Last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets probably would have been happy with any kind of win. Now, coach Ken Hitchcock can afford to be picky about how his team goes about it.
Hitchcock - trying to become just the 13th coach in NHL history to reach 500 wins - and the surging Blue Jackets look for the franchise's first win in Toronto as they visit the Maple Leafs on Thursday night.
Columbus (29-23-6), which failed to reach the playoffs in its first seven seasons, is tied with Vancouver for fifth place in the Western Conference standings with 64 points. The Blue Jackets are a franchise-best six games above .500 following a 4-3 win over St. Louis on Wednesday.
The Blue Jackets, who finished 13th in the West last season with a franchise-high 80 points, have recorded 11 points in their last six games (5-0-1). They've outscored opponents 20-12 during that stretch and also are 4-for-13 on the power play in their last three games - markedly better than their season conversion rate of 12.7 percent that is last in the league.
Despite its recent run, which has been led by goaltender Steve Mason, Columbus still showed some weaknesses in Wednesday's win. The Blue Jackets nearly squandered a three-goal lead in the third period when they were outshot 13-3, but Mason made several impressive saves in the final seconds to preserve the win.
"The third period is why I don't like coaching," said Hitchcock, who is 91-88-23 since taking over the Blue Jackets in 2006, and also coached the Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers. "We played the score, not the game. St. Louis has no quit in their team. Win or lose, they play right until the end of the game. We got casual."
With the Blue Jackets fighting for a postseason spot, they realize they can't allow teams - especially lesser ones like the Blues or the Maple Leafs - to get back into the game.
"We felt that we had it won," forward R.J. Umberger said. "We wanted to get cute and fancy and run up the score. The only way you run up the score is you play the way you did before that."
Columbus is 0-3-0 with a tie all-time at Toronto, but the Maple Leafs (21-26-10) have struggled at Air Canada Centre. They are 2-4-2 in their last eight home games after a 4-1 defeat to Buffalo on Tuesday and 10-11-6 overall.
Justin Pogge - making his first start since Feb. 3 after being recalled from the AHL - gave up three first-period goals in a 5:04 span. Pavel Kubina kept the Maple Leafs from being shut out for the fourth time in the last 15 games with a second-period power-play goal.
Pogge, the 90th overall pick in the 2004 draft by Toronto, will start again after No. 1 netminder Vesa Toskala underwent an MRI on his hip this week. Coach Ron Wilson expects Toskala to be back in net Saturday against Vancouver.
Pogge is 1-3-0 with a 4.24 GAA, with his only win coming Dec. 22 against Atlanta.
"I finished the game well so hopefully I can carry that over to the next one," he said Wednesday.
The Maple Leafs, who have outscored the Blue Jackets 13-5 at home, are 4-0-1 with one tie all-time against them.
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