So, I’ve been wanting to do this little feature for a while and have had a hard time starting it, so I’m going to need a little bit of help with it (paging Dr. Gethin, DJ Extraordinaire). I’d like to follow up each game with a semi-appropriate song (or maybe a sixty-minute long laugh track, when they have those games). Feel free to fire your suggestions my way at any time! (dannie [at] strait-jackets.net)

Game 26: Sister Hazel – Your Winter

 

Although nobody but Fedor Tyutin knows what Nikita Nikitin thinks or says, mostly due to his lack of English, it was no secret that his counterpart Kris Russell did not want out of Columbus. From the mouth of General Manager Scott Howson at the Season Ticket Holder Q&A and from the snips of articles in the Dispatch as he came back on Sunday as a visiting player, the consensus is the same: Russell wanted to stay in Columbus. When the going gets rough, the trade rumors fly, and it isn’t uncommon for a guy to say he’s had enough and to want to leave for greener pastures (or, perhaps, Blue-r). Russell was given the good fortune, despite his misgivings, of being traded from a cellar dweller to nearly the top of the conference on a streaking hot Blues team.

Since he left and rejoined his first professionalhead coach Ken Hitchcock, the defenseman has seemingly been reborn. The year Hitchcock was fired from Columbus, Russell scored his career-high seven goals. Since then, his defense has improved but his offense has stalled. Perhaps it was a misfire between him and Arniel, although they were touted to be a match made in hockey system heaven, but he never quite took off under Arniel’s guidance. Hitchock, who we all know pitches a certain brand of hockey, apparently has some kind of gift – or maybe, finally, Russell has found his game. Whether it is a newfound confidence from his new position, a clean start, being unfamiliar in his surroundings, or a stroke of good luck, Russell is on fire. Over just nine games in St. Louis, he is 3-1-4 and +6. Plus six. Russell finished with a plus in just one of four seasons in Columbus (-12, -10,+3, -9), possibly due to his status on the bottom pairing, often stuck with guys whose NHL careers have since floundered (Tollefsen, Backman, Stralman, Commodore…). Just last night alone, Russell was credited with three shots and six more attempts blocked. Nine offensive chances, even though none made it through: he is taking chances he previously failed to.

At first the trade looked great. Nikitin was a solid fit on a pair with Tyutin, very quietly adding up five assists while being unnoticeably good (he had no points in seven games while struggling to make the lineup in St. Louis). But over the last few games, the pairing has started to fall apart. On Sunday against St. Louis, Nikitin and Tyutin struggled greatly. Tyutin’s penalties hurt the team and according to St. Louis media outlets, Nikitin’sfoot deflected a Blues shot right to Kris Russell who had an open net to shoot into to tie the game at one. How’s that for karma? In Vancouver, Nikitin was a brutal minus four (bringing him to minus one overall on the season). Hopefully, perhaps, this is a temporary struggle, or it could be the “real” Nikitin coming to play.

It’s still hard to say who “won” the trade, if anybody at all. Sometimes they do just work that way: a win/win. Nikitin has stepped into a role that the Blues were not willing to give him, logging heavy minutes on a top pairing – is that because the defense in Columbus isn’t as good as that in St. Louis? Maybe. Or maybe the change of scenery really has done the both of them some good. Eventually, more than nine games will tell the story, and for Blue Jackets fans the best hope is that it is a win/win. If Nikitin can do a solid shut down job, perhaps stick around longer, and either way relieves the Jackets of the 2.6M salary hit divided over two years they would have owed Russell (hopefully with the intent of creating a roster spot for a matured David Savard, or better) then they have received a good end in the deal. Russell did not turn into what the local newspapers made his potential out to be; he moved the puck but never put up Mike Green-like offensive numbers, much to the chagrin of Jackets fans (and beat writers), but the kid never gave up on Columbus. After his first game in St. Louis, he was asked if it felt good to play in a full building, as opposed to what he came from in Columbus. With the opportunity presented to him to make a backhanded, ugly remark about the club and the city that “raised” him, he simply said: “The fans in Columbus are great. They’re just searching for a winner.”

