One of the more ironic aspects of the Blue Jackets' 2007-08 season is that for an offense which has struggled, Columbus has produced some spectacular goals.
Captain Rick Nash has a couple goal-of-the-year candidates himself with his game-deciding, multiple-deke effort in Phoenix and the stunning through-the-legs roof job on St. Louis' defenseless goaltender Hannu Toivonen. And of Nikolai Zherdev's 25 markers, at least half have been worthy of an appearance on the late-nigh highlight reels.
But the Jackets would most certainly take some quantity over quality. Through 74 games, only the Blues and the New York Islanders had fewer goals than Columbus' total of 177 (including a league-low 106 when five-on-five). Just think what this emerging team could have done with an extra 15 or 20 goals. Given the 14-18 record in one-goal games, a handful more biscuits buried in the back of the net could be the difference between a playoff spot and locker clean out day following game 82 on the schedule.
"I think you are what you are," says head coach Ken Hitchcock. "We manufacture goals, we find a way to score but we need more production and we need our younger players to provide it."
The Jackets will never be confused with the '80s version of the Edmonton Oilers but other than a single tally in Wednesday's 3-1 road loss to the Detroit Red Wings, they have been lighting the lamp with some regularity of late. In the three games prior to defeat in Motown, Columbus had scored 15 times in four games, three of which were wins.
Those respectable totals were a result of one thing – secondary scoring.
"It's huge," Jason Chimera says of the need to spread the wealth on the scoresheet. "You look at any Stanley Cup winning hockey clubs, they always have secondary scoring with all four lines chipping in. It's one of those things where you don't have a playoff team unless you have secondary scoring. We need that more consistently here."
While Nash and Zherdev have been the catalysts on offense all season long, the Jackets record when other guys score is impressive. Columbus is 18-7-5 when Nash scores in a game and 13-5-5 when Zherdev tallies. When Chimera gets a goal, the team is 9-1-3. When Manny Malhotra – the hottest goal scorer on the roster these days – finds the net, the team is 7-1-1 (that only regulation loss coming in Detroit the other night). In the five games that Jared Boll has picked up a goal, Columbus hasn't lost. The same goes for Michael Peca in the four games that he's scored in and when Jiri Novotny has scored, the Jackets are 5-1-1.
The message is very clear. More players need to score.
"Everyone knows what Z and Rick can do," says Dan Fritsche. "They've scored a lot of pretty goals this year. It's nice to see but it's a matter of getting the puck in the net and having other guys contribute, too.
"That's where our trouble lies."
Fritsche says the lack of balanced production has been a sore spot all year, though the recent surge has created some optimism for the future of the offense. However they come, be it the highlight-reel variety or the greasy ones in tough areas, doesn't matter. The idea is to get pucks, and bodies, to the net.
"Down the stretch, it's going to be imperative that we figure it out," he says. "We've started to get some goals up on the board. We've talked a lot about it, talked about ways to get more goals. It's simple. We figured out that it starts with our D-men getting the puck to the net and continues with our forwards. We need traffic."
"We definitely have the guys to score goals here," adds Chimera. "It's a mindset."
Columbus has been unlucky in that two-time 30-goal man Fredrik Modin has missed a huge chunk of the season. Hitchcock, who refers to Modin's campaign as "cursed," typically salivates at the thought of having the big winger in the lineup playing on a line with Nash. It just hasn't happened enough this year. A healthy season from the Modin would be an obvious boost to the O.
The Jackets' blueline corps could also have an impact on improving the offensive production in the future. Hitchcock has suggested that defensemen overall have had less of an impact scoring goals throughout the NHL this season, a point proven by the fact that as of Thursday, March 20, only 21 D-men had double-digit goal totals, with Washington's Mike Green leading all of them at 17.
Again, Hitchcock says the young Jackets will have to do their part to score goals and in terms of blueline contributions, he sees rookie Kris Russell as the type of player that can make a much bigger impact next season. The coach compares Russell to San Jose's recent star pick up Brian Campbell, a smaller defender who can score big points.
"We're going to get a lot more from Russell," he says. "I look at a guy like Campbell and he was two years in the minors before he made it. We've got Russell playing as a 20-year-old. He's going top be a productive guy and get better and better.
"This time next year, we'll have a player who will probably be twice as good as he is now."
Hitchcock acknowledges that the recent surge in offense has been welcome and critical to the wins, specifically the secondary scoring. But the emphasis on getting goals has led to some slip ups in trying to prevent them and the coach wants to see a better balance of the two.
"You can't get it in one end and start to give it up," he says. "Our foundation is what gave us a chance to still stay in the race and we can't lose the foundation because you can still score five goals and not win."