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Checks and balances

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets want to be a speedy, in-your-face team that is opportunistic with scoring chances and its opponents’ mistakes. When the puck drops tonight at Nationwide Arena, they will be facing the gold standard in that department.

After a long stretch of futility in the Central Division, the Chicago Blackhawks redefined themselves in the late 2000s and stockpiled a plethora of skilled players with high draft picks. They made calculated trades and free-agent signings to balance out their roster -- all geared toward massaging an identity that still befits them today.

They are one of the quickest teams in the NHL and can change the game in the blink of an eye. All four lines can get involved in the offense, and their young players drive the bus. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were the building blocks, and Chicago added players like Patrick Sharp (trade) and Marian Hossa (free agency) to mix finishers with table-setters.

Columbus is very familiar with this Blackhawks squad, and they have been involved in several memorable games over the years. The Blue Jackets clinched their first-ever playoff berth at the United Center in 2009, shaking off 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to tie the game and eventually win in a shootout – and that was one of the tamer get-togethers between these division rivals.

Patrick Kane is the Hawks' leading points scorer so far this season.

Tonight’s contest figures to be no different, and it’s not a stretch to say this is a very important game for the Blue Jackets. Chicago comes into the game with a perfect 4-0-0 record (the only NHL team without a regulation loss) and is scoring a ton of goals; the Blackhawks scored five in Los Angeles on Saturday, six against the Coyotes on Sunday, and – perhaps most important – they have a healthy and white-hot Hossa back in the lineup and contribution.

The big Slovak missed significant time with a concussion sustained in the playoffs last spring (a hit that earned Raffi Torres a 25-game suspension), but he’s in top form as the Blackhawks roll along. For Columbus, the burning question is how do they stop the Chicago offense while trying to generate chances of their own?

Simply put: checking. And more checking.

It’s a calling card for any championship-caliber team; you have to be committed to winning puck battles all over the ice and limiting your opponents’ time with the puck. A team like the Blackhawks clearly gets its offense through playmaking and puck possession, so the Blue Jackets are going to need all hands on deck in order to take away their time and space.

What to watch for when a team is on its checking game: not a lot of time in its own zone, finishing checks and very few penalties. A successful checking effort can take a skilled team like Chicago off its game and force mistakes, especially when they’re chasing the puck and trying to get back in the play.

The Blue Jackets need this type of effort game in and game out, and not just tonight against the Blackhawks. In their first four games of this abbreviated NHL season, they have given up far too many opportunities and are allowing nearly 40 shots per game, which has an unwanted trickle-down effect on goaltenders and defensemen.

A lot of saves, a lot of work, and a lot of minutes spent inside their own end. Reversing that trend is going to be a key part of their success in tonight’s game, and something I will be intently watching as the game unfolds.

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