bad pass, let in a soft goal, been late getting back, fanned on a puck, hit a crossbar after beating the goalie, blah, blah, blah.

The knee-jerk reaction from some of the fans has been to can Hitch. The argument is that his style is too grating, too demanding, basically too tough for his teams to play for an extended period of time. Hitch has been accused of paralyzing his team with the fear of making a mistake. That’s why Fedor Tyutin has become a turnover machine, Jan Hejda has forgotten how to clear the zone and Kristian Huselius’ body language on some nights appears like he just doesn’t care. I don’t buy it…at least not in its’ entirety. While I’ll agree just about every coach in the NHL wears out his welcome in a NHL locker room at some point, firing Hitch at this point would be a huge mistake in my opinion. The guy has been there, done that and according to the reports from Puck-Rakers, Hitch called a group of veterans in to have a meeting that extended beyond the ice. It got personal. Not negative personal, Hitch apparently showed a side of himself the players aren’t used to seeing (the stretch prevents me from any lame joke that could be inserted there), trying to build a bond between the coaches and dressing room. An old coach trying to extend a hand to the players he’s demanded a lot of is a great move that hopefully will pay long term dividends.

The last point I’ll make on why Hitch should stay is simple. He gives the Blue Jackets an identity. Not a face, that’s what Nash, Mason, Brassard, etc. are for. Like Barry Trotz in Nashville, there is no mystery to how a Hitchcock-coached team plays. Anyone who has ever watched the Jackets and the Preds knows that whenever you play Trotz’ team, you better bring your ass because they’re going to. Hitch’s teams can do the same thing, they just need to learn how to every night.

So if firing the coach isn’t the answer, then what is? First of all, a defenseman needs to be added to the core, especially with Klesla’s injury. The added minutes to Tyutin’s load have not been kind to him. Add the Olympic-influenced schedule and he looks tired and broken down. After early season injuries, Commodore and Hejda have not been able to regain their lockdown form from last year either. A legit, top four defenseman that would push Strahlman, Roy, Russell, and Methot down to compete for the last two spots would do wonders for this group. A guy with a big shot from the point and is capable in his own end would help not only on the power play, but five on five and is something the Jackets have not had since Jaroslav Spacek.

Puck Rakers is reporting that there has been talk of the CBJ and Washington doing a deal. Young defenseman Karl Alzner is said to be scratched from tonight’s game and the only thing that the CBJ could offer to entice the Caps to part with Alzner is Filatov. The only way this happens is if Scott Howson knows that Filatov isn’t going to come back to Columbus with or without Hitch as coach. I don’t see that as happening, but something needs to be done to improve the overall ability on the back end and is key to the overall success of the team. Don’t believe me? Look at the defensive cores of Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Columbus and St. Louis and tell me where the CBJ rank in that group? Dead last….and it ain’t close.

Bottom line is an easy answer doesn’t exist. This is a young team and young teams are going to have growing pains. Let’s just say this is the largest of growing pains. If you believe in Rick Nash, Steve Mason, Derick Brassard, RJ Umberger, Jake Voracek, and the rest of the boys (and I do), then you have to do what I think the players should do…grit their teeth, show some emotion and get through it. Steve Mason will start making big saves again, Rick Nash will learn how to lead a locker room so they don’t fall into the doubt and loss of confidence that the stretch has brought. Brassard will learn how to be a successful center in the NHL again and Voracek will be a more consistent force night in and night out. These things will happen…and hopefully soon. The stretch may very well have cost the CBJ a chance at the 2010 playoffs, which sucks, but hopefully this team is able to pull out of the nosedive that gives them a chance this year and some momentum for next year.

Let’s hope the boys are able to right the ship, starting tonight against Detroit. I will be there in full throat tonight as the CBJ try to find a way to win against those bastards wearing the Winged Wheel. Will you?

