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Around the West: Hot Jackets unable to gain ground

by Dan Rosen
Columbus captain Rick Nash is torn between feelings of elation and frustration. He's thrilled his Blue Jackets have fought their way back into the playoff chase, but discouraged because they've managed to pick up just one spot in the Western Conference standings despite going 8-3-3 since Jan. 14.

The Blue Jackets enter their game Friday at Chicago -- one Nash called "huge," as if that even needs to be said at this point -- 12th in the West and six points out of eighth. Columbus can tie Chicago for 11th with a regulation win at United Center.

"It's been tough to watch the standings and not move, just sit there," Nash told Thursday before boarding the team's flight to Chicago. "But, in saying that, other teams can drop and we've got to make sure we keep gaining points. As time wears on we're going to chip away at it slowly."

Yeah, like at a snail's pace.

The Jackets were seven points out of eighth on Jan. 13, and that's after losing five in a row. They've collected points in 11 of 14 games since, but barely have anything to show for it.

"We had that stretch that hurt us in December and set us back, but we're not worried about that anymore," Nash said, referring to the Jackets' 3-9-3 record that actually stretched from Nov. 26 to Dec. 26. "We can only control what is going on moving forward."

The loss of No. 1 center Derick Brassard to a hand injury will make the Jackets' monumental task even tougher. He was hurt in Tuesday's 4-3 shootout loss to Los Angeles and is expected to be sidelined 2-3 weeks.

Brassard, who has 39 points in 57 games, was centering Nash.

"That's going to be tough because he was playing great," said Nash, who has 20 points in the last 16 games. "Our line was gaining a lot of chemistry, but it's exciting for other guys. Derek McKenzie stepped up with me and Jake Voracek [on Wednesday]. It's tough to lose him, but it's exciting for younger guys."

Elevating players up the depth chart isn't what the Jackets really want right now. Not with, as Nash said, the pressure to win at a high level.

"There's pressure for sure, especially in an organization like this where we need results, we need playoff appearances and we need to make a run to keep our fans and organization happy," Nash said.

Nash and the Jackets have learned the hard way how important it is to avoid midseason swoons. Consistency is invaluable in the NHL, but at least on Feb. 18 Columbus has the chance to ready itself for some big-time hockey games.

"This is when hockey is fun, when each night means something," Nash said. "It's so competitive."

Let's take a twirl around the conference to check in with every team. They're listed in order of where they are in the standings as of Friday morning:

 Vancouver Canucks (37-13-9, 83 points)

This is not the safest time to be a Canucks defenseman. In fact, Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff might be better off staying out of the corners and away from flying pucks. Granted, that's not how either of them play, but the Canucks are losing defensemen by the game. Kevin Bieksa became the latest victim when he suffered a foot injury blocking a shot in Tuesday's win against Minnesota. The Canucks are down five defensemen (six if you include AHL call-up Lee Sweatt), but they also have a pretty good cushion in the standings. Don't expect them to do anything too drastic at the deadline because of salary cap issues.

 Detroit Red Wings (35-16-6, 76 points)

Now would be as good a time as any for the Red Wings to make a strong push to try to get closer to Vancouver. They've won three in a row, including a 6-2 rout Thursday in Tampa. Defenseman Brad Stuart returned in that game, playing for the first time since breaking his jaw Jan. 7. Pavel Datsyuk had 2 goals, giving him 4 goals in 5 games since he returned from a hand injury. He also has 3 assists over the span. They'll look to keep it going against the Panthers on Friday. That'll be Todd Bertuzzi's 999th career game.

 Phoenix Coyotes (31-19-9, 71 points)

All the Coyotes do is win. Thursday's 4-3 victory against Atlanta was their sixth straight, thanks to late second-period goals by Lauri Korpikoski and Martin Hanzal. Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 11 shots in the third period to preserve the win. Keith Yandle had 3 assists and now has 41 for the season. That's the most among all defensemen, as are his 50 points. The Coyotes have given up only 9 goals during their six-game winning streak. They start a five-game road trip Saturday in Nashville.

 Nashville Predators (31-19-8, 70 points)

The Predators took advantage of the injured Canucks in a 3-1 win Thursday. J-P Dumont was a healthy scratch for the second straight game. He had played in 56 of the first 57 games, but has struggled (17 points) this season. Marcel Goc and Steve Sullivan had to leave Thursday's game with injuries, but the Predators still managed to win their third in four games. They are 3-0-1 over the stretch, with wins against Vancouver and Detroit. A lot of credit goes to goalie Pekka Rinne, who was outstanding Thursday with 35 saves. He's given up 7 goals in the last 4 games.

 San Jose Sharks (32-21-6, 70 points)

After going 5-2-0 during a seven-game road trip, the Sharks returned home Thursday and picked up a 3-2 win against Washington, holding on after Nicklas Backstrom scored with 1:55 left in regulation. It was their second win against the Capitals in a span of nine days; they won 2-0 at Verizon Center during their road trip. Goaltender Antti Niemi has played well with little margin for error because Antero Niittymaki remains out with a lower-body injury that landed him on injured reserve Thursday. Like he did last season at this time with Chicago, Niemi is picking up his game and could be the Sharks' starting goalie in the playoffs if they make it. A few weeks ago that looked dicey, but San Jose has picked it up.

