It is far too early to tell if the Columbus Blue Jackets are as improved as they claim they are, but Friday night's 4-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks is definitely a stepping stone.
Last season, the Jackets were often guilty (okay, very often) of playing for 40 minutes, sometimes less. They came out with fantastic energy and played in-your-face for two periods, and once they had the lead, seemed to shut down. When they were scored against, their confidence diminished and seemingly lost interest.
November 22, 2006: enter Ken Hitchcock. His first goal was to build a team, something the Jackets were never charged with being. Individual players tried to do everyone's job, and created chaos on the ice. For the sixth year, they missed the playoffs, and by a wide margin.
This year, training camp took on a new meaning. From day one, players were pushed to their limits and forced to become team players. Everyone checks on Hitchcock's team, and Friday night showed the first glimpses of a complete team game on the Jackets' part. They were physical for 60 full minutes, and never took a shift off. The Ducks didn't register a shot on goal until Columbus registered 15.
The Jackets' power play was outstanding. They had consistent puck movement down low, on the boards, and from high to low. Doing so creates opportunities for every player on the power play, and 3 different players (Nash 2, Fedorov and Hainsey) registered a PPG. Getting everyone involved in special teams is another building block to creating a team, and that was Hitchcock's goal during camp.
On the other hand, Columbus may very well have one of the best penalty kills in the NHL. Whoever says Anaheim was tired, jetlagged, etc. must not be aware that if you have a man advantage for 5 full minutes, you had better score. Columbus outshot the Ducks on the 5 minute power play, and it was nullified by a Ryan Getzlaf hooking call at the second period buzzer. Putting Nikolai Zherdev on the kill was a risky move, but he was stellar with Jason Chimera. Adding Michael Peca to the mix Wednesday night will do nothing but help this already strong unit.
Pascal Leclaire was outstanding between the pipes in the opener, stopping 24 of 24 Anaheim shots for his second career shutout. Fredrik Norrena started Saturday in Minnesota, a 3-2 loss.
Perhaps the biggest star of Friday night's opener was the new Blue Jackets Cannon. This baby is beautiful; an 1857 Napoleon field cannon replica that is loud in all senses of the word. The Jackets will fire it off when they take the ice, when they score, and twice when they win. It is one of the most unique pieces of entertainment in the NHL, and will hopefully gain more notoriety as the season progresses.
For a clip of the cannon in action, visit this link:
The Jackets are back in action Wednesday against the Phoenix Coyotes, a 7 pm start at Nationwide Arena. Michael Peca has practiced two conseutive days and participated in contact drills. He is expected to play between Fredrik Modin and Gilbert Brule.