Afternoon Scrum 12/28/09

Hockey headlines for the CBJ and from around the league. Mmmmm... hockey

  • TRADE RUMOR: Puckrakers is reporting that the CBJ and the Washington Capitals may have a trade in the works. Top D prospect Karl Alzner is the speculation. Jackets would almost certainly give up Filatov. Could be a good swap... I'm sure Caps owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee could envision Filatov learning the N. American game from fellow Russians Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.
  • Here's a link to the thread discussing the rumor. Caps fans seem sure that Alzner will not be traded, but are happy to offer up D Shoane Morrisonn and/or D Milan Jurcina.
  • CBJ play host to the Red Wings tonight on Versus. Now the whole hockey world can watch the train wreck. I'm trying to stay positive, as is Michael Arace of the Columbus Dispatch, but times are bleak. Heck, maybe this is the game the Jackets right the ship and get a quality win. Maybe.
  • Here are the preview for the game from the Dispatch, the Free Press and ESPN.
  • Adam Proteau of THN is all for a new team in Ontario, just not if it means another league expansion.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Four Lines Deep - 12/26/09

Blue Jackets at Red Wings; Joe Louis Arena
7 p.m. (EST); Fox Sports Ohio (HD)

The Wings are getting healthy again, and key forward Filppula returns for tonight's game.

It's only been a few days since the Jackets' most recent loss to Dallas. However, two days of relative peace and quiet at this time of year can really rejuvenate people...even people that have only two wins in their last 18 games. As was noted in the Dispatch, Commodore had a few of the young, single players over to his place for a nice dinner of pheasant. It tastes like chicken, but doesn't make you sleepy for the rest of a road trip.

The last few days certainly helped the Red Wings get healthy. Tonight's game in the Joe marks the return of several key players, including Rafalski from illness and Filppula out since October with injury. Zetterberg and Cleary both out injuries, also started skating with the team again this morning. Look out NHL.

The Wings have been drawing attention around the league recently for the most surprising of reasons...a lack of scoring. Most recently, they were shut out by the Blackhawks, 3-0. I think it's impressive how well the Wings have maintained their style of hockey with so many injuries to crucial players. Getting Rafalski and Filppula back tonight will certainly strengthen their powerplay unit, if nothing else. Currently, the Wings rank 19th in the league in powerplay efficiency. But frankly, does it matter? The Jackets can't afford to take an AHL team lightly right now, let alone the very same depleted Red Wings team that trounced them 9-1 in Columbus in the teams' only previous meeting this season.

Given the history between the two teams -- the recent highlight being the slaughter in Columbus -- one would think that the Jackets will come out fired up in this game. As hard as it has been to predict which Jackets team will show up from night to night, one would have to believe that Rick Nash and company will bring some energy tonight. The larger question will be if they can sustain the energy through some adversity and for the entire game.

You can copy and paste the keys to victory against the Wings from one game to the next. Of course that's much easier than actually doing those things, but here we go:

Clean the crease. With the loss of so much skill up front due to injuries, there's little surprise that Tomas Holmstrom and his stupid goatee leads the Wings in goals this season. He's made a career in parking himself in front of the net and earning ugly, gritty goals. Rusty Klesla made that position very uncomfortable for him last year, but he's obviously out from injury. Somebody will have to step up and fill that role, or Holmstrom will give the Jackets plenty of problems.

Take the puck to the net. It requires sacrifice and determination - neither of which have been in consistent supply recently - but the Jackets have the sheer size and speed to drive to the net. Getting out of the recent scoring drought will come from "greasy" goals that will never make it to a highlight reel. Opposing teams have been doing a good job of forcing the Jackets to the outside recently, and that has really impacted the number of quality scoring chances the Jackets are getting. With Kronwall out, the Jackets won't have a ton of big hitters (notable exception: Stuart) to contend with, so they should be able to get the puck deep and cycle for some close shots and rebounds. Hopefully, this strategy will also get the Jackets 4-5 powerplays where they have continued to generate the bulk of their goal scoring.

