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Pittsburgh vs. Columbus Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (36-26-6-78) at Columbus Blue Jackets (34-27-6-74)

Where: Nationwide Arena
When: Thursday, March 12, at 7 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 defeated Columbus, 4-1, in the previous meeting between the two clubs Feb. 6 at Mellon Arena.  



  Pens vs. Blue Jackets 2/6

Shot Onslaught: The Penguins have been putting a lot of rubber on opposing goaltenders lately. Those extra shots and opportunities could be the difference between winning and losing against a good goaltender. Rookie Steve Mason has been one of the best in the league between the pipes this season and Pittsburgh needs to test him early, late and in-between.

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. 
The Columbus Blue Jackets entered the National Hockey League with a simple plan: stockpile young, talented players, remain patient while they grow and build 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 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 the best season in franchise history and is threatening to break into the playoffs. The organization is positioned in the sixth spot in the Western Conference with 74 points. The Jackets caught fire in January with a 6-0-1 streak and climbed out of the playoff abyss. They’re playing their best hockey of the season now, evidenced by the 8-2 beating they handed Detroit March 7.
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 defensemen 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. In January, Columbus traded for Jason Williams from Atlanta in exchange for Clay Wilson and a sixth-round pick. At the trade deadline, Columbus sent oft-injured goalie Pascal Leclaire and a second-round pick to Ottawa for Antoine Vermette.
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 2.70 goals per game to rank 21st 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 has the numbers to prove it. Nash is currently leading the team in goals (32), assists (33) and points (65). Columbus has been desperately searching for a top-shelf center to play with Nash. 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.

There is a huge falloff after Nash. Huselius ranks second on the team at 46 points on 18 goals and 28 assists. The team’s third-highest scorer, Umberger, has 38 points (23G-15A). Jason Williams (35 points), Manny Malhotra (31) and Vermette (30) have all chipped in.

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. The Czech native, who is from the same city as Jaromir Jagr, has 32 points (9G-23A) 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 2.70 goals per game to rank eighth 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 24 points with five goals and 19 assists and is a plus-8. Tyutin is leading the defensive corps with 30 points on eight goals and 22 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-19 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. 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 27-16-3 record with a 2.19 goals against average (2nd best in the NHL) and .920 save percentage (7th best in the NHL). Mason also has nine shutouts, the most in the league this season.

Mason’s emergence 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. However, the team and Leclaire parted ways when they dealt him to Ottawa. Now the backup post belongs to journeyman Wade Dubielewicz.
Columbus saw a lot of potential in the 6-foot-4, 202-pound kid from Oakville, Ontario. The Blue Jackets drafted goaltender Steve Mason in the third round (69th overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. They expected that he could be their goaltender of the future but they never expected the future to be this season. The 20-year-old stepped in for the injured Leclaire early in November. Mason won his first three NHL games and has been the Jackets go-to goalie ever since.

The rookie leads the NHL in shutouts this season with nine. He posted three consecutive shutouts in December, blanking Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Anaheim. Mason ranks in the top-10 in several categories including goals against average (2.19, 2nd), save percentage (.920, 7th) and wins (27, 10th). His 27 wins also ties a franchise record. Mason has overcome a lot this season. He’s played admirably following two early knee surgeries and a bout with mononucleosis.

While it is true that Hitchcock’s strict defensive approach has benefited the team’s rookie netminder, it shouldn’t take away from what Mason has accomplish. Mason has been remarkable between the pipes and should be Columbus’ goaltender for the next 10 years.
"Obviously it was a huge game, and the crowd realized that. The amount of noise they were making it's huge. Should we get into the playoffs, they're going to be extremely loud and passionate. I know they will. And it's going to make it really fun to play in front of them."
- Steve Mason told the Columbus Dispatch on the Jackets’ fans during the team’s 2-0 win over Boston

Rick Nash accomplished a feat that hasn’t been replicated since 1948. In Columbus’ 8-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, Nash tallied an unassisted hat trick. The last player to score three goals with no assists from his teammates was Maurice Richard (March 1, 1948).

Author: Sam Kasan

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