Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Start They Needed

It is just one game.

In the grand scheme of things, the Blue Jackets 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena is just one game out of what could be a grueling 37 game gauntlet -- through which the Jackets probably need to carry a win percentage of somewhere between 70 and 75 percent -- to make the Playoffs.

And... they have to do it without their All-Star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky on the ice for four to six weeks.

The good news is, that first game of that gauntlet was a win

The bad news... well, really, it was really more like a couple of hiccups, in which the Jackets managed to give up a goal just as they had taken a two-goal lead... on two different occasions. Each time, it happened the announcement of the previous Blue Jackets goal ended.

Won't lie, that was little frustrating to watch. You could feel the collective eye roll in the building.

However, the Jackets executed very well for most of the game, save for those hiccups. They did a good job clearing the zone and killing penalties. They put sometimes ridiculous pressure on Caps goaltender Braden Holtby.

And some of that passing. How the hell were they doing some of that? The Jackets looked sharp. And some of those near misses in the third... it was like they smelled blood in the water

Cam Atkinson broke a long scoring drought for the eventual game winner. Fedor Tyutin tallied a rare goal, Mark Letestu opened the scoring from the fourth line and Ryan Johansen put up a goal and generated some decent chances, as though he was laying the groundwork for a second straight Star Of The Week from the NHL. There is no denying… Johansen is playing some damn fine hockey right now.

Hell, whole damn team looked really good... not the least of whom was Curtis McElhinney himself. Pressed into duty following Bobrovsky's injury, C-Mac made a solid 25 saves on 28 shots, including a game-saver that required a lateral move to follow a pass and deny a goal that continues to replay in my head. Absolute blur.

This was the start the Jackets needed to begin the stretch run. They'll hop a plane later today for a two-game roadie in Florida on Thursday and Saturday to try and build on it.

Go Jackets!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Stretch Run Against The Odds

Tonight... it's back to work.

The Columbus Blue Jackets' climb into Playoff contention begins now, in Nationwide Arena against the Washington Capitals, before leaving on a two-game road trip to sunrise and Tampa.

However, the Jackets will have to get the job done without Sergei Bobrovsky, who the Jackets confirmed Monday would miss 4-6 weeks with a groin injury, which he suffered in the Jackets' last game in Winnipeg before the All-Star Break.

This season is not over.

However, even the most sunshiny, rainbow-shooting optimist will admit... the Blue Jackets' chances are very much in peril.

The good news is that among the bright spots, Ryan Murray's and Artem Anisimov's skating with the team seem to indicate they may be close to returning to the lineup, and the Jackets are getting some bodies back.

The loss of Bobrovsky, however, is the factor that could end this stretch run before it begins.

Now, to be fair, Curtis McElhinney has performed well of late. That is not to say he has had a lot of starts in the last few weeks, but it's something. It's also a point to note that the team has played well in front of him on those starts.

And that is essential. The rest of the team needs to step up, if the Jackets are to have any chance at getting above the line.

That means forechecking. Controlling the neutral zone. Good passing. All of these are things where the Jackets have had problems. And I haven't even mentioned shooting the puck with some regularity.

The Blue Jackets are looking up at just about everybody in the Eastern Conference. This is where every point matters. McElhinney can help this team win.

But the team has to help him too. Give him better looks. Control their own zone better. Avoid stupid, costly turnovers.

This can be done. This team can do it.

But make no mistake: It's gut-check time.

Go Jackets!

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Survey SAYS... (Well, MY Survey, Anyway...)

"How are you enjoying All-Star Weekend?"

"It's going great. I'm having an awesome time."

"That's wonderful to hear. Would you mind taking a couple minutes to take a survey, just when you have some spare time, to talk about your experience this weekend?"

"Oh, absolutely. No problem."

This is a dialogue that place while walking out of the All-Star Weekend Winter Park in the Arena District on Saturday night, after grabbing a beer, and roasting some marshmallows for s'mores, and basically doing some wandering around after the Skills Competition. The survey card was simple enough: tell us how Columbus is doing... including, of course, the branding the Columbus has been using in its logos for the past few years. If you go to the site MyColumbusExperience.org, you are greeted by a full-screen graphic, and asked you to select whether you're planning a trip to Columbus, you're here now, or whether you've visited in the past year.

No, I'm not going tell you everything that's on it.

However, as I reflect on this All-Star Weekend, my responses to it would go far beyond what this one-minute survey could ever cover.

However, the fact that this amazing weekend took place in Columbus is the primary focus.
For the 20-plus years I've been watching hockey, this was a weekend that is been on my calendar... even when it wasn't on anyone's calendar. From the first Boston Bruins-Montréal Canadiens playoff game I saw as a teenager on a satellite dish, to the ESPN coverage of NHL hockey throughout college, from the first time I got to see I team I cheered for, hoist the Stanley Cup in 1996... I dreamed that one day, my beloved hometown of Columbus could have an NHL team.


When it got one in 1997, that dream then evolved to someday being at an All-Star Game, when the hockey world would be focused on our city.

Soooooo... yeah, one could assume that this was a pretty big item on the ol' "bucket list."

The Columbus Blue Jackets franchise has certainly had its ups and downs over the years since the team was announced in 1997 and began playing in 2000. We've seen crises of leadership and breakout stars take the ice proudly wearing that Union Blue. We have seen disappointments and successes, heartbreak and exhilaration. But through it all, everything was about to change, when the NHL announced three years ago that Columbus would host the NHL All-Star Game in 2013.

And then the anticipation got to build for a couple more years, because of the Lockout that shortened the 2013 season.