Hit hard and smart.  No matter how many players the Wings are missing, they will absolutely embarrass you if you let them control the puck. That means the Jackets have to punish anyone in a red sweater that finds their way into the neutral or defensive zones. However, the Jackets can't just run around and bang the boards -- the hitting has to be done with the right angles and the right timing. Again, the Jackets have the size to wear down teams that count on puck possession and sharp passing, but they have to pick their spots. When playing the Wings, out-hitting them is just as important as any other statistical category. Regardless of how effective the Jackets are with checking this evening, it is absolutely critical that they become harder to play against, or this losing streak is only a preview of a long and frustrating second half of the season.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stars vs Jackets Live Blog

Afternoon Scrum 12/23/09

Hockey headlines for the CBJ and from around the league. Mmmmm... hockey

Monday, December 21, 2009

Four Lines Deep - 12/21/09

Blue Jackets at Coyotes; Arena
9 p.m. (EST); Fox Sports Ohio

The Jackets are in desperate need of a road win in Phoenix.

The Minnesota Wild recently lost much of their team's equipment in a van fire. While in Phoenix, Columbus should consider burning its equipment and watching something better arise from the ashes. Or maybe not. Ok, here we go then.

This season, two of the three games against Phoenix - including the game played in Columbus last week - have been very close and competitive. Phoenix has an identity to its club, and it has been forged through a commitment to defense-first hockey. With an equal number of games played, the Coyotes have surrended 43 fewer goals than the Jackets and have the luxury of two very solid netminders. Bear in mind, the back-up LaBarbera has earned both of his victories against Columbus this season. The Coyotes are starting a three-game homestand tonight after losing on the road to Anaheim, 4-2. Phoenix took nine penalties in the game. More on that later.

The Jackets' identity is very Zen-like....their identity is to have no identity. Presently, this is confusing to both the fans and the coaches, because nobody seems to know which Jackets team is going to show up on any given night.

The Jackets surrendered four goals within the first 10 minutes of the game in Colorado on Saturday night. There has been much discussion about the desperate nature of things within the blogosphere, including Puck Rakers, but I'm just getting exhausted by it. If this team wants to make the playoffs, they have to play to their potential. Right now. It's just that simple. As has been stated on JR before, the team just needs some on-ice leaders to emerge.

The good news is that according to Puck Rakers, the players are fed up and ready to start winning. Passionate and honest speeches were made behind closed doors, and Hitch has put both Garon and Mason on equal footing -- if you win, you play. That's a pretty powerful message to send to the team. Garon is getting the start, which isn't much of a surprise given Mason's horrid showing in Colorado and Garon's solid play against Phoenix this season.  Given recent history in this matchup, here are some keys to getting two points:

  • It looks like Bryzgalov is getting the start tonight, so the Jackets will have to throw plenty of pucks at the net. He has been solid all season and owns one of the best save percentages in the league. The Jackets have been doing a good job on the powerplay of getting pucks to the net with traffic in front for re-direct chances and rebounds. It would be great to see that happening in five-on-five as well, but that will mean the Jackets have to lead a sustained cycling attack around the net. Phoenix does a good job of clearing the defensive zone quickly, so that's no easy task for the Jackets tonight.
  • The Jackets have to get physical. Will somebody - anybody - punch somebody in the face? I'd love to see Commodore or Blunden drop the gloves. If the Jackets are going to lose, let's at least make sure the other team knows they were in a hockey game. The Jackets have plenty of size to make their presence felt. At the very least, it could entice the Coyotes to take some bad penalties. The Coyotes have been taking a lot of penalties in the last few games, which is not typical of their style. Let's hope that's the beginning of a trend that carries over into this evening. Their PK was carved up by Anaheim in the last game. Lots of penalties reflect some laziness and poor decision making - and that could open up more opportunities for the potent Jackets PP unit. Yes, I just used potent and Jackets in the same sentence.
  • I feel compelled to say that the Jackets have to start in not allowing four goals in the first 10 minutes. A couple of good scoring opportunities in the first five minutes will energize the whole team and hopefully set the tone for the whole game, and I wouldn't mind seeing somebody drop the gloves or plant somebody in the boards to start the game. I see Jake Voracek having a unique opportunity to make this statement - he'll be seeing time on the first line and could both lay a bit hit and generate a solid scoring opportunity right out of the gate. Phoenix has just come off a four-game road trip on Saturday night, so it's likely they could still have some heavy legs.

