‘Buzzing the Net

Sorry for that title. I couldn’t help myself.

I’m thrilled to say that I will be taking over as the Columbus Blue Jackets blogger of HockeyBuzz.com. HockeyBuzz is the most visited independent hockey site in the world and I am honored to join the team. Here’s a link to my first blog previewing tonight’s match-up with the Dallas Stars.

I will continue to contribute to InsideHockey.com with Blue Jackets columns and features throughout the week. Also, make sure to check out The Post and The Post Sports Blog, where I’ll be writing about the Ohio U hockey team and women’s indoor track and field team during the upcoming quarter. I’ll also work on getting the odd blog about something other than hockey up here on Taking on Sports Cliches.

Happy Holidays!

Bart

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Time to stop trying to strip the “C” from Nash

With less than a minute left in regulation, trailing 2-1 to the Dallas Stars — a sixth straight loss seemingly guaranteed despite two extra skaters — Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash received a pass from Anton Stralman at the right faceoff dot. A chorus of screams came from the Nationwide faithful: “SHOOT THE $%#& PUCK!”

But Nash waited.

He waited as RJ Umberger backed himself into Stars defender Nicklas Grossman in front of the crease. He waited as Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen crept to the glove side and went down in the butterfly. Then he did what he gets paid the big bucks for.

The Captain could have shot that puck through Swiss Cheese. It may have been easier than tucking it in low, stick-side through a crowd of at least three players to tie the game up with 46.1 seconds remaining in regulation.

“It was a great screen. I was just waiting for their defenseman to get out of the way,” Nash said. “I knew the goalie was cheating to his glove side — and I had that shot — but there were so many people in front and [I was] trying not to let it hit anyone.”

Rick Nash celebrates with Anton Stralman after scoring a game-tying power-play goal with 46.1 seconds remaining in the third period. (AP Photo/Terry Gilliam)

The Blue Jackets would go on to win the game in a shootout, with Nash and Kyle Wilson both scoring identical top shelf wristers to snap a five-game skid. Columbus goaltender Mathieu Garon came up huge at the other end, fighting the urge to come out and attack opposing shooters as they nonchalantly skated it in.

Nash was asked after the game whether he had given Wilson a tip to go high stick-side on Lehtonen.

“That was all on him. I guess he just went to school. He’s a good learner,” he joked. “He saw how to do it and it was pretty much the exact same play.”

There has been a small movement — call it a campaign even — developing among Columbus Blue Jackets fans. They don’t think Nash has the leadership qualities to be a great captain. He’s too soft-spoken, not driven to win. He doesn’t have that fire like Mark Messier or the ability to make his teammates better like Steve Yzerman.

Nash’s apparently poor leadership has been the scapegoat for Columbus’ poor performances over the past two-plus seasons. When the Blue Jackets were mired in a 3-11-7 death march over November and December of last season, it was because of a lack of leadership in the locker room. Even during this past five-game losing streak, Nash became the problem because he had not torn into his teammates with a Hollywood-style gut check speech.

But with Nash, it has never been about what he says or does in the locker room. Nash didn’t have to call out anyone to get the power play to finally convert something, let alone tie the game up. He didn’t have to skate over to Wilson before the shootout to tell him where to shoot. It’s what he does on the ice, and Monday night, his performance spoke volumes.

Nash attempted to will the team to victory in the five-minute overtime period. He used his hulking frame to protect the puck for as long he could, trying to find the open man or break free from a mob of Dallas defenders just inside their own blue line, before being hauled down to the ice. Referee Stephane Auger swallowed his whistle, an egregious non-call even in overtime. Not a peep came from No. 61.

I can think of another young captain just a few hours to the east of Columbus who would have done some serious chirping for that missed call, not that Auger would have missed it in that case. Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel said was surprised Nash didn’t get the call in overtime.

“I don’t know what happened but Rick’s not one of those guys who complains,” Arniel said. “It’s not a war you want to get into.”

Nash acknowledged he was probably deserving of a call, but spent little time dwelling on it. It was all about the power play getting it done — not his goal — and more importantly, getting back in the win column.

“The biggest thing was the power play coming through for us. It’s been our Achilles a lot this season and the players had to own up to it.” Nash said. “It’s just a matter of the players coming through. It’s huge to get that win.”

He may never guarantee a Stanley Cup victory. He may not blow up at his teammates and inspire a turnaround with words. He may not give you anything more than hockey cliches when he speaks to the media, because that’s not the sort of leader he is.

The Blue Jackets have the savvy veterans in Ethan Moreau, Chris Clark and Umberger to hold players accountable in the locker room. Nash does it with his stick.