 Anaheim Ducks (32-22-4, 68 points)

Goaltender Jonas Hiller going back on IR with fatigue/lightheadedness already has hurt the Ducks. They scored 6 goals and lost at home Wednesday to Washington. Hiller will be out at least through the weekend, and the Ducks have to hope it's not any longer than that because their backup situation doesn't look good and the rehabbing Ray Emery has yet to play a game with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. However, the Ducks did win four in a row prior to losing to Washington and have been one of the NHL's best teams since Christmas with a 14-6-0 record.

 Dallas Stars (31-21-6, 68 points)

Brad Richards is hurt and back in Dallas, the Stars are 0-2 on their Western Canada road trip and they haven't even played the conference-leading Canucks yet. This is close to a doomsday situation for Dallas, which has won just 1 game this month and only twice in their last 11 games (2-8-1). They are right in the hunt, so we still believe it's unlikely that Richards, provided he gets healthy soon, gets traded by the Feb. 28 deadline. However, if the slide continues all bets are off. They still have to play the Canucks, the red-hot Devils, the Red Wings and the Predators before the deadline.

 Los Angeles Kings (32-22-4, 68 points)

The Kings looked good even in a loss Thursday at Madison Square Garden. They rallied twice in the third period to tie the game shortly after giving up the go-ahead goal, killed a 4-on-3 Rangers power play in overtime, but then fell in a shootout. It was just their second loss in nine shootouts this season. However, the perseverance the Kings showed despite playing their eighth straight road game and their second in as many nights was telling. They are 8-0-3 since a 2-10-0 stretch and have pulled back into playoff position. Their goaltending and penalty kill have been excellent, and Anze Kopitar is playing extremely well, with points in four straight.

Calgary Flames (30-22-8, 68 points)

The 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic couldn't have come at a better time for the city of Calgary. Their hockey team is surging and playoff fever is in the air. The Flames rebounded from back-to-back losses with a resounding 9-1 win against Colorado and followed with a 4-2 defeat of Dallas. Calgary, which has played more games than any other team in the conference, will sit on their two-game winning streak until Sunday, when they take on the Canadiens in the big outdoor battle at McMahon Stadium.

Minnesota Wild (30-22-5, 65 points)

The Wild still have some games in hand, but back-to-back losses to Vancouver and Chicago have them reeling a bit. They scored only one goal in each of the games. There is no room for a prolonged slump in this race. Minnesota starts a three-game homestand Friday against Anaheim, with Detroit and Edmonton to follow. The Wild had a good start against Chicago, but nothing to show for it and then they came undone. It's much easier to fall out of this race than to stay in it, but the Wild insist they belong here. We'll find out.

Chicago Blackhawks (29-22-6, 64 points)

Playing with added motivation to win one for their coach, the Blackhawks snapped a two-game winless streak in Minnesota on Wednesday. Coach Joel Quenneville watched the majority of the game from his hospital bed. He was admitted to the hospital early Wednesday morning for what head team physician Dr. Michael Terry said Thursday was a small ulcer caused by aspirin which created some gastrointestinal bleeding. Quenneville should be released from the hospital in the next few days. Assistant Mike Haviland will remain the interim coach in the meantime. He's 1-0 heading into Friday's home game against Columbus.

blue jackets
Columbus Blue Jackets (28-23-6, 62 points)

Derick Brassard's hand injury creates a cavernous hole in the middle for the Blue Jackets and GM Scott Howson may choose to address it via trade. Brassard should be out only 2-3 weeks, but that's more than enough time for the roof to cave in on the Blue Jackets. Howson told the Columbus Dispatch that "if there's a way we can help overcome the loss externally that's what we're going to try to do." The Jackets are lucky R.J. Umberger's injury Wednesday wasn't serious. He was bumped by Jarret Stoll and suffered a lower-body injury, but the Jackets expect him to play Friday in Chicago.

St. Louis Blues (25-21-9, 59 points)

The Blues' playoff hopes were damaged Thursday when the team placed goalie Jaroslav Halak on injured reserve with an injured right hand. He missed some time earlier this month with a similar injury, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Blues play Buffalo on Friday and then start a three-game homestand Saturday against Anaheim. Ty Conklin will start in goal, with Ben Bishop recalled from AHL Peoria to back him up.

Colorado Avalanche (25-26-7, 57 points)

Technically the Avalanche remain in the playoff race, but they're not fooling anyone. Take their last two games for example -- they got blasted 9-1 by Calgary and then lost in overtime to a Penguins team missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke and Mark Letestu. Colorado hasn't won a game since Jan. 24. The point they got in the overtime loss Wednesday was their first since their last victory. It doesn't figure to get any better going forward with center Matt Duchene on injured reserve with a hand injury and 5 of their next 6 games on the road.

Edmonton Oilers (18-32-8, 44 points)

Maybe GM Steve Tambellini should make his motivational locker room speeches a weekly thing because the Oilers definitely have answered the bell since their boss rang theirs on Monday. Edmonton has won back-to-back games by 4-1 margins, beating Dallas on Tuesday and Montreal on Thursday. Before that they had been winless in seven straight home games, which led to Tambellini's private address to his club. Ales Hemsky scored twice Thursday and has 4 points in the past two games.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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