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Central: Winning means the Worlds for Hitchcock

by Larry Wigge

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock will be at the helm of Team Canada this year at the upcoming World Championships in May.
Columbus-Detroit highlights
"This is our playoff ... my playoffs."

Those were the well-chosen words of Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock shortly after his team was eliminated from playoff contention and he had gotten word that he would coach Team Canada in the upcoming World Championships to be held in Halifax and Quebec City from May 2-10.

There's little more than a short break between the end of the NHL season and the beginning of preparations for the Worlds -- and there's a lot riding for Hitchcock and Team Canada, who will be bidding to become the first host country to win the gold medal since the Soviet Union in 1986.

"I didn't know that ... and, actually, I didn't want to know that," Hitchcock said with a twinkle in his eyes. "We know there is going to be pressure and stress on everybody. We have to learn to embrace it. If you embrace the pressure that goes with playing at home and high expectations, then you can feed off that energy."

Canada, coached by Andy Murray, won gold at last year's Worlds in Moscow. But like Murray and Hitchcock both know, coaching at any level is a stressful, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately job -- even if it means assembling a group of players from different parts of the country, different NHL teams, different systems,  and try for the same goal -- winning.

The 56-year-old Hitchcock, who has served as an associate coach for Canada's Olympic entries in 2002 and 2006, and at the World Cup of Hockey in 2004, was also an assistant coach at the 2002 Worlds and 1988 World Juniors. He could be a professor teaching Hockey 101 to a captivated audience anywhere from Helsinki to Honolulu. He's addicted to his work and he makes it fun for anyone around who wants to listen.

So what is the most important thing a coach has to know, Hitch?

"Coaches are creatures of habit. They all have a live-life-on-a-ledge mentality, because it could be your last day," Hitchcock said. "Our caffeine is the action, the game, the thrill of trying to create a winning atmosphere every day ... not just one game or one week or one month.

"It's all about an attention to details. I remember after we won the Stanley Cup in Dallas in 1999, I went to five coaches -- one baseball manager, a football coach and three other hockey coaches -- and asked them what they needed to know most to come back and duplicate their success. They all said it's an attention to the details ... whatever you did the first time make sure you use that as your guideline the second time around."

Hitchcock isn't ready to let Canada or the Blue Jackets down. He's enjoyed this hockey season, wishes it wasn't over in Columbus. But you can see he's still ready to coach some more.

Of more importance from a Central Division standpoint is that Hitch saw the improvement of captain Rick Nash and character forward Jason Chimera from last season to this one after they competed for Canada in the World Championships last spring.

"It's been a springboard for a lot of players coming back to the NHL. I've seen it every time I coached Canada," Murray told me earlier this season, speaking from the experience of winning the Worlds three times. "I could rattle off player after player who has elevated his game while playing for his country and then come back and did the same thing in the NHL."

The feeling of coaching and winning, well, it's ...

"The feeling of winning is incredible," Hitchcock added. "You feel like you have the key, the lock and the door, and you don't want to give that up ... to anybody.

"This a great honor. I feel rejuvenated. I want to keep coaching. I'll have something to keep me busy while the playoffs are going on."

Hitchcock also knows that if the Canadians have success this spring, he would likely be considered to coach Canada at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Back to details ...

"Smaller ice surface. Big advantage," Hitchcock said of playing on an NHL-sized rink, instead of the wider international ice surface usually involved in this tournament. "We're going to play Canadian hockey. We're going to play the way we know how to play, and it's going to fit well with the surface we're playing on."

While the Blue Jackets are still the only team in the NHL to not make the playoffs, the payoff is looking closer and closer with Columbus surpassing a club record 74 points and competing for a playoff spot in March for the first time in club history.

You can bet that Ken Hitchcock takes more than just Nash and Chimera along with him from Columbus to this year's World Championships. You can also wager with confidence that the carryover effect for those players could be just the ticket for Columbus to make that quantum leap to the postseason next season.

Around the Central

Detroit --
For the fourth time in the last six years, the Detroit Red Wings won the Presidents' Trophy for the best record in the NHL (it was the sixth time Detroit has won the award, while no other team has won it more than twice since its inception for the 1984-85 season). ... Pavel
The Red Wings captured the sixth Presidents’ Trophy in their history.
Datsyuk went into the team's final game against Chicago on April 6 needing four points to become the first Detroit player since Sergei Fedorov (107 points) in 1995-96 to reach the 100-point mark. ... Johan Franzen scored 14 goals in 13 games in March, more than he had scored in any other three months of his NHL career combined. That's pretty rare air. Among the players who never scored as many as 14 goals in a month: Mark Messier, Mats Sundin, and Maurice Richard. His 1-0 overtime game-winner against Nashville on March 30 was his sixth game-winning goal in the month, setting a franchise record for one calendar month (passing Gordie Howe's record of five). ... Bad news for the rest of the League: While Franzen has been making a living using his big body in front of opposition nets in the last month, Tomas Holmstrom announced he would return for Detroit's final game of the season against Chicago on April 6 after missing 13 games with a groin injury. ... The Wings will get some unexpected help in the playoffs. Justin Abdelkader, a center who was Detroit's second-round pick, 42nd overall, in the 2005 Entry Draft, played in the Presidents' Trophy clincher on an amateur tryout and was expected to sign a three-year contract to make him eligible for the playoffs. Abdelkader is a gritty, in-your-face center who had 44 goals and 51 assists as a junior at Michigan State this season after being named the MVP of the 2007 NCAA Frozen Four when his goal with 18.9 seconds left beat Boston College and pushed the Spartans to the national championship.

