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Central: Jackets ready for full playoff meal

by Larry Wigge
Expectations have been raised more than just a notch according to Columbus Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash. No longer is it about just making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's playing a lot better than when they get there than they did in the first round of the playoffs last spring, when they lost four straight to the Detroit Red Wings.

Nash looks around the room and knows which players he can count on. And that team concept starts across the dressing room from him, in the form of second-year goaltender Steve Mason.

"It's huge when you've got a guy back there who you know is going to stop a lot of pucks. All the confidence in the world starts with 'Mase,'" Nash said. "It's so much easier to take a chance or two offensively when you know he's back there and he's got your back."

There's something about a sudden-impact player like Mason that makes you appreciate what you've got on your side. At the start of last season, it was going to be Pascal Leclaire and Fredrik Norrena in goal. But an injury to Leclaire and Norrena's ineffective play put all the pressure on the shoulders of a 20-year-old rookie.

Mason has proven to be something special, posting a 33-20-7 record with a League-leading 10 shutouts and a 2.29 goals-against average.

During a trip to Calgary last season, Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock was asked after a morning skate if Mason would be playing. As he began to walk back to his office, the veteran coach said matter-of-factly, "Yes, he's playing tonight ..."

After a few more steps, Hitchcock added, "And forever."

Later, Hitchcock admitted, "I don't even look at him as a young player anymore. He plays with ice water in his veins, especially when he's clinging to a lead late in a game."

The Blue Jackets still are the youngest team in the NHL, at an average of 25.3 years of age. But the learning curve they followed to reach the team's first playoff berth in eight seasons has been replaced with a swagger and a 5-1 start going into a four-game trip beginning Oct. 20 that no longer comes with a feeling of uneasiness.

"It used to be, 'Is this the year we make it to the playoffs?'" Nash said. "Now we have to make sure we make it again, and once we get there, play a lot better than we did."

Nash admits the Jackets are a hungry club right now. They were not satisfied with the way the season ended against Detroit in the playoffs. Still, like everything in the team's learning curve developed by Hitchcock, watching that team from Detroit a couple of hours up the highway was important.

"It was definitely an eye-opener to see first-hand how Stanley Cup champions do it," Nash said. "They just take their game to another level. They all finish their checks, they compete hard for every puck. It was good for us to see how they do it."

But following the Joneses, err, Red Wings now is just window dressing.

"It's up to us to carry over that we did last year and create our own identity," Nash said.

The capper -- Chicago GM Stan Bowman's team may be nudged right up to the NHL's salary cap, but they're making life in the Windy City pretty darn exciting in the early going.

Just ask forward Jack Skille, the team's 2005 first-round draft choice (No. 5), who is going the extra mile to make a spot for himself in Chicago.

Skille has been a regular commuter between Chicago and the Hawks' American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford in an effort to save space under the cap. He often has practiced with the IceHogs and then driven an hour to suit up with the Blackhawks.

"I have a pretty good DVD player in my car," Skille laughed. "I just turn up the tunes and drive."

Skille makes $850,000 for days that he's in Chicago, but it's less in Rockford. But even a third- or fourth-line spot in the NHL every few days is OK with Skille, who watched Kris Versteeg get a similar promotion to the Hawks a year ago and turn a checking assignment into a regular NHL job with 22 goals and 53 points.

It's a lesson for prospects and agents. In the salary-cap era, it could be better to accept less money on an NHL deal just to get a skate in the door. Bigger bucks can be there at a later date ... if you make the most of your opportunities.

Hard work part of the learning curve -- Everyone looks at the St. Louis Blues and sees such an exciting future with youngsters like Erik Johnson, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron.

After a two-game sweep of Detroit as part of the 2009 NHL Compuware Premiere-Stockholm games, the Blues continued a bad habit of falling behind in games, as they did that in losses at home to Atlanta and Los Angeles and in Phoenix to open a three-game trip.

Berglund, who was on a high during the trip home to Sweden, found himself a healthy scratch for the game against the Kings -- a message from coach Andy Murray.

"There's a difference between marketing and reality, and some of our players were starting to believe that we have all the pieces of the puzzle in place and it's only the fans we need," said Murray. "Well, we need the cornerstones of the puzzle -- which is hard work, commitment, sacrificing and playing for each other."

All of the youngsters contributed more blood and sweat in a 3-2 overtime loss in Phoenix Oct. 15, and then Johnson had 3 assists, Oshie had a goal and an assist and Berglund had a goal in a 5-0 win at Anaheim two nights later.

Said Berglund, "You think you're playing well enough to stay in the lineup, but when you sit out and had to watch your teammates play without you, you definitely get the message."

Homer and his odyssey -- Four goals in his first seven games and going to the net and making an absolute pest of himself is what Detroit power forward Tomas Holmstrom does best. But there were times late last season when Homer wasn't sure if the guy he was seeing in the mirror at each morning was the same player.

Knee, hernia and back injuries left the Demolition Man ineffective -- no goals in his last 19 playoff games and only two goals in his last 41 games, regular season and playoffs.

"You're hurt, so you just try harder," he said. "For me, nothing seemed to work. I'd go to the net, work in the corners. Give a hit. Take one."

Holmstrom's production is even more meaningful this season, minus Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson. Recently, coach Mike Babcock has replaced Holmstrom on the team's No. 1 line with Todd Bertuzzi, trying to get him on track. Meanwhile, Homer has plugged away on a Grind Line with Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. And all three have contributed offensively.

That's no coincidence when the real Tomas Holmstrom is around.

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