Outside of the Nashville Predators, perhaps the Blue Jackets’ most heated division rivalry lies with the St. Louis Blues.
Armed with a fresh outlook following an early-season coaching change, the Blues are playing some of the best hockey in the NHL right now and have vaulted into eighth place in the Western Conference. Veteran coach Ken Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne on Nov. 7, and in nine games since, has gone 6-1-2 and have allowed just 12 goals in those games. They are backstopped by some of the best goaltending in the league through 21 games, as backup Brian Elliot has seized the reins and posted a 9-1-0 record and league-leading 1.34 goals-against average.
“They’re a big-bodied group that is hard on the puck, they spend a lot of time around the front of the net and have traffic there,” Arniel said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence and have good people on their backend with strong goaltending.
“The recipe is there for doing all the right things; these are two teams that don’t like each other very much. We had some spirited games against them last year and I don’t suspect that will change.”
Both teams come into tonight’s game playing well. The Blues are on quite a roll right now, and the Blue Jackets have points in six straight games after defeating Buffalo on Friday night. Columbus has allowed three goals in its past three games and quality goaltending from Curtis Sanford has helped the cause.
|Jeff Carter |
TOP LINE ROLLING
The best teams in the NHL have the ability to create matchup problems for the opposition, and the Blue Jackets are moving in that direction. When their No. 1 line struggled with injuries and goal-scoring earlier in the season, the newly-formed second line picked up the slack and was bolstered with the addition of Mark Letestu.
Now, center Jeff Carter is healthy and putting pucks in the net and the top line is firing on all cylinders, buoyed by the offensive capability of the second unit. Teams can no longer key on either/or, and Arniel identified consistency as a main reason for that.
“Your best people have to be your best people, and that’s what we’re getting from those guys,” Arniel said. “They’re dangerous every time they go out, and it’s not like they’re having a good shift every five minutes – they’re coming every time.
“That really gets the other team concerned, and it means we’re catching them on their heels a bit. If they can keep doing the things they’ve been doing, it gives us a chance every night.”
The acquisition of Nikita Nikitin from the Blues on Nov. 11 presented a new opportunity for both he and the player going the other way (Kris Russell). Having fellow Russian Fedor Tyutin paired alongside him has helped Nikitin adjust to the Blue Jackets system, and his ability to play in all situations is leading to big minutes that he did not get before.
“Obviously, someone upstairs did their homework,” Arniel said. “(Nikitin) has been a great find for us and logging big minutes playing against the other team’s top lines. Him and Fedor have some chemistry, two countrymen that are speaking the same language on the ice.
“I don’t think he’s ever played this kind of minutes at the NHL level, but he’s a guy that has really taken the opportunity and run with it.”
NEWS AND NOTES
- Goaltender Allen York was returned to Springfield (AHL) this morning after Steve Mason returned to practice at full health. Mason has missed the past two games after suffering an upper-body injury during the morning skate on Nov. 21.
- Elliot is expected to start in goal for the Blues, and Sanford likewise for the Blue Jackets.