The Jackets are riding high, coming off of arguably the two biggest wins in franchise history, back-to-back. They fired on all cylinders in dismantling the Detroit Red Wings 8-2 on Saturday, and followed that up with one of their most complete performances in memory in stifling the NHL-leading Boston Bruins 2-0 on Tuesday night at Nationwide. As good as those two games were, the Jackets need to continue to focus on the schedule ahead and take each game one-at-a-time, as it doesn’t get any easier tonight. The Penguins are arguably the NHL’s hottest team right now, and possess the offensive capabilities to make it a rough night for any team. The Jackets get a chance to atone for their lackluster performance in Pittsburgh last month, but it’s going to be a tough night all around.
|LW:||Chris Kunitz||Ruslan Fedotenko||Matt Cooke||Craig Adams|
|C:||Sidney Crosby||Evgeni Malkin||Jordan Staal||Maxime Talbot|
|RW:||Bill Guerin||Pascal Dupuis||Tyler Kennedy||Eric Godard|
|D:||Sergei Gonchar||Hal Gill||Mark Eaton|
|D:||Brooks Orpik||Rob Scuderi||Kris Letang|
Columbus Blue Jackets:
|LW:||Kristian Huselius||R.J. Umberger||Raffi Torres||Andrew Murray|
|C:||Manny Malhotra||Antoine Vermette||Michael Peca||Chris Gratton|
|RW:||Rick Nash||Jason Williams||Jakub Voracek||Jared Boll|
|D:||Jan Hejda||Fedor Tyutin||Kris Russell|
|D:||Mike Commodore||Rostislav Klesla||Marc Methot|
PIT – 3.00 gpg (9th NHL)
CBJ – 2.70 gpg (21st NHL)
PIT – 2.94 gapg (t20th NHL)
CBJ – 2.70 gapg (7th NHL)
PIT – 16.0% (t24th NHL)
CBJ – 13.0% (30th NHL)
PIT – 80.2% (18th NHL)
CBJ – 81.8% (t13th NHL)
1. Columbus 1 at Pittsburgh 4 (2/6/09)[box]
Who To Root For
Thanks to the great people at Sports Club Stats, we can also look at what the rest of the league is doing, and who (as Jackets fans) we need to root for tonight to help them make the playoffs:
Pittsburgh at Columbus
Minnesota at Colorado
New York Rangers at Nashville
San Jose at St. Louis
Carolina at Dallas (I root for Carolina anyway, as they’re 5-Hole’s official Eastern Conference Team, on account of the fact that Official Brother and Sister-in-Law of 5-Hole are Hurricanes fans/season ticket holders – this is just extra incentive)
Looking at the numbers, these teams matchup pretty evenly on paper. The Penguins are stronger up front on offense, whereas the Jackets tend to be stronger in the backend and in goal. There are a few differences this time around as compared to the February 6th matchup: first and foremost for Columbus, Steve Mason will be playing tonight, fresh off his best two games in quite some time (two total goals allowed on 81 shots against the top two offenses in the NHL). Wade Dubielewicz got his first, last, and only start of the season against Pittsburgh last time out, and while The Dube held his own for most of the game, he had a pretty brutal stretch (3 GA) in the second period that all but decided it; Columbus could never recover. Also for the Jackets, newcomer Antoine Vermette has meshed fairly seamlessly into Columbus’s second forward line, playing two solid games against Detroit and Boston. Finally for Columbus, they are at home this time, where they are 21-10-2 on the season (as compared to 13-17-4 on the road).
That’s not to say that Pittsburgh isn’t a different team as well. They made a coaching change, and since that move they are 9-1-0, including winning seven straight. The Jackets weren’t the only team to add players at the trading deadline, either, as Pittsburgh added veteran winger Bill Guerin and put him on Sidney Crosby’s line. They also added Chris Kunitz from Anaheim, who has 42 points (19G, 23A) on the season. In short, the Penguins are stronger on offense than the last time the Jackets saw them. Over this awesome 10-game stretch of theirs, they’ve scored 35 goals while giving up only 26. They’ve been playing much better hockey. So, while the Jackets are certainly a better team than the one the Penguins saw in February, the same can be said the other way around: Pittsburgh is better (and is definitely playing much better) as well.
