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We Must Protect This Ice

by Staff Writer / Columbus Blue Jackets
In case you haven't noticed - but judging by your attendance, you have - the Blue Jackets have managed to win a few.

With apologies to Bob Uecker and everyone else in "Major League,"the slight twist on the movie quote embodies the CBJ's success atNationwide Arena, especially under head coach Ken Hitchcock.

Since Hitchcock was hired Nov. 23, the Jackets have logged a 9-3-1home record, highlighted by three straight wins over playoff-caliberteams - Detroit, Buffalo and Minnesota - before their excursion toWestern Canada. After a rocky start, Columbus has improved its homeledger to 12-10-3 for the season.

"We've got great home fans to play in front of, and in order to winin this league, you have to play well at home," said veteran forwardAnson Carter, a veteran of three NHL playoffs. "With a great record athome and playing .500 on the road, usually that's good enough to getyou in the playoffs."

Hitchcock, adding further emphasis on home-ice performance, said,"Playing .500 hockey on the road is difficult," Hitchcock said. "It'stough to get that even now with how competitive the teams are.

"We've played very well against top opponents, but now it means morethan anything. The whole season comes down to (this home stretch). It'sgreat, though. You want this type of pressure. You want thisresponsibility, and our players are really looking forward to it."

That pressure-thirsting attitude is one Hitchcock emphasizes on adaily basis, demanding tireless effort and focus. The players haveresponded by winning four of six overall, which brings the team’soverall record during the 'Hitch' era to 16-14-3.

"The situation we're in, every night's a playoff game," defensemanand team captain Adam Foote said. "It's a positive that we have a goodhome record, but we can't just go out there and think that just becausewe're good at home we're going to get the job done."

The fans have responded, too, by filling the Nationwide Arena seatsto a brim for the last three wins, resulting in two sellouts (Buffaloand Minnesota) and a near-sellout against Detroit. The packed arena andboisterous crowds of 18,000-plus have created a motivating hockeyatmosphere for the players.

"When our fans are loud, [Nationwide] is a great environment to play in," said forward Rick Nash, the team leader in goals.

Keeping the momentum going at home is crucial if the Jackets hope toclimb back into the playoff race. After going 1-2-0 on the three-gameroad trip, Columbus sits 15 standings points out of the eighth playoffspot as of February 5.

"Making the playoffs comes down to now," Hitchcock said. "We've goteight of our next ten at home, and we've got to do really well here. Ifwe do that, we’re going to climb right back into the race.

The CBJ will play six straight home games, starting with PhoenixTuesday night, whom the Jackets have already beaten at home once thisyear. They will also host two divisional foes in Chicago (Feb. 11) andSt. Louis (Feb. 14) as well as get another look at both Calgary(Thursday) and San Jose (Feb. 16) and finish up by welcoming theMontreal Canadiens (Feb. 18) for their only visit to Columbus thisseason. Generous scheduling during this stretch has the Jackets playingno back-to-back games until Feb. 24-25, on the road at New York Rangersand then home vs. Nashville.

With no back-to-backs, the Jackets won't have any excuses, Footesaid, reiterating that the team will be rested before every game andready to display a top-notch effort.

Forward Dan Fritsche has been thriving at home and everywhere else.Fritsche lit the lamp against Detroit, Buffalo and Minnesota and thentook his goal-scoring show on the road to Vancouver. Though thegoal-streak has ended, the right wing from Parma added an assistWednesday against Vancouver and has cemented himself as a marquisplayer on the team and on the spirited Chimera-Malhotra-Fritsche line.

"I think we've been getting better as the season goes along and our confidence is getting pretty high," Fritsche said.

Goaltender Fredrik Norrena is "ready to go" for Tuesday night'sgame, Hitchcock said, which is good news for Columbus as Norrena saved97 of 101 shots in the previous three home games, earning three winsbefore tweaking his hamstring against Minnesota. Adding to the goodnews, No. 1 goaltender Pascal Leclaire practiced Tuesday, and Hitchcocksaid Leclaire could play as soon as this weekend. "Even though we're afew games out, we're still in a pretty good position with all thesehome games coming up," Carter added.

Hitchcock and his players are thinking alike.

"We've worked all year to get this home stand to mean something,"the head coach said. "Now what we've got to do is take advantage of it."

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