Afternoon Scrum 12/21/09

Coke? I'll have two, please.

Hockey headlines for the CBJ and from around the league. Mmmmm... hockey

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Four Lines Deep - 12/19/09

Blue Jackets at The Avalanche; Pepsi Center
9 p.m. (EST); Fox Sports Ohio (HD)

The Avalanche surprised many in the league with such a strong start, and to their credit, they've maintained very solid hockey 30+ games into the season. They are tied for first with Calgary in the Northwest Division with 44 points.

Colorado is wrapping up a five-game homestand. They lost badly (6-1) to Washington on Tuesday night and will surely be looking to give a better showing to the home crowd. With Hejduk likely rejoining the lineup, the Jackets will have their hands full with this Avalanche team -- especially with Statsny and Wolski, who anchor the top line.

The penalty kill percentages for both teams are nearly identical, but Columbus holds the edge in the powerplay. The Jackets didn't find too much rhythm to their powerplay on Thursday against a formidable Phoenix PK unit, but one gets the sense that the "bounces" are starting to go in the Jackets favor. The most obvious proof of this was Tyutin's missed one-timer that evolved into a perfectly timed pass to Nash for his powerplay tally. If the Jackets just sharpen up the zone entry and point passing, the unit should continue to produce. Columbus has been playing much better on the kill, but should keep an eye on Wolski -- one-third of his points (11) have come on the power play.

The Jackets will spend the next week on the road and it's obviously a critical juncture in the season. A good time to build momentum and some more fortitude. Despite the fact they only earned one point in the last two games, there were some meaningful positives to draw upon. First - and certainly most important - the defense has really tightened up. Methot should probably get comfortable in the press box, because Roy is playing very well. Both Mason and Garon have also looked pretty sharp, and the defense in general has really cut down on turnovers and miscommunication behind the blue line. When these two teams last met, the Jackets did not play well -- nor did they play with much passion. I see it playing out differently tonight:

Oh Captain, My Captain: Rick Nash has put the hammer down in the last few games. Whether he realizes it or not, the team draws so much energy from his style of play. He is quickly returning to form and leading the charge and I expect another strong game from him tonight. Adam Foote is logging more than 20 minutes per game, so it's likely he'll see some of Nash -- I don't see Foote being able to contain a determined Rick Nash at this point in his career.

The Chemistry Set: It's the holiday season and maybe some kids still ask for one of these. Maybe not. Regardless, I'm asking for one. The lines Hitch has set for tonight make the more sense to me than the lines have for a long time. I'm sure Hitch is relieved to hear of my review. This team needs to start building some consistency and chemistry. I'd like to see Dorsett in this mix when he's healthy, but I still think the top two forward lines look as they should. Umberger is on fire and has earned a spot on the top line. Specifically, I'm glad to see Brassard on the No. 2 line. He needs to build some confidence with guys that can finish -- I still think he has No. 1 line potential, but he's not going to improve with eight minutes of ice time between grinders. Hitch prides himself on rolling four lines, much as Phoenix did to the Jackets on Thursday. The ability to do so will be crucial as the season wears on, and there is a tremendous opportunity to build a stronger identity among those four lines on this road trip. With all this said, Hitch could change every line by the second period.

Keep on shooting:  As we discussed before the Phoenix game, there's only one way to get out of a scoring slump...shoot the puck. They took 39 shots on net vs. Phoenix, and missed the net another 15 times. They need to get 35 or more shots on Anderson -- the Jackets are due. Voracek and Huselius are really due. Keep the pucks coming from all angles and there will be some juicy rebounds to pounce upon.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Four Lines Deep - 12/18/09

Coyotes at Blue Jackets; Nationwide Arena
7 p.m. (EST); Fox Sports Ohio (HD)

Coyotes forward Vernon Fiddler is another former Nashville Predator who is used to dominating the Jackets.

