The Blue Jackets took yesterday off to reset following a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena. When they convened on the ice this morning at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, the group embarked on one of its most energetic practices of the year.
Notable absences from practice this morning included Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Derek Dorsett (maintenance days), as well as defenseman Fedor Tyutin (personal reasons). Interim head coach Todd Richards said those on maintenance days were a bit “banged up” after Tuesday’s game and he wanted to allow them extra time to get back to health. They are all expected to return to practice tomorrow morning to prepare for Saturday’s matinee vs. the Chicago Blackhawks.
Richards ran a practice session that was chock full of light-hearted competitiveness, with more than a few friendly jabs and ribbings exchanged among the group.
“Our feeling as a coaching staff was to go out and have a fun day on the ice,” Richards said. “I think the players enjoyed that.”
Also on the positive side of things, defenseman Nikita Nikitin returned to practice today with the team for the first time since injuring his knee Jan. 21 in Detroit. Nikitin took part in the full practice and Richards said it’s a day-by-day process in determining when he is best suited to be activated off injured reserve and get back in the lineup.
“He’s close,” Richards said. “He was on the ice skating with us today. We’ll have everyone in practice tomorrow, so obviously it will be a different type of practice. We’ll work on the things we need to work on 5-on-5 and specialty teams.
“It will be another good test for him tomorrow, and we’ll see about Saturday.”
PUMP UP THE POWER PLAY
Despite struggling on the man advantage for most of the first half of the season, the Blue Jackets have revived their power play since Richards took over and as of late, they’re red-hot. Columbus is currently riding a streak of power-play goals in six straight games, and is 8-for-27 on the power play during that stretch (29.6 percent). In the 17 games prior, the Blue Jackets were 4-for-42 for a 9.5 percent success rate.
Richards said the recent success can be attributed to several factors, but most importantly, he has been impressed with the Blue Jackets’ breakouts and zone entries. Better possession of the puck has afforded them more time to create scoring opportunities and wear down the opposition’s penalty kill.
“We’re doing a good job as far as where we want to be, and making the right decision as to where the puck needs to go,” Richards said. “We’re maintaining possession of the puck, we’re not dumping it and trying to get it back which takes time and energy.
“A big thing is confidence, too – sometimes you don’t feel as confident because you haven’t had success. Players are starting to have success now, and I think there’s a confidence when guys go over the boards that good things are going to happen.”
BLOCKING OUT THE DISTRACTIONS
The NHL’s trade deadline is less than two weeks away at 3 p.m. February 27, but Richards and the Blue Jackets said they are keeping their focus on what they can control. The players understand the nature of the business, Richards said, and it isn’t necessary to make any more out of the situation.
“You get into this time of the year, I know (the trade deadline) is on the back of just about everyone’s mind,” Richards said. “That’s something I can’t worry about and I can’t put a lot of my attention to that. It might be just talking to a player here and there, but that’s as far as it goes.
“I don’t think at this time of year every coach sits down two weeks from the trade deadline and says, ‘OK guys, we have to talk about this now.’ I’ve been on other teams where players understand and they know. This affects players in the minor leagues, too, because if a deal happens, sometimes prospects are involved. It affects everybody involved. No team is exempt.”