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Opportunity Knocks for Young Players

by David DiCenzo / Columbus Blue Jackets

If you haven't noticed, there's a decidedly northeast feel to the Columbus Blue Jackets of late. Those new faces around Nationwide Arena, most of them have come directly from the state of New York, home to the Jackets' American Hockey League affiliate Syracuse Crunch.

Seven players on Columbus' current roster – goaltender Dan LaCosta, D-men Clay Wilson and Aaron Rome, forwards Joakim Lindstrom, Derek MacKenzie, Alexandre Picard and Jackets' regular Andrew Murray – have each played a big chunk of the 2007-08 season in what's commonly referred to as "the second-best league in the world."

As a result of both injuries and transactions, they've earned the opportunity to take the step up and "earn" is the operative word here – there's no such thing as a charitable call up to the NHL.

So inevitably, this season has included a number of firsts for some of these players. Take Wilson - the defenseman had the privilege of calling his parents this week to let them know that he'd be making his NHL debut in Nashville Tuesday. The next night, he goes out and scores his first two NHL points, including a sweet one-timer goal past Stanley Cup winning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.

Pardon the rook for using the obligatory "unbelievable" when describing the whole experience.

"I closed my eyes and the puck went in," Wilson said after a 4-0 Jackets' win over Chicago Wednesday. "It's just a great feeling. It's something you wait to do your whole life."

Any kid who laces up his skates dreams of making it to the NHL. But once they finally get that chance, there's no time to be overwhelmed by the opportunity. The players are bigger and faster, the space is harder to come by and if a minor league call up gets caught up in just being in The Show, they'll find themselves on a plane back to where they came from.

Credit the newest Jackets for not allowing that to happen.

"We just tell them to go out and play their game," says assistant coach Gord Murphy. "Play to their strengths, play with confidence and don't get caught up in the exuberance of being in the NHL. Just go out and play the way they played down there when they earned the call up. For the most part, the guys have come up here and played with that confidence.

"They've added energy and they've added stability. We feel comfortable playing them in all situations. The youthful energy and enthusiasm they've provided has been a positive for the hockey club."

Newcomers to the Jackets' fold have had some help. There is regular communication between the two teams, with head coach Ken Hitchcock always keeping tabs on who's doing what in the AHL. Another one of the main reasons that Crunch players have fared well so quickly in Columbus this season is the similarity in systems, something the organization has done by design.

Specific components, like controlled breakouts and forechecking, are the same in Syracuse as they are in Columbus. That makes the learning curve at this level a little less steep when they arrive.

"It's pretty easy for us when we come here because it's pretty much the same thing," says Alexandre Picard, a hitting machine who had played in 40 NHL games the past two seasons before his recent call up. "Down there, we have a tough team and we play pretty good."

Picard says that on a personal level, it's been exciting to crack the big club's lineup the past few games, something he wasn't sure would happen this season after recovering from a knee injury last year. Just getting the chance can lead to big things. Murray's an example of a guy who earned a call up in late December, played his way into the lineup and has become favorite of the head coach for his relentless approach.

MacKenzie's played in 10 of the past 12 games. Rome, acquired along with Wilson from Anaheim in a trade earlier this season, has logged heavy minutes of late and has emerged into a steady presence in the Columbus back end. Lindstrom has made a few appearances in Columbus this year and the Chicago game Wednesday marked a big career first – the slick center earned the game-winning goal while on a Jackets' man advantage, subsequently adding a boost to a struggling special teams unit.

"All of us down in the minors want to make it up here," Lindstrom said after the Blackhawks' game. "We try as hard as we can to make an impression.

"We battle for our lives every single game to help the team and also help ourselves."

The goal for any minor league call up is stick in the NHL and there's no shortage of incentive. While the AHL is a great league with a plethora of talented players, it's just a different existence. Three games in three nights and epic bus rides are standard.

Picard, who says he got used to the bus while playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, doesn't mind that aspect of AHL hockey at all. But he certainly recognizes the differences.

"It's a great life," Picard says of the NHL, with a smile on his face.

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