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Jackets improving, but Hitchcock wants more

by Dan Rosen
Ken Hitchcock noted the major difference he sees in the Columbus Blue Jackets now compared to when he took the team over a month into the 2006-07 season.

"In the past, when we went to San Jose or Anaheim we needed every player on the other team to have the flu for us to be competitive, but now we're taking them to the end of the rope," Hitchcock told "That's the difference. We're battling right to the bitter end, but we're still a little bit short."

The Blue Jackets weren't short Wednesday when they took every last punch from the NHL-leading San Jose Sharks and still picked up a 2-1 overtime victory thanks to rookie goalie Steve Mason's 47 saves.

Nevertheless, for the most part Hitchcock is accurate with his assessment, and what disappoints him the most is a lot of the Blue Jackets' losses are still a result of "time and score."

"When the game is on the line we have people who have played in the League out there and we're still not getting the job done," he said. "That's disappointing."

In their 18 losses this season, including four by way of either overtime or the shootout, the Jackets have allowed 17 goals in the final five minutes of periods and 8 goals within the first three minutes of periods.

"We don't have young players out at that time," Hitchcock said. "That's the area that is very frustrating. We have had a lot of games where we performed at high level and our veteran players are out there and we have not gotten the job done in that area."

Another area of concern is finishing. Hitchcock doesn't believe the Blue Jackets consistently outwork the opposition's goalie.

"I really believe the teams finishing now are gathering in all the second and third efforts," he said. "All the good goalies in the League make the original saves. The teams that score are the ones that get the goalie out of position. Also, the teams that score right now are the teams generating a lot of activity from the back end. We don't generate near enough from the back end."

The coach, though, admits the Jackets are in the middle of the hardest stage of evolution a hockey team can go through. They've gotten better and expectations are higher than usual, but they are still figuring out how to win on a consistent basis.

"We have had a lot of really good performances, a lot of games like the one in San Jose (on Dec. 4), where our team has played very well and lost and that's the part we're studying now," Hitchcock said. "What is happening and what has to change? Is that who we are, or what elements have to get better? We end a lot of games by saying, 'It's hard to fault our effort, but we didn't win.'

"It's the places we're losing in and those are the things we're going to address."

Forgotten trophy - The Red Wings' 6-0 trouncing of the NHL-leading San Jose Sharks on Thursday night proves the message coach Mike Babcock is delivering to his veteran championship squad may be getting through.

"We won the Jennings Trophy last year, but that was last year," Babcock told "It has nothing to do with this year, so we have to find a way to start playing the game the right way when we don't have the puck."

The Red Wings undoubtedly did that Thursday, blanking one of the League's top offenses. However, this month they have already given up 5 goals to Vancouver, 4 to Chicago and Phoenix, and 3 to Calgary, Dallas and Colorado.

Of course, with the Wings' still first in the Central Division and second in the Western Conference with a 21-6-4 record and 46 points, it may seem like Babcock is grasping at straws to find something to work on with his team.

That may be true, but Babcock is a perfectionist who knows what wins at playoff time.

"The bottom line is, and you and I both know, at playoff time 6-5 and 5-4, that just doesn't happen," the coach said. "If you can't play without the puck you're not going to win at playoff time so your season will have gone for naught. Our commitment to that area has to continue to improve. I'm a big believer it's all a process. We talk about it every single year. Rome wasn't built in a day, right?"

Bad to worse - The snake-bitten St. Louis Blues took another blow Thursday when it was revealed captain Eric Brewer needed surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. Brewer, who last played Dec. 11, had surgery Friday and will be out indefinitely.

Brewer's injury thins an already depleted Blues' blue line. Jay McKee is on injured reserve with a fractured finger (he will be out four to six weeks) and Erik Johnson has been out all season with a knee injury.

The Blues dressed seven defensemen in Thursday's 4-2 loss to Washington, but only Barret Jackman and Roman Polak were holdovers from the season-opener. Jonas Junland and Tyson Strachan made their NHL debuts while Carlo Colaiacovo, Jeff Woywitka and Mike Weaver also dressed.

"I don't want to (make a trade)," Blues President John Davidson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We lose a lot of experience, no question. But we have a bright future. Junland and Strachan, they'll get a chance to play. It's something we're going to have to deal with."   

It's unbelievable the rash of injuries the Blues have had this season. As it stands now, they have seven players on the injured reserve with Johnson on long-term IR.

This and that - Columbus forward Jason Chimera's promising season hit a bump Thursday when he was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury he suffered in Wednesday's win against San Jose. Chimera has 18 points in 31 games. The Jackets recalled Alexandre Picard from Syracuse of the AHL. Picard had 7 points in 16 games for Syracuse. … The Blue Jackets have won five straight games at Nationwide Arena. … Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne was the NHL's Player of the Week for the week ending Dec. 7, but Dan Ellis has since proven why he's the Predators' No. 1 goalie. Ellis has turned aside 112 of the last 117 shots he's faced in the last four games, good for a .957 save percentage. The Predators' offense hasn't backed him up, which is why they are 1-2-1 during Ellis' brilliant run. … Nashville captain Jason Arnott will play in his 1,000th career game tonight. Arnott, who made the NHL in 1993, has 792 points in 999 games, but only 2 points in his last seven games. … Blues right wing David Backes has scored a goal in each of the last three games and now has 9 goals in 31 games this season. He had 13 in 72 games last season. ... The Blue Jackets will be without rookie center Derick Brassard for 3-4 weeks after he separated his shoulder during a first-period fight Thursday in Dallas with James Neal. Brassard entered Friday leading all NHL rookies with 25 points, which is good for second behind Rick Nash on the Jackets.

That's what he said - "It's certainly been everything I thought it would be," Red Wings goalie Ty Conklin told about his Detroit experience thus far. "It's been a great experience to learn from these guys. There are so many guys here who have played in the big games and won the big games so they know what it takes to win. I knew it was going to be enjoyable coming here and it's been everything I expected for sure."

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