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Pittsburgh vs. Columbus Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (25-23-5-55) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (24-22-5-53)

Where: Mellon Arena
When: Friday, February 6, 2008, 7:30 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV: FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428 and DirecTV 659.
*View FSN's HD Broadcast Schedule here
Season Series: The Penguins will face the Blue Jackets for the first time this season. Pittsburgh won, 5-3, the last time these two teams met Oct. 21, 2006.



Pens vs. Blue Jackets 10/21/06
  Sidney Crosby 2/6
Michel Therrien 2/6
Marc-Andre Fleury 2/6
Maxime Talbot 2/6
Petr Sykora 2/6
Break the Trap: Pittsburgh has plenty of experience against trapping teams. However, Columbus executes its system as good as any team in the NHL. The Blue Jackets are incredibly disciplined - and somewhat boring - in their execution of the trap. The Penguins will have to capitalize on their opportunities because Columbus doesn't surrender many goals.

Patience: The Blue Jackets don't surrender many goals but they also don't score many goals. They are offensively impaired. It should be a tight-checking and low-scoring game. The Penguins must remain patient and not lose their cool.

Anger Malkin: With the Penguins trailing 3-0 in the third period against Tampa Bay, Evgeni Malkin - normally reserved and quiet - vocalized his frustrations. He then put the team on his back and carried the Penguins to an overtime victory. If Pittsburgh - and Malkin in particular - can play with that same desperation, good things will happen.
The Columbus Blue Jackets entered the National Hockey League with a simple plan: stockpile young, talented players, remain patient while they grow and built a Stanley Cup contender for the long haul. Columbus was successful in the stockpiling task, as for the rest of the plan…not so much. General manager Doug MacLean grabbed seven top-10 draft picks from 2000-06: D Rostislav Klesla (No. 4, 2000), G Pascal Leclaire (No. 8, 2001), F Rick Nash (No. 1, 2002), F Nikolai Zherdev (No. 4, 2003), F Alexandre Picard (No. 8, 2004), C Gilbert Brule (No. 6, 2005) and C Derick Brassard (No. 6, 2006).

But the Blue Jackets never translated the individual talents and potential into team success. Thus, Columbus remains the only NHL franchise to never make a postseason appearance. To turn around the organization’s fortunes the team turned to veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock, who’s had two successful stints in Dallas and Philadelphia, in the middle of the 2006-07 season. Then, the Blue Jackets hired Scott Howson to replace MacLean before the 2007-08 campaign. Under Hitchcock’s direction, Columbus had its best season ever last year. Unfortunately that amounts to a 34-36-12 record for 80 points and still no postseason, but it was considerable progress.

On the current season, Columbus is enjoying one of the better starts in franchise history and is threatening to break into the playoffs. The organization is positioned in the 10 spot in the Western Conference with 53 points (one point away from the eighth seed). Columbus is still a team finding itself, fighting through inconsistencies, but under Hitchcock’s direction the postseason no longer looks like an unrealistic goal.
The Blue Jackets' roster had a complete makeover from the squad that opened last season’s campaign. Columbus has parted ways with forwards Nikolai Zherdev, Sergei Federov, Gilbert Brule, David Vyborny, Dan Fritsche and defenseman Adam Foote (and captain), Ron Hainsey and Dick Tarnstrom. Columbus added Pittsburgh native R.J. Umberger. The Blue Jackets also acquired forwards Kristian Huselius, Raffi Torres, Mike York and defensemen Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman and Mike Commodore.
The Blue Jackets had the second-worst offense in the entire NHL last season. While the team has improved this year, they still are only netting 2.65 goals per game to rank 20th in the league.

Of course, the offense rises and falls on the shoulders of former No.1-overall selection Rick Nash. He’s the most gifted and blessed offensive talent on the roster and he’s got the numbers to prove it. Nash is currently leading the team in goals (22), assists (25) and points (47). Columbus has been desperately searching for a top-shelf center to play with Nash (sound somewhat familiar?). Nash is a legitimate sniper but his talents are being wasted because the Blue Jackets haven’t found an equal talent to be his playmaker. Columbus traded for Jason Williams from Atlanta in the hopes that he will be the answer to their search. Time will tell.

