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Nash and Hitchcock agree, it's the system

by John McGourty
Rick Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets' leading goal scorer, was asked if the strong play of their rookie goalie, Steve Mason, allows Blue Jackets forwards a chance to "cheat" a little bit, knowing he'll make the big saves if there are turnovers.

The captain didn't hesitate in his response. He knows the Blue Jackets are the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference and their only hope of beating the No. 2-seeded Detroit Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champions, is to play their type of game, their system.

The series opens Thursday at 7 p.m. ET at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit and will be televised on VERSUS and TSN.

"I don't know if we approach it differently," Nash said. "If you cheat in the (Ken) Hitchcock system, you're asking to not see too much ice time."

Nash bought into the system after a brief, early conversation with Hitchcock, who took over the coaching reins in Columbus on Nov. 22, 2006, one month after he was fired as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Hitchcock changed Nash's role because of the coach's long-held belief that a team's best players should be on the ice in the most important situations, including the penalty kill and in the last minute of close periods and games.

"It was definitely a change of systems for me," Nash acknowledged. "Before he got here, I was playing about 12 minutes a game and on power plays only. If we were up a goal with only a couple of minutes left, I was not on the ice.

"He explained that a team's best players have to be the best players in all situations. It was hard at first, committing to defense first, playing the last minutes of games and playing on the penalty kill.

"But look at his record: He's won at every level, so we trusted it."

Hitchcock has a regular-season record of 511-323-88-61 in 983 NHL games and is 66-51 in 117 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

The system is everything with Hitchcock. His system helped him win the 1999 Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars and return to the Stanley Cup Final the next season against New Jersey. It helped the Philadelphia Flyers advance to the 2004 Eastern Conference Final.

"The system is pretty simple," Hitchcock said. "It's all based on doing what you want to do offensively and being strong and determined when the other team has the puck. It's not negotiable. It's one-way only."

One-way, as in, "my way or the highway."

"We don't 'cheat,' we anticipate," Nash said. "With (Detroit) players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, we have to read the play, see it happening and if we don't, we're on the wrong side of the puck."

Hitchcock said the whole team bought into the system about a dozen games into this season when the results didn't match the high expectations.

"When we got off to a slow start, it was a wake-up call for everyone," he said. "Expectations were high but we didn't realize how much we had to work on the chemistry. I felt like we got desperate and things started to turn around quite a bit. About a dozen games in, there was a sense of urgency to make sure they righted the ship.

"It helped me, and the coaches, and even (GM) Scott (Howson). We were able to change the culture without gutting the hockey club. The players deserve a lot of credit to be able to that. Kudos to them, they really bought in."

Both Nash and Hitchcock are facing situations that are new to them in the Detroit challenge. Nash has been in the league for six seasons but has yet to compete in a Stanley Cup Playoff game. Hitchcock's teams have always been favored or relatively even in pre-series' analyses.

"I've had some success in the past but this a new season," Nash said. "I've never played a playoff game in the NHL. I know it's much tougher. It's going to be a big challenge to score against a team like this."

Hitchcock was asked if there is less pressure on the underdog than the favorite.

"I don't know. I haven't been in this position much in my life, not for a long, long time," he said. "I'm not sure what to expect. It just seems like forever that I've coached the team with the pressure on them. To have the team without the pressure, where the expectations are not very great, it may go to our advantage but I'm not sure what to expect right now, to be honest."

The Blue Jackets finished fourth in the Central Division, after Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. Hitchcock was asked if it helps to have played the Red Wings six times this season. He pointed to a single game within those six games, the Blue Jackets' 8-2 triumph on March 7 in Joe Louis Arena.

"I think it's a big help playing them six times," he said. "What was a bigger help was winning in Detroit. I know they came back and beat us pretty good (4-0 in Columbus on March 15.) At least since I've been here, (the thinking was) yes, we could beat them in a shootout or overtime at home, but we weren't going to win in Detroit.

"When we won there, our mindset changed a lot and another level of confidence came over our team. It wasn't just about Detroit, but playing on the road and being able to beat good teams. It legitimized our feeling that we could win on the road against good hockey teams."

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