July 1, 2011. The Blue Jackets are in need of a backup goaltender on the dawn of Free Agency. If youfollow me on the Twittersphere, you probably saw me say, “The Blue Jackets should sign Curtis Sanford.” Much to my delight they did, although it was a two-way, with Sanford slated to be the third man, behind Mark Dekanich (with no slight to Dex – I gave this an immediate thumbs up, as well).

Sanford spent two seasons with the Hamilton Bulldogs. During his first, 2009-10, he split the time with Cedrick Desjardins (currently with the Lake Erie Monsters who went 2-0 in a brief cup of coffee with Tampa). The two would share the AHL’s Harry “Hap” Holmes Award (fewest goals allowed in the regular season) while leading the Bulldogs to a deep playoff run to the conference finals. Sanford was 23-11-3, 2.13, 0.916, with four shutouts. In 2010-11, he suffered a shoulder injury and was limited to first-half duty only (22-13-3, 1.93, 0.930), but impressively played only one less game than the year before as the Bulldogs relied heavily on him over the talent-stalled backup Robert Mayer prior to his injury.

What Sanford has proven in his AHL career (57-30-8, 1.98, 0.925, 13 shutouts) and his short time as an NHL backup(39-37-13, .903, 2.67), and especially over the last handful of games, is that when he is healthy and on his game, you can roll with him. He should not be expected, especially now at age 32, to carry an NHL team on his back, but he is more than capable of filling the role he has been slated for, whether it is AHL workhorse or NHL spot duty. He is athletic, incredibly mobile, and not easily overwhelmed, much of which has led to his success in his handful of games in a Blue Jackets sweater.

And to put it into perspective, Steve Mason’s NHL numbers are remarkably similar to Sanford’s: Mason: 80-79-24, .904, 2.84. (Also, comparatively, the oft-injured backup Dekanich’s career AHL stats are similar to Sanford’s, and over the last two years, they put up nearly identical results: 65-38-11, 2.16, 0.922, 9 shutouts.)

First Period:
- Starters: A. Vermette-S. Pahlsson-D. Dorsett; M. Methot- J. Wisniewski; C. Sanford
– Scratches: A. Johnson, D. Brassard, S. Mason
– Breaking glass, already. The game hasn’t even started.
– There are not words for my dislike of the fourth line of Bass-MacKenzie-Boll. Useless, talentless waste of roster space.
– On the other hand, I do really like the Umberger-Letestu-Johansen line, and I really do not want to see Kristian Huselius take a dump on it.
– Jackets to the PP at 5:12. Spent too much time chasing the puck around their own zone to start. FSO says the Devils have the #1 PK, so this isn’t really conducive to anything good happening. Love the effort on the loose puck in the paint. Damn that Brodeur.
– Not even midway through the first, Johansen has 3 SOG.
– Dorse gets dumped onto the bench. Kind of hilarious. Dorse disagrees.
– Jackets to the PK. Little hot potato, but Sanford comes through with the agility.
– NICE one on one hipcheck by Marc Methot to throw the Devil out of the path of the goal.
– What a boring first period. Devils lead 11-9 in shots.

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are 3-1-1 in their last five. Yes, you read that correctly. Could this be the team we were led to believe that we’d really be seeing this season? It’s probably easy to get caught up in the furor of the moment and to be dazzled (or glamored, if you will) by a five game uptick after such an agonizingly slow death – I mean start – but there are enough positives to pull from the situation that it’s hard to believe that this isn’t for the relative long haul.

The Beast has been awakened: Trade drama,slow start, injury, slow start, trade drama, and Welcome to Columbus, Jeff Carter. After a tumultuous start to his born again career in Columbus, the blonde bombshell wasn’t exactly winning fans over on the ice. In the last two games, the snakebite has been healed and Carter has sniped three goals. Pure snipes, wicked wristers that nobody is going to corral. So this is why we traded an underachieving kid and a high draft pick. Next time we’ll make sure to specify that October 7th is when the party starts on the invites. Provided the snake of doom doesn’t bite again, Carter’s spark – along with the chemistry starting to build up front – could and should ignite a snowball effect that will turn into the Nash/Carter/InsertWarmBodyHere combination we were really hoping could score 60-70 goals.

