Over the past few seasons, Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock has made repeated references to playing hockey "the right way." The great Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the 1970s, where the talent level was high, but the hockey IQs were even higher, is the example Hitchcock uses when defining the phrase.
In its simplest form, "the right way" means tending to your own end, creating offensive opportunities off of defense and managing the puck. It's how the New Jersey Devils won their championships and how Hitchcock himself hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. It's how Columbus began to play last year.
And despite the last-minute loss to the Colorado Avalanche Saturday, it's how the Jackets have generally been playing for the past couple weeks.
"We have bought in to where we were before," Hitchcock said at Saturday's skate. "This is our identity, this is what's given us all of the success last year and it's starting to come around again this year."
"This is our identity, this is what's given us all of the success last year and it's starting to come around again this year." - - Head Coach Ken Hitchcock
Columbus had allowed just six goals in the four games prior to meeting the Avalanche, the best performance obviously coming in a 1-0 shutout of the Detroit Red Wings. The Jackets earned just four points from those four games because the offense didn't come through but the attention to detail was much more to the coach's liking.
"We're just sticking to what we have to do out there, what we're told," says Raffi Torres. "It starts from the back end.
"We've been giving ourselves a chance to win games. Offensively, we have to be better but overall we've made some strides."
The commitment in their own end has been a help to the Columbus goaltending combo of Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon. Mason says that he's seeing his teammates work hard in front of the net to clear out bodies and loose pucks.
And it's making a difference.
"From a goalie's standpoint, it makes our job easier when the guys in front of you are competing hard," says Mason, who looked like he was in his rookie form turning away all 34 shots he faced in a 1-0 overtime win versus the Red Wings last week.
It's strange that the Jackets had gotten so far away from the method used to win most of their games last season. The team had established a reputation around the NHL as a dangerous club that will frustrate you and then pounce.
Newcomer Chris Clark saw that firsthand the past couple seasons when Columbus faced his old team, the Washington Capitals. Clark clearly recalls the way the Jackets got under the skin of young stars like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, forcing them into mistakes with grit and persistence.
"You key on them and make their life terrible on the ice, they'll get frustrated and start taking penalties," says Clark. "That's exactly what Columbus did previously.
"It's something we want to get back to here," he adds of the commitment behind their own blueline. "You have to start on the defensive side. We've very done well, letting in one or two goals a game. That's a good start."
Clark also feels that the addition of big defenseman Milan Jurcina will pay off for the Jackets, particularly in their own zone.
"He's a huge person," Clark says. "Physical, dependable back there, he can move guys out in front of the net."
While there are signs of promise, the cold reality is that Columbus is near the bottom of the Western Conference right now. Small improvements aren't enough. The players understand the need to start stringing together some wins, which will only come with a consistent effort at both ends of the rink.
"It's never too late," says Torres. "We might be at the bottom of the barrel right now, but five, six (wins), and anything's possible, especially with how tight this conference is.
"We have our work cut our for us."
Prior to the Colorado game, Mason suggested that the team's confidence was slowly returning.
"We have a ton of work to do to get to do in order to get back into the playoff race," says Mason. "Everybody in here is prepared to do the work."
The objective is to play "the right way." Columbus has 39 games remaining to prove they can do it.
"If we stay with this mindset we're going to have success," says Hitchcock. "If we get away from it, we'll be back to where we were in early December."