There is a huge falloff after Nash. Huselius ranks second on the team at 35 points on 14 goals and 21 assists. Then the third-highest scorer, Umberger, has only 27 points (16G-11A). The Blue Jackets lost rising star Derick Brassard, the team’s top pick in 2006 (6th overall), for the season after he had shoulder surgery to repair an injury. Forward Jakub Voracek (No. 7 overall in 2007) is having a respectable season for a 19-year-old rookie. The Czech native, who is from the same city as Jaromir Jagr, has 24 points (8G-16A) in limited ice time.
Hitchcock’s modus operandi throughout his coaching career has been defense, defense, trap, defense. It’s no surprise that Hitchcock, who signed a three-year deal in the offseason, brought his trapping, strangling defensive style to the capital of Ohio. The technique has paid off because Columbus is in the running for a postseason spot because of the strength of its defense. The team is allowing 2.78 goals per game to rank 12th in the NHL.

The Blue Jackets welcome three newcomers to the blue line. Offseason pick up Commodore may be the best all around player for Columbus this season. He’s tallied 21 points with four goals and 17 assists and is second on the team with a plus-11 rating. Tyutin is leading the defensive corps with 23 points on six goals and 17 assists. Stay-at-home defenseman Jan Hejda is a late bloomer at the age of 30. He broke into the league last year after posting 13 assists and a plus-20 rating. On the current season, he leads the Blue Jackets with a plus-17 and is developing into a shutdown blueliner.
Columbus’ season appeared to have a rocky start when Leclaire went down with an injury. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the team handed the car keys to rookie Steve Mason. Mason was projected to be the Jackets’ goaltender of the future, but few thought the future would be now. The 20-year-old Ontario native has stolen the No. 1 job in Columbus and has shown no signs of losing his grip. Mason has posted a 19-12-2 record with a 2.09 goals against average (2nd best in the NHL) and .923 save percentage (7th best in the NHL). Mason also has seven shutouts, the most in the league this season.

Mason emergence has relegated the former No. 8-overall pick Leclaire to a backup. Leclaire has all the talent to be a great netminder in the NHL if he can stay healthy. Unfortunately for him and Columbus, he hasn’t been able to stay in the lineup. Leclaire had his best season as a pro with the Blue Jackets last season when he went 24-17-6 with a 2.25 GAA and .919 save percentage. But two more stints on IR this year have pushed him to the backburner. Now an ankle injury will put him on the shelf for the rest of the season.
Nash was taken by Columbus with the No. 1-overall pick in the 2002 Entry Draft. The Brampton, Ontario stud jumped onto the NHL scene as an 18-year-old rookie. He had a relatively quiet first campaign with 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points. Instead of hitting a sophomore slump, Nash exploded in his second year with an eye-popping 41 goals at the tender age of 19. Nash netted 54-plus points for three consecutive seasons. Last year, Nash hit a growth spurt. He tallied 38 goals and 31 assists for a career-high 69 points. On the current campaign, Nash is on pace to have an even better season even though the Blue Jackets still haven’t found a center that can help Nash fulfill his potential as a 50-goal scorer.
“Too many players aren’t giving us everything they have.”
- Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock after his team’s 4-2 loss to St. Louis Tuesday
> Blue Jackets defenseman Rostislav Klesla returned from an 11-game absence with a broken bone in his right foot. Injuries to his foot, wrist and ankle have caused Klesla, the Columbus franchise’s first-ever draft pick, to miss 31 of the organization’s first 50 games. Despite being the fourth-overall pick in 2000, Klesla has never scored more than 22 points.

> The Penguins have won five of their last seven home games.

Author: Sam Kasan
Yahoo! Sports helped with research for this report

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