(Originally published at InsideHockey.com)

‘Waiting’ Jackets drop third straight

It was bound to happen.

Call it a good team going cold. Call it a bad team overachieving. Call it the law of averages.

At the begining of the season, who would have predicted the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the final team in the NHL to lose two games in a row? Is it unfathomable that they could lose three?

Of course not, nor should the white flag be raised on the season because of Wednesday night’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. A season cannot be lost because of one, two or three defeats. It’s about how a team responds to a losses.

Heading into the midweek match-up with their Music City rivals, the Blue Jackets and their fanbase had to come to grips with a staunch reality: they’re no Detroit. The Red Wings are the class of the entire league. They have been for the past 15 years. And the Union Blue skated with the best at times last Friday and Sunday, only to see the Red Wings shift up a gear when they needed to take both games.

There was no shame in either of those losses, although head coach Scott Arniel and his staff have taken it upon themselves to eliminate the mentality of moral victories in the CBJ locker room. It was how they responded against the Predators — in the third straight game against a divisional foe — that was concerning.

The Blue Jackets were unable to capitalize on a plethora of scoring chances early in the first, while the Predators needed only one good opportunity to take the lead. The Blue Jackets fought back to tie the game not once but twice, and even took the lead midway through the third, only relinquish it less than two minutes later.

The Blue Jackets pushed for the win in overtime. The Predators hunkered down for a shootout. Once the five minutes of 4-on-4 were over, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the two points were lost.

“I’m never really satisfied with not winning a hockey game. I don’t care about how it went — if it went 65 minutes, or a shootout, whatever,” Arniel said. “I’m more upset about giving up that third goal. We’ve been pretty good this year when we’ve gotten leads late in games of clamping it down. That one shouldn’t have happened.”

That goal shouldn’t have mattered. The Blue Jackets had chance after chance to claim the win in 60 minutes, but seemed to be in a reactive mode after being unable to capitalize in the opening stanza.

“I think we were waiting,” defenseman Kris Russell said. “We had a team with fresh legs — they played last night. I thought we had more opportunities to put them away but they kept coming back.”

Columbus got a pair of goals from Antoine Vermette, who is quietly starting to produce on the scoresheet at the pace the organization expected. He has four goals and seven points in his last four games after being held without a point 10 of 12 prior games. RJ Umberger added a pair of helpers to take sole possession of the of the franchise record of consecutive games with a point. He has now registered a point in 10 straight game, eclipsing the nine-game mark held by Rick Nash (twice) and Andrew Cassels.

Russell also scored his long-awaited first goal of the season, a slap shot from the high slot seconds after a power play had expired. The game itself was the Caroline, Alberta native’s tour de force on the young season, as he finally appeared unshackled from an early season knee injury. He skated the puck regularly, pinched liberally and even threw the body around.

“(Russell) has been frustrated with himself and he’s wanted the offensive side to come,” Arniel said. “I hope he gains tons of confidence from (the game) because he was outstanding.”

But it came down to burying chances, and that’s precisely what Nashville did when they needed. Arniel said his team only gave up five scoring chances through two periods. The Predators put two of them in the net. The Blue Jackets had a half dozen prime scoring chances in the first 15 minutes.

“I think overall our first period was pretty good. I don’t think the score was representative,” Vermette said. “Tonight we could’ve had a better fate.”

The third period mirrored the first, with the Jackets getting the majority of quality chances, but this time around they got a pair of goals to show for it and take the lead. They held it for 97 seconds and the Predators were able to sap any momentum with Kevin Klein’s goal. Klein kept the puck in the zone after a half-hearted clearing attempt from recently-returned Ethan Moreau and stepped into a heavy slap shot, which goaltender Steve Mason likely never saw.

“Mason made some big stops for us,” Russell said. “I think this is one we have to bury down.”

Mason played well enough in net to win — he could hardly be faulted for any of the Predators’ goals. In all three cases, the defense appeared to lapse, whether they were puck-chasing on Colin Wilson’s or Sergei Kostitsyn’s; or failing to clear the puck out of the zone on Klein’s.

As for the shootout… well that’s never exactly been his strong suite (as his 7-13 record supports). Steve Sullivan abused him and the Jackets’ attempts left much to be desired.

Most coaches and players will tell you a shootout is a crapshoot, that they still earned a point. But it’s not about the one point won in Wednesday’s loss, it’s two points against Buffalo on Friday.

The Blue Jackets have yet to truly face adversity under Arniel. They’re starting to get a taste of it now.

(Originally published at InsideHockey.com)