The Coyotes make their third meeting of the season tonight with the Jackets after playing in Toronto last night.  They played in front of 19,000 and won 6-3. The Jackets and Coyotes have split their previous two meetings. Coming into last night's game, Phoenix had won six of its last eight games. They sit in third place in the top-heavy Pacific Division with (42) points.

The Coyotes don't score a ton of goals -- in fact Radim Vrbata leads the team with only 11 goals -- but they have already earned 20 wins. And that's because Phoenix has continued to play solid defense (78 GA) and has benefitted from exceptional goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, who has a stunning 2.02 GAA. It is likely that he'll take the night off, but his back-up, Jason LaBarbera, has played well against the Jackets in the past. Those of us in Jackets nation realize now more than ever that a GAA that low is a direct result of a team commitment to defense. Given their current state of play, the uphill battle for the Jackets to win this game may be a little steeper against Phoenix, as the Jackets have struggled recently to score. The powerplay has remained fairly strong for the Jackets, but there will be no easy goals on this PK unit as Phoenix currently has the fifth best kill in the league (84%).

As was noted in the Afternoon Scrum, the Jackets have struggled against the Coyotes in recent memory. Last year, it was more puzzling as to why the Jackets weren't matching up well against Phoenix, but this year it should be pretty clear. From the "broken record" department, the Jackets have to do a few things tonight to get a much needed win:

  • LaBarbera is 1-3 and hasn't played since Nov. 16. He's played well against the Jackets (his only win of the season), but goaltenders around the league don't look forward to playing the big, fast forwards that Columbus has up front. With Modin and Weighty back in the lineup, the Jackets have four lines with significant size. One should expect that LaBarbera will be a little rusty to start, and getting some traffic up front could provide some strong early scoring opportunities.

  • Much discussion has already been made about this, but the Jackets have to narrow the giveaways. They did a decent job of this for much of the game in Minnesota. I think having Roy in the lineup may have helped. I'm told by JR staff that they had a solid day of practice and looked sharp. As we've seen, that can make a big difference in the game setting. Regardless, the Coyotes are opportunistic and can't be given any odd-man rushes and juicy turnovers in the defensive zone. The Jackets have to make crisp passes and hit the forwards on the breakout in stride if they want to capitalize on their speed up front.

  • Shoot the puck. There's only way to get out of a scoring drought -- score, right? Recently, the Jackets have been guilty of over-passing the puck. This limits your opportunities to catch a goalie off-guard, and can certainly lead to rushes in the other direction. The Jackets should get at least 35 shots on net tonight to challenge LaBarbera and open up opportunities for rebounds in the crease. If they're going to generate that many opportunities, the Jackets will need shots getting through from the points -- Stralman, Russell and Tyutin will be key to this strategy. As Hitch said, they have to get a "out workin' win." Keeping your opponents' netminder busy is a great foundation for that kind of win, and to the point made by Nash after the Nashville loss, they have to find ways to get the puck deep and cycle the defense into a mistake.

Afternoon Scrum 12/17/09

Hockey headlines for the CBJ and from around the league. Mmmmm... hockey

Jackets host the 'Yotes tonight in Nationwide Arena. Look for a Four Lines Deep post later in the day to give the breakdown of the matchup. For now, just know that the CBJ (13th in the West) have lost 5 of the past 6 to the Coyotes dating back to last season's 4 game sweep. Look at the bright side: we've no where to go but up. Here are you headlines....

