Last night the Blue Jackets played their 41st of 82 games, and are now officially halfway through the season. With a record of 19-16-6, 44 points, the jackets are on pace for at least 80-90 points, which may be good enough for a low playoff spot in the Western Conference. Let's reflect back on this up and down season.
<h4>A great start</h4>
The Jackets got off to a great start posting a franchise best, 7-3-1, record for the month of October. The Jackets beat teams that they need to beat to be successful including the home opener against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Jackets did slow down a little bit in November, but were able to get back on track in December and early January. Now in 9th place with 44 points, the Jackets trail the 8th place Ducks by 1 point. They only trail the 4th place Dallas Stars by 6 points. However in this tight race, a losing streak will be detrimental, since the rest of the Central Division is nipping at the Jackets' heels.
The Jackets' success would not be as great without their star goaltender Pascal Leclaire. Leclaire has posted 7 shutouts this year, some against pretty good teams, such as the Blues, Sabres, Wild, and Hurricanes. Leclaire so far has posted a 13-8-3 record with only 49 GA. He only trails Chris Osgood for best GAA with 1.94. Leclaire will most likely appear in the upcomming NHL All-Star Game, and he deserves it for his great goaltending thus far. Even Fredrik Norrena has been playing well in a backup role. Although Norrena's record is 6-8-3, don't let that fool you. In many of the games he lost, he couldn't get much support from his teammates on the scoreboard. Norrena also has a GAA of 2.37, not bad in this high-scoring era in the NHL.
Ken Hitchcock has really turned this team around. Since his arrival in November 2006, fans and front office alike expected the winds of change. And he has provided that, so far this season. Never before have the playoffs been more of a reality than it is now. Most of this success also comes with the defensive style of play that Hitchcock preaches. The team is capable of shooting out the lights, but with defensive style, they look to win, rather than score lots of goals. Otherwise, we would like the Maple Leafs, and personally I'd rather stick with what works.
<h4>The Injury Bug</h4>
The injury bug has definately has taken its toll on Columbus this season. Fredrik Modin, has been out for a majority of the season nursing a Back injury. He is expected back in the lineup in early January. In 6 games, Modin has not been the threat he is known to be scoring 0 goals, 2 assists, +1, and 4 PIMs. Not to fear, because Curtis Glencross has been playing very well when filling in for Modin. Glencross has
Another player who has had injury trouble is the perennial scoring threat, David Vyborny. This season, Vyborny has been struggling with a groin injury, which caused him to miss a few games here and there. In his 32 games, Vyborny has scored 3 goals, 8 assists, -8, and 14 PIMs. He was recently placed on IR, and is expected back later in January.
The third and final big injury of the season was to Manny Malhotra. A great play-making center for the Jackets, Malhotra, has been suffering a knee injury. Malhotra was activated from the IR on January 2. In the 30 games Malhotra has played, he has scored 5 goals, 6 assists, -1, and 16 PIMs. Malhotra being back in the lineup is a good sign that the injured players are healing.
<h4>A December to Remember</h4>
During the month of December the Jackets had "the 12 games of Christmas". The Jackets played 12 of their 14 games at home. Out of a possible 28 points, the Jackets were able to salvage a 7-5-2 record, good for 16 points. Not to mention, that the Jackets were 6-3-3, good for 15 points at home. This just goes to show, that the Jackets are a really tough team to play at Nationwide Arena, and that could be their downfall. During this season, the Jackets are 6-10-2 in 18 games. This is clearly a weakness the team must address coming down the stretch.
<h4>My Team Awards</h4>
<br/><b>MVP: Nikolai Zherdev</b>
I think if there is one player who has grown leaps and bounds it is Nikolai Zherdev. Zherdev is just a different person than he was last year. He is more likely to be a team player this year, than any other year he's been playing with Columbus. He also has 15 goals, 18 assists, +1 and 14 PIMs in 41 games. An honorable mention also to Rick Nash. He is the face of Columbus' franchise, and it shows on the ice. In 39 games, he has 21 goals, 14 assits, +2, and 49 PIMs. He is playing like he did, the year where he tied for the "Rocket" Richard Trophy in 2003.
<br/><b>Best Defenseman: Ron Hainsey</b>
Ron Hainsey has had a great year. Hainsey is a 26 year-old defenseman from Bolton,CT. He is 6'3" and 209 lbs. Being a big guy on the ice, he has had a big impact. In 40 games this season, Hainsey has 3 goals, 18 assists, +8, and 6 PIM. He is taking care of business and staying out of the penalty box. Honorable mention to Jan Hejda, who has 0 goals, 8 assists, +9 and 22 PIMs. Hejda, is a 6'3" 229 lb., 29 year old defenseman, who is a native of Prague, Czech Republic. These 2 defensemen are getting it done, without going to the box.
<br/><b>Best Goaltender: Pascal Leclaire</b>
If I asked you at the beginning of the season: "Who is going to lead the league in shutouts this year?", you would probably tell me that it would be Martin Brodeur. Well it turns out that Pascal Leclaire currently leads the league in shutouts, and is up there with GAA. If you ask me this is a no-brainer. Of course, let us not forget that Frederik Norrena has been playing better than his record indicates. Overall, goaltending has not been a huge concern for the Blue Jackets.
<br/><b>Best Fighter: Jared Boll</b>
Jared Boll is a rookie from Charlotte, NC. He is a 21 year-old, 6'2" 206 lb, right wing who has 4 goals, 2 assists, +2, and 128 PIMs. He seems to get into a fight every game. So what does this say about the Jackets? It might be time to get rid of Jody Shelley, the long time enforcer of the Jackets. At least Jared Boll puts up numbers other than penalty minutes. An honorable mention to Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, a 6'2" 211 lb. Norweigan defenseman is also a big fighter on the squad. Tollefsen has 1 goal, 0 assists, +4, and 67 PIM. With these two fighters, no one can touch Zherdev or Nash easily.
<b>Top Player to watch: Jiri Novotny</b>
Jiri Novotny is another young player making the Jackets a fun team to watch. Novotny is a 24 year-old center from Pelhrimov, Czech Republic. He is 6'3" 209 lbs, and this season he has 7 goals, 10 assists, +1, and 14 PIMs. He is going to be a key part of this team going forward, and may develop into an excellent hockey player. An honorable mention to Jason Chimera. The man plays with a lot of heart and passion. He has been struggling statistically this year, but he will sooner or later should become a real scoring threat.
You have to think that the Jackets are buyers in the market. To make that playoff push, the Jackets need two things. They need another 20-25 goal forward, or a defenseman who can play both sides. With either the team could tack on a few more goals, and make lives easier on themselves by having 2 goals leads. I personally think with one or two moves, this team should be able to make the playoffs. I think Ken Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson, have both laid the appropriate ground work to create a competitive team. Hopefully, they'll make the playoffs, and make a strong hockey fan base even stronger in Ohio!