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Jackets Off on the Right Foot this Post All-Star Break

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

It's hard to take anything positive away from the loss to the Dallas Stars Saturday night at Nationwide Arena. Yet despite that set back, the glass is still half full in Columbus. The Jackets won two of their first three back after the All-Star break to wipe out any worry of repeating the swoon they had at this same time last year.

That's what playoff teams do – they win most of their games.

So the task now is to move on from a forgetful outing. And their coach was well aware of the potential for adversity, even before the loss against Dallas.

"I think we have good resiliency," Ken Hitchcock said last week. "I think we've got a team that can handle some tough goes, some tough games, some tough battles and some tough outcomes. We have a team that's pretty tough."

The Jackets are still deeper than ever, with a solid core of leaders, an emerging star goaltender and a favorable schedule. They have survived a rash of injuries and continued to win games that would have likely been losses in previous seasons.

"For the last month or so, we've given ourselves an opportunity going into the third period to win every game we played," says Michael Peca. "We have to continue to do that.

"We didn't win games by luck. We won games playing the right way. We played a great, solid team game, we showed a lot of character.

"As the season wears on, it will really benefit us, particularly the young guys."

That wasn't the case in 2008. After playing some of the best hockey in franchise history prior to the All-Star Game, Columbus looked like they were in a haze in the week after the break.

This year is different in so many ways. It starts with the leaders of the team, many of whom have become more vocal and demanding, according to the coach. Rick Nash has embraced the role of captain and has provided plenty of inspiration with his dominating play on the ice. Peca, now in his second year, is a more important fixture in the room, as are Mike Commodore and Fredrik Modin. Modin has been an incredible example to the young Jackets, playing through immense pain and refusing to accept any credit for it.

"We've got a lot of guys here that are leaders," says Nash, who has recently made the point that things feel "real" with this edition of the club.

Added depth is another reason why the Jackets are, paraphrasing the words of the captain, more legitimate. There have been times in the past couple seasons where the team has had to dress numerous call ups because of injuries. But Hitchcock has continued to roll four effective lines and be comfortable with his three pairings on the back end. And behind them all, Mason has been an anchor, despite a heavy workload and a recent bout with mononucleosis.

"He's a big body so there's not much net to shoot at," Commodore says of the Jackets' rookie goaltender. "And everything that hits him, he seems to swallow it up.

"He's just been rock solid. Smooth and steady and really amazing."

The more composed Jackets' have used these factors to win more games, particularly on the road of late. But these last couple months of the season have them playing a majority of their games at home, where they boast a strong 15-8-1 record. Peca says that Nationwide Arena has become a great barn to play in, a building where the fans are fully behind a team that shows energy.

"At home, we play solid," he says. "In a race as tight as this, you have to win your home games. We have to take advantage of that.

"That's what we've been trying to do with this organization – play good team hockey and have a team that fans can be proud of."

"The schedule has put us in a good position and now is the time to take advantage of it," adds Hitchcock. "Our division record will be critical."

Columbus will get a shot at improving that division record Tuesday night when the St. Louis Blues play a visit. It's a chance for the Jackets to put the Stars game behind them and continue to move up the Western Conference standings. Peca says that in recent practices, the emphasis has been on the finer details of the game, as well as challenging players to do the right things individually in order to help the team win.

It's that time of year.

"Really, every game from here on out is like a single-game playoff," says Peca. "Every little play can determine the outcome of the game."

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