Todd Richards has had a pretty clear message the past couple of days: he wants the Blue Jackets to win more puck battles and to do so expeditiously.
It's an issue that has affected several areas of their game, too; they aren't winning as many battles which means they're chasing the play, more players are having to come in and support the puck, and their shifts are getting longer. Much of that was evident during Thursday's game against the Calgary Flames, when the Blue Jackets got backed up into their own zone for much of the second period.
Richards pointed to teams like the Flames and Los Angeles Kings who have big, strong forwards that like to cycle the puck in the offensive zone. If those players are first on the puck and are winning the initial battle, they're settling into their game and doing most of the dictating.
After an hour-plus of energetic practice this morning at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, Richards said he's looking for his team to get more focused and determined on puck battles and shutting down offensive chances before they can even get started.
"The last two games we've spent too much time in our own zone," Richards said, referring to losses to Calgary and Los Angeles this week. "We aren't getting into the battles and we aren't winning that first battle on the puck...Calgary's big forwards or LA's big forwards were able to cycle out. We're going to face two teams in the next two games that have that same capability."
There have been flashes of that style of play lately, and when the Blue Jackets are executing, they've shown that they're a tough team to handle. They swarmed the Kings on the forecheck, seemingly won every loose puck and took an early 1-0 lead on Derek MacKenzie's first goal of the year. Two nights later, they cored two goals against Calgary that were born from an aggressive mentality.
But when they get away from their style and "lose their game" as Richards has said, they have done so at very inopportune times and in particular, the second period. They haven't been as sharp winning the battles and it's caused them to spend a lot of time defending -- making it even more strenuous with the long change.
"We have to be better in our own zone as far as closing in on that first battle and shutting it down, and we need help to get there right now," Richards said. "When you're using energy in your own zone, especially in second periods, all you can do is get it out and get a change and then you're defending again.
"We have to find a way to save some energy by winning that first battle, getting some support so we can spend some time in the offensive zone."
ROAD TO RECOVERY
James Wisniewski practiced for the second day in a row and this time, did so without the red "no contact" jersey. After yesterday's optional skate, he said his goal is to return tomorrow against Edmonton but no final decision had been made.
The optimism is still there for a return tomorrow, but Richards said there are still some final clearances needed before it's official.
"Everything went well in practice, but we still have to wait after practice to see how he feels," Richards said. "But one thing about athletes and dealing with these guys is they know their body really well, so it's not surprising. These guys take care of themselves. It was a hit that was a bit disturbing when you see it, but it's nice to know that he's okay."
As for the remaining Blue Jackets on the shelf, Richards said he doesn't expect any of John Moore, Adrian Aucoin or Cam Atkinson back for the next two games against Edmonton and San Jose. The team hopes some or all of them are healthy enough to accompany the team to California late next week.
The Blue Jackets shuffled the deck a bit, and used these new-look lines in practice today:
Prospal - Anisimov - Letestu
Calvert - Dubinsky - Foligno
Umberger - Brassard - Dorsett
Gillies - MacKenzie - Boll
Tyutin - Nikitin
Johnson - Wisniewski
Holden - Savard
Erixon - Goloubef