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COMPOSED BLUE JACKETS EXTEND WINNING WAYS

Watching the Blue Jackets engineer their 4 – 1` victory over the Los Angeles Kings in Nationwide Arena, an adjective came to mind that had seldom been uttered in the eight prior NHL campaigns waged by the young franchise – composed. Despite having their top line defensive pair (Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda) on the sideline with injuries, and a bevy of youngsters manning the blue line, there was none of the scrambling and disorganization that prior squads might have displayed under similar circumstances.

Early season schedules can play fits with team cohesion and sharpness. Columbus had last played on Tuesday, and the rust showed early. Despite putting constant pressure on the Kings defenders, Columbus failed to cash in on any of the opportunities. Halfway through the period, Los Angeles took the lead with what proved to be their only goal of the evening, when Dustin Brown deposited a seeing-eye shot in the net on what goalie Steve Mason conceded was “a bad goal.” The Kings were otherwise shut down for most of the first, and the Blue Jackets finally converted with just 47 seconds left in the period, when winger Jason Chimera sprinted down the left wing. With Rick Nash barreling down the middle, Chimera fired a laser from the left dot that found the net up high, squaring the score at the break.

This was game five of a six game road trip for Los Angeles, and the third in four nights. The demanding schedule, combined with an aggressive forecheck from the Blue Jackets, took its toll as the second period progressed. With three minutes left in the frame, a resurgent Raffi Torres parked a rebound over a pile of amassed bodies in front of the net for a power play goal. Torres now has three goals on the young season, and is clearly happy to be healthy and playing an important role for the club. Afterwards, he acknowledged having “a newfound passion for the game”, and it showed in all three zones.

The third period belonged to Columbus thanks to goalie Steve Mason and Nash. Mason stepped up and made some key saves after some sloppy turnovers, and Nash converted another Jackets penalty kill into a shorthanded highlight-reel goal. All that was left was an empty-netter from Jakub Voracek, and the 15,251 in attendance were sent home happy. Columbus moved to 5 -1, with a perfect home record, and showed once again it can win, even without its “A” game.

The young defensemen played a big role in this victory. Mathieu Roy, assuming a starting role since the Hejda injury, was solid defensively, and confident with the puck. Kris Russell, celebrating the signing of a three year, $3.9 million contract extension, handled the puck deftly and showed some renewed confidence. Mark Methot, called upon to take over many of Hejda’s minutes, showed greatly improved anticipation and defensive presence. Recently acquired Anton Stralman continued his solid play, surprising many with his skills on both ends of the ice. Hitchcock observed that Stralman“ . . . just does not make mistakes with the puck . . . He does a lot of the little things that the guys on the bench notice.” High praise from a coach notoriously demanding of defensive effort.

For his part, Hitchcock remains unsatisfied with the production of his top two lines. Although he conceded that Nash is an exception, he obviously is looking for more finishing ability from the likes of Brassard, Umberger, Huselius, Vermette and Voracek. He expressed pleasure with the play of his blue liners, the goaltending tandem of Mason and Garon, and the penalty kill, which leads the league in effectiveness, having dispatched 23 out of 24 penalties.

As they embark on their second western road trip of the new season (another gift from the schedule makers), the Blue Jackets are quietly confident. Captain Rick Nash noted that the team has seen too much adversity in the past to be complacent now. “We need to stay level-headed and take things as they come”.

While Columbus is correctly avoiding over-confidence, there is clearly a justified measure of satisfaction with their accomplishments thus far. With significant injuries on the blue line, an offense that is yet to hit its stride and a young Nikita Filatov learning the intricacies of “Hitchcock Hockey”, there is a significant upside to the team’s performance potential, which should prove daunting to prospective opponents.

Even the normally reticent Hitchcock could not resist a measure of optimism. Calling to mind the 2 – 1 win over Calgary last Tuesday, the coach drew some thinly veiled comparisons to the clubs he coached in Dallas, including his Cup winning squad: “When I see games like Calgary . . .I’ve seen that movie before – a lot — in a former life. It’s a good feeling, because you know you can control the game forever like that. If you can get into that mindset and play that way–and we are showing flashes of being able to do that — then you can win a lot of hockey games for a long period of time.”
Now that is music to the ears of Blue Jackets fans everywhere.

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