By Rick Gethin/The Hockey Writers
“The game was a very weighty, physical game” ~ Head Coach Ken Hitchcock
Chalk one up in the win column as the Columbus Blue Jackets opened their 9th season in front of a capacity crowd of 18,159 Saturday night in Nationwide Arena, beating the Minnesota Wild 2-1. At times, the Blue Jackets showed that they still very much are a work in progress; passing the puck versus taking the shot. “I think on the power play we were trying to get a little too fancy”, Rick Nash said, “trying to find the guy backdoor a bit too much. It’s something that we’ll work on and just try to be more direct.” In past seasons, the passing seemed to be all over the map; now tape-to-tape is the rule not the exception.
Earlier on Saturday, defenseman Rostislav Klesla signed a contract extension to keep him in Union Blue for the next four years. He put the exclamtion point on the signing by scoring the game-winning goal. Rick Nash on the Klesla extension: “He’s a big time player. He’s been with the franchise since day one. He showed tonight why he deserves that contract; he’s one of our top ‘D’ and we’re excited to have him around for a while.” See “One on One with Rostislav Klesla“.
With the core now locked-up for the next few years, Columbus has set it’s focus on developing this young club into a perennial winner. The rookies of last season want to have a breakout year; with Jake Voracek, Derek Dorsett and Steve Mason looking to put up better numbers than their freshman season. The new rookie, Nikita Filatov, wants to prove that he can contribute to the score sheet; on both offense and defense.
With Mike Commodore placed on Injured Reserve (retro-active to Sept. 19th) and Mathieu Roy emergency recalled from Syracuse, Marc Methot found himself on the top defensive pairing with Jan Hejda. “I love having that challenge (top ‘D’ pairing). The more you play, the more comfortable you get out there. I’m glad I had the opportunity to play that much”, he said. Methot seemed to settle into the role as the game went on; passing the puck up the ice with a newfound crispness. He attributes that to “doing alot of work with our ‘D’ coach (Gord Murphy). He really emphasizes moving up fast, and I think it’s a part of our game (on defense) that we have to really develop. I worked on it alot this summer and I’m glad it’s paying off.” Methot finished the night with an assist on RJ Umberger’s short-handed goal and a +/- of +1.
Ken Hitchcock said “Methot really got better as the game went on; he calmed down a little bit. To me, once the game started to slow down in their head (the defensive corps) I thought they got better. I thought alot of the young guys expended alot of energy before we dropped the puck. Those are good lessons for them”.
Being the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets has taken Hitchcock out of his historic comfort zone. The current crop of boys in Union Blue are the 2nd youngest team in the league this year, with an average age of 26.1, and the coach has worked with them hard to get their level of play up to snuff. He’s had to rely on younger guys and now shows that he’s not afraid to use them in many situations on the ice. The young guys have responded by buying into “Hitch Hockey” and it shows. They realize that with hard work come the rewards of increased ice-time and responsibility.
Hitchcock was also happy with both the power play and penalty kill units. “I think there’s alot to build off of both special teams. I was happy with alot of things special team-wise. There’s a great deal to build on right now”, he said. “I was very happy with the way the defesemen rotated the puck on the top. We were much more of a threat than we were in the past”. After finishing last year at the bottom with their power play, the Blue Jackets can only go up. It remains to be seen if they can carry the lessons learned through the grind of the regular season.
Columbus now heads out on a three game western road trip, playing the home openers of Vancouver, San Jose and Phoenix. Historically, the Blue Jackets have not fared well in these three teams arenas. Ken Hitchcock on playing Vancouver: “We kind of get the angry mob right off the bat. There’s going to be a city, a team and a Province not really thrilled right now (0-2). So I’m sure we’re going to get their ‘A’ game. Us (CBJ) and San Jose have great games and Phoenix is a really energized team right now. To me, right now, the game in Vancouver is going to be as hard a hockey game as we’ve played in, period. It’s going to be a very hard game.”
With the opening night jitters now out of the way, the Blue Jackets set their sights on playing smart, tough hockey with all of its’ ups and downs. At the end of the tunnel, they look to be in a solid playoff position. One game down, 81 to go.