Out with the old, in with the Wisniewski: Congratulations! You just have just acquired and spent a ridiculous amount of money on a semi-proven offensive defenseman. Now learn to play without him for half of preseason and eight games of regular season. The Jackets definitely missed this guy for the first eight games, and that showed when he roared back onto the ice against Detroit for the team’s first victory of the year. However, his stability faltered after just a few games (something absurd like -11 in just three games), but he seems to have regained form and netted a monster goalforthe Jackets to topple Darth Vader/Goliath/The Devil/World Hunger/the Nashville Predators.

- Not so Vermeaty: What the heck happened with the former first/second line Antoine Vermette? This guy was struggling to epic proportions to start the season, but since being moved to the third line has seemed to calm down. He’s playing more defensive minutes with Pahlsson & Dorsett, and is pressing less to make offensive opportunities.

Nikita Nikitininininin and the Surprise Defensive Corps: Great, Howson. One Nikita wasn’t enough drama, so you went out and traded the well-loved (hold your snorts, please, media-types) Little Shake (oh, just me?) for a guy WHOSE NAME IS NIKITA-SQUARED. What a surprise this guy has been, eating minutes, putting up a few assists, and otherwise quietly getting the job done. John Moore has also stepped up to the plate and has seemingly matured before our eyes. Perhaps it was the lack of pressure for him this season to be somebody they could depend heavily on, seemingly relegated for heavy AHL duty, that allowed him to slow down mentally. Whatever it was, Moore has done relatively, surprisingly well when called into service, though Arniel has him on a tight leash and is hesitant to use him in the third period of close games.

Let’s be realistic, now. The hole has been dug deeply, and even if the recent surge continues for the next 60 games, there’s little chance that this team can elevate itself to a dominant, sure bet for the playoffs. Can we hope so? Absolutely. The same way the Jackets tripped, stumbled, and rolled out of the gate and into a puddle of quicksand, teams are going to hit these patches. The Jackets need to capitalize on those moments when their competitors stumble, and make the most of every opportunity. If nothing, to salvage their dignity and that of their fans, and to prove that Howson & co. made the right moves last summer. You can buy all of the pieces to the car, but if you don’t assemble them correctly, or some of them misfire, the car isn’t worth its weight in metal. Are the Jackets worth their weight in salary cap? On paper, and in theory, you want to hope so. Over the last five games? Absolutely. Has the ship been righted, or are they going to continue taking on water? Time will tell.

Dear Blue Jackets,

This is an open letter not to the marketing, the ownership, or the front office, but instead to the 23 players who call themselves the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Why are you doing this to us?

I don’t know if I love anything as much as I love Blue Jackets hockey. I live for jumping up at the sight of the puck in the net and the red light, for chanting LEO!, for pregame drinks with my friends at RBar, for the boys in Union Blue. I don’t expect Stanley Cups or conference finals or blow outs every night, all I ask for is that you guys show up every night and give it your best effort.  I dedicate a large majority of my disposable income to you and drive four hours round trip on game nights, and I am watching you make more money in one season that I will ever make in my life. I make sacrifices to watch this team play. I used to drive almost six hours and 500 miles round trip to watch games and still managed to make it to 13 games in one season.

I’m from Cincinnati. I’m used to loveless relationships with teams. The Bengals, anyone? I watched the Reds in some of their worst stretches of baseball (2010 was like a surreal, out of body experience). I know the feeling of loving a team who has no interest in loving you back. It’s like the love of your life cheating on you and then dumping you at the altar in front of your entire family. It’s embarrassing and it hurts.

I’m losing my love, Blue Jackets. I’m losing the will to keep dumping my energy and finances into something that leaves me embarrassed and in tears. This is not a bad team made up of bad players. The difference between this team and Loveable Losers of the past is that the ownership and management cared enough to wheel and deal for something different and better. There are a lot of solid players on this team and a lot of guys who are going to be amazing when they get a little older and stronger.

There is simply no excuse for any of this. Management gave you the pieces.

You are better than this, and I hope you realize that before it is too late.

Sincerely and painfully,
Me

Since they have been less than secretive about tonight being their team Halloween shindig – it’s only fair we make ridiculous assumptions about what they’re dressed as, right? Here are a few predictions, and awards:

Ryan Johansen’s curfew is 9:00, so he showed up early in his costume:
A Mythical Creature Known As a  First-Round Success*!

