The Columbus Blue Jackets are playing out the string.
Sure, coach Ken Hitchcock used his postgame presser to suggest that the CBJ are 7 points out of the playoffs (and only have to go 8-2 to get back in the mix - yow!). Sure, Chris Clark said the same thing in the locker room.
Problem is, the Jackets have improved to become a .500 hockey team, not an .800 hockey team. They might go on a little run, but nothing that incredible. If they do, I'll gladly eat large helpings of crow as I'd love to see it happen.
No, my friends, the message came in the pregame mutterings. Hitch talked about how the Jackets are going to ride goalie Steve Mason down the stretch despite his poor play. The Fox Sports Ohio folks talked about how "the kids are alright" (again) in their pregame show, signifying yet another recommitment to the team's youth movement. When a cash-strapped team talks about playing youngsters instead of making moves at the trade deadline, they're playing out the string.
Luckily for the Jackets, the youngsters can be pretty good. They were last night.
But let's be honest with ourselves. The Brassard goal (set up by a wicked shot from Milan Jurcina) was the only thing that made the first two periods worthwhile. The Dispatch coverage reminds us that the team went over 18 minutes between the 1st and 2nd periods not without a goal - but they didn't get one of those, either - but without a shot. This was the dark, smelly underside of Hitch-hockey, the defense-first style that had us playing in our own zone for most of the first 40 minutes.
On the bright side, I used this painful stretch to enjoy a lovely dinner with Mrs. DBJ and the Dark Blue Onesie. Boy, does that Dark Blue Onesie love those banana puffs!
The Jackets came to life in the 3rd period, apparently deciding that playing in the offensive zone is a preferred way to win hockey games. Kristian Huselius scored a power play goal on a picture-perfect passing drill setup from captain Rick Nash, and Freddy Modin wisely scooped a puck that stalled out in the crease into the back of the net. Then it was time to stop scoring, hold on for dear life, and pray that Mason could deliver the win. He did.
the ticket-buying public happy, and better yet to do so against "that damn team" (Nashville, as described by Hitch in the postgame presser).
For the record, I prefer "that damn team" to "Darth Vader". Just sayin'.
As for the visitors...I don't know what's going on in Nashville on a day-to-day basis, but they played some of the poorest hockey I've seen from them in the 3+ years that I've been watching the CBJ. Was it injuries? Was it a slump? Was it that the CBJ lulled them to sleep in the first two periods?
(By the way, does anyone else think that Martin Erat's last name sounds like some twisted form of pig latin? I keep wanting to turn the letters around, but I get "Tare," which doesn't get me anywhere.)
Regardless, the Jackets are now over 50 points (51) with 27 games to play. Realistically, it'll take 94 points to get within smelling distance of the playoffs - or 43 MORE points in 27 games. At 2 points for a win and 1 for an overtime loss, that's near-impossible for a team that is just now approaching consistently .500 hockey.
So let's sit back and enjoy the ride. It'll be fun to see the youngsters get their chances to shine because, despite what we hear, the Blue Jackets are playing out the string.