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Afternoon Scrum 12/16/09

Hockey headlines for the CBJ and from around the league. Mmmmm... hockey

  • I'm a fan of writers who deliver their thoughts in concise and deliberate sentences. When a sports writer is able to do this in conjunction with expressing his or her passion for the sport they are writing about, I will gladly take time out of my schedule to read their work on a regular basis. Consequently I haven't missed a John Buccigross hockey column in years. If you have kids who play hockey, or have a youngster who you hope will play one day, this is a must read.
  • NHL Board of Governors meeting are currently taking place. The issue of headshots is on the docket. A plea to the owners, GM's and the league: please, please, please do something to curtail this dangerous problem.
  • In keeping with the Board of Governors meeting theme, here's an interesting read from the Canadian Press about some of the issues Commissioner Gary Bettman addressed to the owners. The sale of the Coyotes, and the projected salary cap for next season are included. Glad to read the Commish doesn't think the cap will drop much if at all.
  • Senators C Jason Spezza will miss 6-8 weeks with a sprained knee. As The Dude would say, "That's a bummer, man".
  • Interesting read from PuckDaddy discussing the correlation between the league-wide drop in attendance and the rise in games being broadcast in HD and being made available on the internet machines. Do games in HD contribute to my decision to go to the game or watch at home? Yes, it does. But far less so than the cost of going to the game versus the jack I'm shelling out to my cable provider.
  • This article is a couple of days old, but relevant to Jackets fans today. Lightning coach Rick Tocchet is willing to bench some stars in order to send a message to his team. Will Hitchcock be willing to do the same to try and snap the CBJ out of their swoon?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

State of the Union - 12/15/09

Perhaps a Holiday trade will shake the Jackets into a better New Year?

Folks, I don't even know where to start. I don't even have the energy to get into a preview for a non-televised road game in Minnesota. And I should, right? Until last night, I would have and been very happy to do so.  I'm taking time out of my day to further my investment into this franchise, and you're all doing the same. It's all about energy. With every horrific defensive zone turnover, every botched outlet pass into a teammates skates, every missed check and every missed rebound, your energy as a fan gets worn down.

I'm sure that I'm a lot like all of you. I've invested a lot of time and a lot of money into this team. I'm not giving up on them. I'm not going to stop watching games. I'm not going to stop attending games. I will still wear my Jackets gear with pride. After today, I'll get through my rant and write Four Lines Deep as often as I possibly can. As fans - many of us being the "hardcore" variety - we have seen plenty of ugly, losing hockey. The distinct difference being that this team has true talent on the roster. Seriously. And that is why this is so maddening to the fans -- and likely to the players and management as well. We know what players like Mason, Nash, Voracek, Brassard and Hejda are capable of. And they are all playing without any kind of consistent energy and passion. Hitch termed last night's losing effort against Nashville as a "microcosm of the entire season." Agreed. And if one scoring chance for Nashville was a microcosm of that game, I'd have to say it was when Nashville was given THREE unchallenged shots off a rebound. To his credit Mason stopped them all, but had to do so without any defensive support whatsoever. In the darkest and most barren times of this franchise, I have never seen such a lack of effort.

As I see it, there are several possibilities for this lack of passion and energy.

1) We don't have the requisite talent -- This seems unlikely, as the team has gone through prolonged stretches of winning hockey games against very good teams and they played well enough to make the playoffs last year with essentially the same roster.

2) The coach has lost the room -- This, unfortunately, is starting to look more likely. Perhaps his philosophy isn't meshing well with such young players. Until very recently, I found this excuse to be over simplistic and cliche. However, the team no longer has Malhotra and Peca. We don't miss them too much on the stat sheet, but they could have added more intangible value.They may have been good intermediaries between Hitch and the younger players last year. The departure of Filatov - a bright young prospect -  felt ominous as well.

3) There aren't any effective (player) leaders in the room -- This also looks more likely right now. Certainly, players such as Umberger, Commodore and Nash have the capacity to fill this role - and I think it's fine if they do so at different points in the season - but the on-ice product doesn't prove it's happening right now. Umberger is definitely playing the most inspired hockey of any of them though, and I wouldn't be surprised if he takes this team by the reins tonight.

In conclusion, I think it comes down to an issue of leadership. And that doesn't leave Howson out of scrutiny by any means. He has to take responsibility for providing Hitchcock with the right personnel -- and guess what -- we still don't have a No. 1 defenseman. And we still don't have a No. 1 center. What we do have is a lot of young talent with no confidence and a dearth of leadership from which to learn. Brassard, who I believe will be a tremendous NHL player some day, has regressed this year in a big way. And the closest thing we have to a consistent defenseman right now is 5' 11' and weighs 175 pounds (Russell). It has become glaringly clear that those shortcomings are impacting the team in a big way.