Nashville --
The best story in the division  -- and maybe the most heartwarming story in hockey this season -- was the way the Nashville Predators, left for dead last summer when the team was dismantled -- losing stars Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Tomas Vokoun and Kimmo Timonen -- and some thought the team's new owner would move the Preds to Hamilton, Ontario. But amid all of the bad vibes, those who remained banded together and fought and scrapped. The fact that former owner Craig Leipold lost $27 million the last two seasons didn't matter to the fans in Nashville or the players who were left behind as local ownership kept the team in Music City. And, lo and behold, the Predators went 5-0-1 down the stretch to complete an unlikely run to the playoffs following a 3-2 comeback win against St. Louis on April 3. ... Going into the playoffs, Dan Ellis could be considered another of those Cinderella stories in Nashville this season. He was a backup to Chris Mason in goal to start the season. Now he is officially Nashville's No. 1 goalie after starting 11 consecutive games -- even if he was yanked three times in that stretch, including a game in St. Louis April 1 after he allowed three goals on seven shots. The three goals in less than seven minutes were one more than Ellis allowed over his previous four games combined, when he stopped 151 of 153 shots, posted a 3-0-1 record, and had a shutout streak of 233:39 (fifth-longest by a goaltender in the NHL's "modern era" behind the record of 332:01 set by Phoenix's Brian Boucher in 2003-04). Predators coach Barry Trotz didn't hesitate to put Ellis right back between the pipes two nights later in a 3-2 victory over the Blues.

The Chicago Blackhawks improved by leaps and bounds this season.
Chicago -- The Blackhawks missed the postseason for the ninth time in 10 seasons, but they did put forth a dramatic increase from 71 points last season to 86 entering the final weekend this season. ... Aside from the story of rookies Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and their contributions to the Hawks offense, the biggest story in Chicago has been the production coach Denis Savard has been able to coax out of his defense. Goals by Cam Barker and Jordan Hendry early in the first period of their victory against Detroit on April 2 increased the number of goals by Hawks defensemen to 47 this season. Last season, the defense accounted for only 21 goals. ... After going 0-8-0 with a 3.49 goals-against average in eight games in January, Nikolai Khabibulin is trying to answer his critics with a final push that included an 8-1-3 record 1.90 GAA in 13 games since the start of February. ... Shorthanded goals have also been a key to Chicago's resurgence. The Blackhawks lead the NHL in shorthanded goals with 16 -- one more than Ottawa. Five of those shorties were scored against the Blues.

Columbus -- Pascal Leclaire, whom some might argue was Columbus' MVP this season with his 24-16-6 record, nine shutouts and a sparkling 2.24 goals-against average going into the final weekend, will remember the 36 saves he made against on April 3 as one of his best performances of the season. But he'll also remember seeing the shot by Henrik Zetterberg from behind the net bank into the net off the back of his left leg for the winning goal as well. In the big picture, however, it was like a quantum leap for Leclaire, who was a woeful 6-15-2 with 2.97 GAA and .894 save percentage with just one shutout in 24 games with the Blue Jackets in 2006-07. ... The Jackets can now look forward to next season knowing they can either pick two of the top 20 prospects in the first round of the Entry Draft June 20 or they can use either their pick or Colorado's or both to acquire a No. 1 center to put with Rick Nash. The Jackets acquired a conditional first-round pick from the Avalanche in the Feb. 26 trade for defenseman Adam Foote. It became this year's Avs' pick when Colorado clinched a playoff spot.

St. Louis -- The play of Blues defenseman Erik Johnson got better and better with each game down the stretch. The first overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft played more than 20 minutes in 13 of his last 14 games entering the final weekend of the season and had points in eight of those games. ... David Backes is another of the Blues who improved as the season rolled on. He added the bulk to be a power-forward-in-the-making and contributed a team-high 232 hits (good for seventh in the NHL) and improved his goal-scoring from 10 last season to 12 this time around. Six of his goals came after Jan. 28. ... The Blues, who missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season after making it a record 26 straight times, get a constant reminder that special teams had better be more special next season. The combination of being 30th and last in the NHL on the power play plus giving up 13 shorthanded goals (second most in the league to the 15 by the New York Islanders) should be a pretty good place to start when you try to analyze what went wrong with the St. Louis Blues after an 22-14-5 start. In their three games before the final weekend, the Blues scored one power-play goal but surrendered four shorthanded goals -- two each by Chicago and Nashville.

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