But the spotlight was truly on our city this weekend. Columbus was the center of the hockey world.

That's not an "ego" thing. All the mascots were here. We go where they go, right?

The city of Columbus -- from government officials, to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, to Experience Columbus, the various sponsors and everybody else involved -- was ready, and put together a celebration that everyone, whether natives to visitors, will remember for ages.

The Greater Columbus Convention Center became Hockey Central, with the presentation of the NHL All-Star FanFair, which included everything from interactive games and activities, to ball hockey tournaments, chances to sit in the broadcast booth with Barry Melrose and, of course, pictures with the Stanley Cup and a display of all the NHL's prestigious hardware. And, of course, plenty of opportunities to buy stuff like All-Star game merchandise, hockey cards, collectible pins and so forth.

For those not content to just walk around and enjoy Columbus for the weekend, Saturday morning kicked off with the NHL All-Star 5K race, taking walkers and runners around and through downtown Columbus on a brisk morning.

The WinterPark... oh, what an experience. A full-size hockey rink was open for skating, hosted an outdoor junior game and even served as a backdrop for the last couple regular-season Blue Jackets telecasts. Then there were the lights, the heated tents, the beer garden, the open fire for marshmallow roasts... and who can forget the huge snow slide down Nationwide Boulevard that brought huge lines and was a big focal point for a lot of home and visiting fans that I talked to.

It even got its own natural snow cover, as All-Star Weekend came to a close.

And then there were the fans themselves... many out-of-towners visiting Columbus for the first time, or may have just passed through once or twice. Fans from all over -- Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh and beyond -- here to see their favorite players show their skills in the world's greatest sport, while also having the bonus of a variety of great places to eat, party and play... and with home fans more than willing to steer them to their favorite places.

I have always likened hockey fans to one big, happy dysfunctional family. I still believe that.

But the emphasis really does fall on family. And this weekend was special because we got to have a lot of friends and family in town to visit. Much like we do when it's just Blue Jackets fans, or maybe just shooting the proverbial breeze with a handful of "away" fans... with "family" in town, Columbus was open, welcoming, and we all had a chance to get together, raise a glass to our teams, our favorite players, and one another and a safe trip home for those who were visiting. All in the hope that we'll do it again sometime.

I got to meet some great people this weekend, both local and from out of town. Locals who beamed with pride with the celebration going on here, and visitors who were amazed at everything Columbus had to offer, and talking about how they would have to make another trip in the future just to check out some of the stuff that they were going to miss.

This was a hockey weekend.

This was Columbus' time to shine as a jewel in the National Hockey League.

And it did.

And I have never been more proud of my hometown, than I am as I write this. It's the kind of pride a one-minute survey cannot contain.

Be proud. You did it.

Go Columbus!

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Jackets Not Done Yet

They're not dead yet.

As exhilarating as December was for the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fans, January has been frustrating. And stressful.

The fact that a 10-1-1 December put the Jackets so far ahead of pace to get back into contention by the All-Star Break, made it that much more disappointing for them to suffer a horrific setback like they have this month.

I mean, win seven straight games and then 10 out of 12 for the month, and you're feeling pretty damn good. Then you take a bad loss, and you try not sweat it, because this has been the kind of team that bounces back with an answer game the next time.

So that 6-3 loss to Arizona was not a cause for panic. The Jackets won the next two against Colorado and Dallas.

Then the 5-2 loss at Toronto happened. Then the 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders. Still not panicking.

Then the three power-play goals given up to Montréal in four minutes in the third period. Then the 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers.

$#!+.

Next thing you know, the Jackets have to sweep a three-game road trip just to get back to .500 by the All-Star Break this weekend. That means having to beat a hot Winnipeg Jets team, currently riding a four-game win streak into tonight.

So the team showing signs of life again cannot come at a more critical time than right now. This team is not dead.

On this trip, it's the Blue Jackets scoring the late goals. Forechecking. Moving the puck well. As disappointing as January has been for the Jackets in Nationwide Arena... the fact that they've now won eight of their last 10 on the road is what has kept them alive right now.

How about the grit on Matt Calvert against Boston, scoring the go-ahead goal and adding an empty netter to snap the Jackets four game skid -- and the Bruins five-game winning streak. To top it off, he did so after taking a rough hit in the second. And was apparently fighting an illness to top it off.

Then there's James Wisniewski, who put in the game-winning goal Monday night against Minnesota, and then made a game-preserving sweep of the puck out of the crease with Minnesota bearing down on Sergei Bobrovsky.

The Jackets are playing like a desperate hockey team. Players are stepping up again. The sense of urgency is back.

After a week-long lull, the Jackets are playing like a contender again.

Now, make no mistake... the Jackets are up against it. If the Jackets can pull out a win and get to .500 on Wednesday against Winnipeg, they will be anywhere from 11 to 13 points out of the second Wild Card spot -- depending on Boston's fate in Colorado tonight.

So, needless to say the next five weeks are pretty much the make-or-break situation for Columbus. Injuries hurt the Jackets in october and November, but the Jackets hurt themselves in January. with the two Metro Division losses to the Islanders and Rangers, and this will not be an easy deficit to make up. The anticipated returns of Artem Anisimov and Ryan Murray -- hopefully soon -- should help.

But the Jackets will need to heat up, and will need other contenders to cool off.

But the focus has to be one game at a time, starting tonight against Winnipeg. After that, most of the Jackets get a rest, and then it's 37 games to make up whatever deficit there is remaining to return to the Playoffs.

One game at a time.

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