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Blue Jackets' skid has everyone on edge

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Right after Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson spoke with reporters during Monday's practice, he ran out of the auxiliary rink with his phone to his ear.

He's been using up more cell phone minutes lately than a chatty teenager.

Columbus is coming off a brutal four-game road trip in which it lost all four by a combined score of 24-7, and Howson has been burning up his 4G network trying to make a deal that can keep his club in contention for a playoff spot.

The Blue Jackets finished the weekend with 43 points, 13th best in the 15-team Western Conference, but just four points behind the eighth and final postseason qualifying spot.

"We've had lots of talks and are trying to work something out," Howson said Monday. "The thing about it is, when you're struggling everybody wants to come and talk to you and see if you're a little more desperate than you were before. You have to be careful."

On one hand, the team is a respectable 20-19-3 just a game past the midpoint of the season. That win total matches the best through 42 games in the franchise's 10 seasons.

But remember, this is the West, where there is - and figures to remain - a logjam in the fight for the eight playoff spots. Hardly anyone is out of it yet.

"This next month of hockey is crucial, it's important to set us up for a push," forward R.J. Umberger said. "We need to be focused and give it everything we've got."

The Blue Jackets are also among the coldest teams on ice. They had one of the league's top records over the first 20 games, going 14-6-0. They were also 8-1 on the road. But since Nov. 24, they're just 6-13-3 and 1-9-2 away from home.

So what's the difference between then and now?

"You could hit a lot of notes on that one," first-year coach Scott Arniel said with an awkward chuckle. "Our team game is really a lot different than what it was early in the year. You go over every different area - our forecheck, giving up odd-man rushes, our D-zone coverage, our specialty teams - and it's kind of blatant that we weren't quite the same as we were earlier."

Just to pick out one problem area, the Blue Jackets' perennially bad power play is again among the worst in the NHL. When the club has a man advantage, it's almost a detriment. During the four-game sweep at Nashville, Phoenix, Anaheim and Los Angeles, the power play allowed more goals (2) than it scored (1). It's that bad.

The running joke is that when an opponent gets a penalty, the Blue Jackets should decline it.

Also, franchise goaltender Steve Mason has struggled. He won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie in 2008-09, posting a 33-20-7 record with a 2.29 goals-against average, a .916 save percentage and 10 shutouts in leading the club to its first and only playoff berth.

He has been erratic ever since. In the season and a half since his breakthrough campaign, the 22-year-old is 32-37-10 with a 3.12 goals-against average, .901 save percentage and just six shutouts. To make matters worse, he is sidelined by a strained groin sustained in Friday's loss at Anaheim.

The Blue Jackets' best player is perennial All-Star Rick Nash, whose 20 goals heading into the week put him eighth in the league. As the team's captain, he has additional responsibilities in trying to turn the team around.

"It's easy when you're winning. It's all good times," he said. "But when you're losing, you have to make sure you don't try to do too much.

"Sometimes top players find themselves doing that. We have to stick to our system, put trust in our system, put trust in our players and go win some games."

One other distraction has been veteran defenseman Mike Commodore's request for a trade. He has cleared waivers and was sent to the minor leagues while Howson tries to figure out what to do with him and the remaining two years of his bloated salary (worth $6.85 million).

In the basement of the Central Division, the Blue Jackets must re-establish themselves despite playing just three home games in January, opposed by eight road games. In that run are back-to-back games this weekend against the best in the division: Detroit.

Despite the recent slump, Arniel stressed to his players that they have a lot of time left to reverse course.

"We've got 40 games to go. This still is a race. We're still in it," he said. "We just have to find that consistency and that desperation right now that we don't drag this into February, that we don't allow it to continue. We don't want to be playing in March having the games mean nothing."

As he spoke, Howson was elsewhere in the arena working the phones.

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