If the Jackets have any advantage, it’s that both teams played on Tuesday, and the Penguins have had to travel (though, honestly, you can drive from Columbus to Pittsburgh in like 3 hours). The Jackets have been playing their best hockey, well EVER, these past two games, and quite honestly it has to continue if they have any designs on taking down the Penguins tonight. The Penguins are simply nuclear-hot right now. Both Detroit and Boston had been struggling to some degree before Columbus beat them these past two games. The Penguins right now are a different animal. In talking about this game with my friend Jeff who has season tickets, his summation is pretty spot on: “I’m worried about Pittsburgh. The CBJ have not demonstrated the ability to maintain the high level of intensity they need to beat the Pens after the last two games. If they bring it [again], my skepticism will fade quite a bit.” Here, here. But, as we noted in the Bruins recap, the Jackets seem to have a knack for playing up to the level of their tougher competition. Let’s hope that continues tonight.
Nuts and bolts time: the Penguins still have two of the three leading scorers in the NHL in Evgeni Malkin and Sydney Crosby (hat tip to Light the Lamp: “You can’t spell ‘Crosby’ without ‘c-r-y’”). The Jackets get a little help from the fact that Petr Sykora is out with a shoulder injury. However, Pittsburgh has mixed their lines up, pairing Crosby with Guerin and Kunitz on the top line, and moving Malkin down to the #2 line. In other words, which line do you match your top line up against? It will be interesting to see how Hitch matches up. The Jackets look to get some help on the #3 line with Michael Peca coming back (replacing Jiri Novotny, most likely). Peca’s a “playoff run” kind of player (i.e., he generally saves a bit/turns it on for the stretch run), and he’s a guy who’s been there before (ironically, he was on the Sabres team that “lost” to Cup to Hitch’s Dallas Stars). Having him back for the stretch run should only help the Jackets.
Broken record time: the Jackets will need to bring the effort they had against Detroit and Boston to continue their quest for the playoffs tonight. They had a great forecheck, and they used it to force turnovers and to keep their opponents from getting their offense set up completely. The Jackets owned the first period against Boston, outshooting them 12-5 in that frame. They need to come out and establish themselves like that again against the Penguins, to negate some of that offensive pressure. The Jackets are a team that can be defined by the “first goal” of a hockey game: if they get it, they tend to feed off it and build; if they give it up, they’ve been known to hang their heads. One positive trend: since their ill-fated Western Canada swing two weeks ago, the Jackets have scored 17 goals (4.25 GPG) on 120 shots (30 SPG) in their last four games, going 3-1-0. Marc-Andre Fleury is somewhere between Tim Thomas (Boston) and Chris Osgood (Detroit), so if the Jackets can pick up where they left off getting scoring chances, they have a good chance to do some damage.
One trump card the Jackets do have tonight: an electric crowd. Columbus fans are pushing all their chips to the center of the table for this playoff push, as evidenced by the over 16,000 that came to see the Jackets on Tuesday night. Weeknight crowds have been notoriously smaller all season for myriad reasons, so getting 16,000 is a good showing. The fact that Nationwide was about 2,000 under capacity, but was still as loud as it has ever been shows how much enthusiasm there is for this team. Pittsburgh has always been a bit of a regional rival despite being in the other conference, so expect another raucous crowd tonight. When their crowd is into it, the Jackets definitely seem to feed off of them.
Side game notes:
- Rick Nash has continued to step up of late, with 6G and 2A in his last five games. He’ll have to keep it up, as the Jackets need all the scoring they can get tonight.
- Considering The Dube got his one start this season against Pittsburgh, an interesting goalie-related note for both clubs in The Dispatch blog: “Hitchcock says Steve Mason will start against Pittsbugh, but that backup Wade Dubielewicz could play in one of next two or three games. We’ve heard this before, of course. The Jackets play back-to-back nights against the Penguins and Blackhawks. The game in Chicago on Friday would seem like a logical spot for Dubie with Detroit waiting on Sunday. Hitch was not taking the bait. ‘One of the next two or three games,’ he said firmly. The Penguins have been riding their young goaltender just as hard as Hitchcock has Mason. Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to make his 18th consecutive start against Columbus.”
- Newest Jacket Antoine Vermette is right at home, and is endearing himself to the fans of Columbus by saying the right things so far: “This year was very unusual because I was lucky in Ottawa over the years to always be on a winning team that made the playoffs. This year in Ottawa was different. But now, I’ve got a chance in Columbus to battle for a playoff spot. And really, we are in the playoffs right now because every game means so much and the standings are so close. We need these points badly.”
Next Game For The Jackets
Friday, March 13, 2009
8:30 PM EDT
Columbus Blue Jackets at Chicago Blackhawks