It's the holiday season. You know, peace and love on earth. That doesn't necessarily apply when the Columbus Blue Jackets have taken the ice of late. The 2008-09 Jackets are turning out to be a nasty bunch, something they proved in a chippy affair in Dallas Thursday night.
The CBJ dished out a lot of punishment on the Stars in a shootout loss and they took it, too, bouncing back from virtually all of the blows delivered by their opponents. Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore pummeled forwards entering the zone. Jared Boll took care of business the way he knows how. Derick Brassard even dropped the gloves with a much bigger James Neal, who had just ran Fedor Tyutin. When it was all done, Columbus racked up 42 hits, a handful of major penalties and cemented the notion that these are guys who play for each other.
Given some of the notable additions – and subtractions – to the roster, this season's Blue Jackets have more edge than last year's team.
"For sure," captain Rick Nash says. "We don't back down from any team. We play a team like Nashville now and we can compete with them and match their toughness and grit."
It's how teams have to play to be successful in the NHL, the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings being one of the only exceptions. In the 1970s, the Philadelphia Flyers were known as the Broad Street Bullies for the way they played the game, be it enforcer Dave Schultz tallying the PIMs or captain Bobby Clarke whacking ankles whenever the chance arose. Just two years ago, the Anaheim Ducks relied on a combo of skill and physically dominating opponents to hoist the Cup.
The Jackets may not be at that level just yet but looking up and down the roster, you can argue that there aren't many soft holes anymore. Fresh personnel like Derek Dorsett, Raffi Torres (who is close to returning to the lineup), Marc Methot and Commodore have added to the overall physicality of the team.
"We're one of the biggest teams in the league," says Commodore. "We need to use that and be physical and wear teams down."
The stats suggest that these Jackets aren't shy. Following fight night in big D, Columbus ranked as the eighth most penalized team in the NHL (16.7 PIM per game) and was seventh in terms of major penalties (24).
Individually, Commodore sits 10th in the league in hits with 89, while his partner (in crime) Hejda is 29th with 71. Boll's 87 PIMs are the second highest total in the league.
"What I see when I look over there is a bunch of good, hard-working players," says former Jacket Jody Shelley, who was more of a one-man police force for the franchise in previous years. "They're a team that's not going to be out worked and they'll bury their chances. They're a dangerous team to play against.
"You've got to like the way they play."
Dorsett and Torres are two players that, when in the lineup, have been influential. Head coach Ken Hitchcock says that guys like that don't even need to score to impact a game. It's their competitiveness that becomes infectious.
"I don't think you can ever have enough of those guys," the coach says. "They're good team people. They think of team first. Their whole focus is on doing what's right for the other guys in the locker room.
"You have to have a lot of those guys if you expect to win. They're people who make sacrifices every night and they're ability to make sacrifices wears the right way on everybody else."
"Those guys can win you games sometimes," adds Nash. "They hit, they finish checks, they fight. There's a huge gap when they're out of the lineup."
Dorsett, for example, was sorely missed when he sat out nine games with a broken finger. With 63 PIMs in 14 games with the Jackets and another 35 in seven games with the Syracuse Crunch, the 21-year-old, Kindersley, Saskatchewan native is the epitome of a feisty, fourth-line contributor. Dorsett was disappointed to be out because he felt he had built some momentum before his finger injury but calls it a minor setback. He's pumped about returning and is willing to do whatever's necessary to help the Jackets pick up Ws.
For Dorsett, that means finishing every check and throwing some bombs if the situation calls for it, qualities that get him instant feedback from teammates.
"That's why I'm here," he says. "That's how I got here and I can't get away from that.
"You can see it, guys like Raffi and Boller and me, everyone's playing with an edge to their game. Big, tough teams are hard to play against and that's what we want to be in this room."
The Jackets may be a tougher team this season but that tenacity is usually exhibited in a respectful way. Certain players around the NHL have gotten plenty of ink for questionable behavior and ethics recently. Don't expect that from Columbus.
"I think I can speak for most of the players in the NHL, I'm going to work hard and I'm going to try play tough but I respect all those guys over there," says Commodore. "I have no desire to hit somebody from behind and you know what, I don't want to be hit from behind either.
"I want to play honest."