Todd Richards was very candid this morning when discussing tonight's game against the Chicago Blackhawks: he said it's no secret the opponent is in top form right now, and it's going to be a challenge for the Blue Jackets to emerge with a victory.
That being said, he's not approaching the game as if it's David vs. Goliath or something mythical, but making sure all areas of concern are addressed prior to the game. For starters (no pun intended), Richards wants his club to start the game "on time" and avoid the mental lapses suffered in Nashville and Colorado, where they gave up goals on essentially the first shift.
Columbus has to begin tonight's game on its toes against a Blackhawks squad that's in high gear, or else they could get in hot water quickly. In four games this season, Chicago has scored 17 goals and has won games both from the lead and by rallying late -- including a stunner earlier this week in Dallas. Everything is in play and the Blue Jackets know this opponent very well, so there should be no surprises when it comes to game preparation this evening.
Early word from the morning skate: Derek MacKenzie is back in the lineup tonight and will center the fourth line between Mark Letestu and Jared Boll. Colton Gillies is a healthy scratch for the fifth time in five games, and there are some lineup shuffles that we covered in today's game blog.
Steve Mason starts in goal for the Blue Jackets, and he faces Corey Crawford in net for Chicago.
Without further ado, here are my "three keys" to success for the Blue Jackets tonight:
1. Keys in the ignition: The Blue Jackets have to get revved up early in this game and keep the pedal to the floor, because that's precisely what the Blackhawks are going to bring at them. It's a high-octane, frenetic pace and Chicago forces teams to match its pace or else it's a long night for the opposition. Columbus needs to set the tone tonight, and it starts on the forecheck; get the puck in deep, throw the body around and make the Blackhawks work to get the puck back. If the Blue Jackets can make them do a little of the chasing, all the better.
2. Check, check, and check: Defensive zone coverage has been an issue for Columbus in the past couple of games and far too many scoring opportunities have been yielded as a result. The "gap" on the blue line has to be tigher and the Blue Jackets have to make it difficult for the opposition to gain territory inside their end of the rink. The key is taking away time and space with the puck; when a Blackhawks player gets the puck, the Blue Jackets need a body on the puck carrier and to create separation as soon as possible. The less time Chicago's skilled players have to work and the less room they have to maneuver, the better off Columbus will be -- but it has to be a collective effort.
3. Everyone does their job: All four lines have to be engaged right from the get-go, and each knows exactly what its responsibility is. The scoring lines have to use the forecheck to create turnovers and make plays, the grind lines have to get pucks deep and commit to the checking game that we mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the defensemen have to move the puck quickly and make life miserable for the Blackhawks' top players. If everyone pitches in and does their job, the whole package is a successful hockey team. The Blue Jackets must get four lines rolling and everyone involved from the drop of the puck, so the energy can remain high and the pace can do the same.