The leaders of every successful organization -- regardless of the industry -- have to know how to motivate the employees. Perhaps even more important, they have to know how to motivate the middle management, i.e. NHL team captains, because they ultimately win the trust and admiration of the employees through daily interaction. So how do the Jackets do that? You make a trade. The chemistry in that locker room has to change, and you have to wake up the "middle management" of the team. Jobs are on the line right now. In my opinion, the player that makes the most sense is Huselius. I like him a lot, and would hate to see him go, but he is definitely trade worthy. He hasn't delivered on the top line with the consistency expected of him, he will never play defense to the degree necessary on a Hitchcock-coached team, and he has the great hands and finishing ability that make him valuable to quite a few teams in need of more goal scoring. He is an asset we can live without, and it's clear that the management wants to focus more so upon the wealth of young talent currently in the dressing room. You won't lose any leadership with this departure either, and that is exactly what this team needs right now. It's likely that the departure of a high-skill player who has spent much of his time on the first line will make the call for accountability and leadership much more relevant to the dressing room.

You don't measure the efficacy of a leader during the easy and good times -- you measure them when the chips are down. For those of you keeping score at home, the chips are down.

Sorry for the long rant. We welcome your thoughts and will return to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow. We'll carry the flag tonight and hope that this team gets back on track - somehow - in the very near future.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Four Lines Deep 12/14/09

Nashville (18-11-3) @ Columbus (14-12-6)
Nationwide Arena
7:00 pm EST
TV: FS Ohio (HD!)

Well, well, guess who it is. Darth Vader and his merry band of Storm Troopers. Anyone else getting tired of this metaphor? If we would beat them once in a while it would disappear. Until then.... Anywho, as for the game itself, the Preds are skating in to town riding a 3-1-1 streak in their last 5 games including a shootout win over the Jackets last Thursday. The Jackets, meanwhile, are owners of a 1-3-1 record over the same span. As for the standings, the Predators sit 7th in the West, 5 points ahead of the Jackets who are 12th.

FIRST LINE: Let's Mix Things Up. Hitch made a special point after the last game to call out the top line for not competing at a level high enough to be effective, much less be a game changer. Specifically, he noted that Nash has "looked tired." Expect to see this line broken up tonight as I think Hitch has had it with these guys and he sees an opportunity to make a statement to the whole team. No reports from the morning skate to back this up, but my guess is Huselius finds his way to the second or third line tonight. Pure speculation.

SECOND LINE: Well Isn't That Special? The Jackets still sit, amazingly, 4th (23%) in the league in PP percentage. The Predators Penalty Kill is ranked 24th (78.4%) in the League. If/when the Jackets get the opportunity they have to capitalize with the man advantage. That 5-3 against the Ducks on Saturday was brutal to watch (50+ seconds, 2 shots).

THIRD LINE: Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive. Nashville bruiser Jordan Tootoo is out 6-8 weeks with a broken foot (courtesy of a Shea Weber slapshot). With him out of the lineup, the Jackets would serve themselves well to take advantage of this situation to impose some physicality upon the Preds. Not that they ever should not be physical, but the lack of a skilled fighter on the other bench should lend itself to throwing the body checks with a little more gusto. After all, this is how opponents approach the Jackets on most nights.

FOURTH LINE: Another Game, Another New Lineup. With Modin playing in his second game of the season and Dorsett out with a broken hand, the Jackets will ice yet another lineup that is a first for the season. Freddy played better than anyone would have anticipated in his first game. It was noted going into that game that Hitch figured to use him 8-10 minutes. With the lines being shuffled due to Dorsett leaving the game, Freddy took 17 shifts for 12:16 of ice time including :51 on the PK. He was strong on the boards, played in traffic and didn't take a shift off. If the room is looking for a veteran leader, they just found one. Here's hoping the Big Swede can inspire some of the younger players to compete at a higher level... including the Captain.