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Jackets ready for the other test out West

by Brian McCormack / Columbus Blue Jackets

Every season, teams in the East talk about the daunting trip "out west," usually referring to the annual gauntlet of games through California against perennial playoff teams in Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose. But there’s a second western swing on the schedule that can get lost in the shuffle, and that trip can be just as challenging.

The Blue Jackets head to western Canada for three games this week, going up against the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, and Calgary Flames. A road trip that might not have looked too intimidating in October is a much harsher grind in March.

The Blue Jackets start out in Edmonton, a team at the bottom of the league standings but teeming with young scoring talent that gave the Jackets all they could handle on Friday. After that tilt on Wednesday night, the Jackets move on to Vancouver and Calgary.

The resurgent Canucks are back in the playoff picture this season under first-year coach Willie Desjardins and jockeying for position with the Flames. Calgary continues to defy the critics and the numbers as they hang tough in the Pacific Division, fending off the defending champion Kings and clinging to a playoff spot no one felt they could achieve at the outset of the season.

What was the ‘other’ trip out west for several years is now a week of hockey that is packed with playoff battles and desperate opponents.

“Both of those trips are hard,” said forward Rene Bourque, who played parts of four seasons with the Flames from 2008-12. “With so much parity in the league, anybody can beat anybody on any given night. It’s a tough two points to get. Vancouver and Calgary are two teams doing pretty well in the standings, and Edmonton’s been struggling like we have, but that’s not an easy game against them.”

There have been no ‘easy games’ for the Jackets in Edmonton historically. The Jackets were beaten at Rexall Place 7-0 last season, and they have not won a road game in Edmonton since their Western Conference days in January 2010. Over that time, they are 0-6-0 and have been outscored 32-12.

The Jackets have lost seven straight in Vancouver (0-4-3) dating back to October 2009, but they have had recent success with four straight wins in Calgary, three via overtime or the shootout. None of those wins led off the trip, however, with Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards feeling those performances were a response to a poor outing the night before.

“Usually our games in Calgary were a result of our games in Edmonton, that you were so bad in Edmonton that you responded in Calgary,” said Richards.

Sometimes a road trip comes at a good time for a team, and with the Jackets struggling at home in recent weeks, this trip can be a good thing to head on the road and re-focus.

“It’s no secret the situation we’re in and it’s hard," said defenseman Dalton Prout. "Sometimes a change of scenery and being on the road it’s easier to focus."

For Kevin Connauton (Edmonton) and Ryan Johansen (Vancouver), it will serve as a homecoming. For flourishing rookies Marko Dano and Alexander Wennberg, it’s another experience checked off their NHL bucket lists as they play their first games in three new venues.

“It’s always great to see new buildings,” said Wennberg. “For me, I think it’s a good thing because in a new building it gets my energy going and that helps me in my game, too. I’m excited for this trip.”

The Jackets know their situation at home, and the players also understand where their team is in the standings. And while they still push to climb the standings every game, the players also understand that they play two teams this week scratching and clawing for playoff position against each other in Calgary and Vancouver.

For Prout, it’s absolutely meaningful for the Jackets to be able to throw a wrench into those plans.

“When you come to the room you look for motivation that you can rally around, and a popular one this time of year when you’re facing an uphill battle like we are is to be the spoiler,” said Prout. “We’re going to do our best to scratch and claw and bring teams down. We don’t want to go away easy and give other teams the glory.

"We’re going to compete for every position we can down to the last game.”
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