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.

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