MYTHICAL CREATURE

(* – So far, anyway.)

Shortly after, John Moore and Matt Calvert joined him,
but it doesn’t seem as though they worked too hard on their costumes…

...wait a second...

Holy Jeepers, what a great costume!

The Russell twins decided this year to dress up together (again), and took home the ribbon for funniest costume:

It's like THE TWILIGHT ZONE!!! (s/t to @HabItHerWay)

 But the best, and scariest costume of the night belongs to one Aaron Johnson.
He showed up dressed as Christian Backman. At least everybody thinks so,
but nobody can be certain it isn’t really Christian Backman pretending to be Aaron Johnson…

It’s that time again, my friends, when I make my pick for who gets the honor of wining and dining me (hypothetically, anyway) for the next week. Boyfriends Prospal & Russell are still very much enjoying decent seasons so far (forget about Ottawa), but we must move on. Life is short!

With a less than great but hardly horrible week staring me in the face, but a surprising amount of goals and individual performances, picking this week was actually a little more fun and less of a process of elimination. With his first professional goal (a game-winner, to boot) and a couple of assists in the last three games, and despite Scott Arniel hot-gluing (hot glue works best for heavy things) him to the bench against Buffalo, I’m going to give this week’s honors to…

Awwwww.

RYAN JOHANSEN!

In just the last week alone, Ryan has stepped up his game ten fold. Against Detroit, in the team’s big win, Ryan was flying and looked much more composed than most of his  more experienced teammates. Who knows how long RyJo will stick around Columbus from here on out as he’s up to seven games, but mad props to the rook for taking a huge step in his progress over the last handful of games. Please, Mr. Howson, don’t take my boyfriend away!

This team is not good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Did you think that they were?

The NHL season is six months long. Eighty two games in roughly one hundred and eighty days to whittle thirty teams down to sixteen. One hundred and eighty days to eliminate fourteen teams from existence every fall, winter, and spring. Fourteen teams do not make the playoffs. Sixteen do, but within two weeks that number is eight. In two weeks, it is four. In two weeks, it is two. In two weeks, somebody is lifting the Stanley Cup. Two months separates the best from the better than average. Six months sets the average.

Fourteen teams will not play beyond the second week of April. You know that. You’re a Blue Jackets fan. Ten times we have had a tee time before tax day and one time it was dragged out an extra handful of days. We made it that year, but they were only a little bit better than average. We got eighty six games that year.

The only thing that is guaranteed at the beginning of October is a fresh sheet of ice and eighty two games. Nothing else is promised. Nothing else is certain. Your favorite players – or hell, your favorite team – could be 2,000 miles away before the next October. Nobody clinches a playoff spot before Halloween. Nobody is eliminated from contention before Halloween, despite the everlasting joke that Team XYZ is eliminated on Opening Night.

So why are we talking about the playoffs in October? Why are we discussing the likelihood of making it? Why are we even entertaining the concept of “this team must win x percent of the next x games to be given an x percent likelihood of getting to x amount of points”? Are you kidding me? Hockey is an unpredictable sport. Teams will rise to the occasion, teams will collapse in fantastic fashion (and no, we’re not talking about those sharp new jerseys, Winnipeg), and some teams will do both.

The Blue Jackets are 0-7-1. That stinks. It really does. However, they have only not been ‘in’ a few of those games. They have battled. No, not for sixty minutes every night, but they have battled. There is promise. There have been missing pieces. Some of those missing pieces are players, some of those pieces are Marc Methot’s thumb, and some of those pieces are just heart. Sometimes, that is all this team is lacking. They made the playoffs two years ago with a less talented team. There are incredibly talented players on this team. But sometimes, I wonder if I care more than they do. I live and die with this team. I hate the summertime because they aren’t around. My weeks are broken up into game day and “days until next game.” Some of my best friendships have been made over a beer and a discussion about X-and-O. I don’t get paid to drive 100 miles each way, 25 times a year. In fact, I pay a lot of money to afford the luxury of watching multi-millionaires give a halfhearted effort.

If we can care so much, why can’t they? I believe in them. I will continue to believe in them. I know that they have it in them. Even in the pits of their worst slumps, they have had moments of functionality that prove that there is heart and soul behind the talent. I believe that between the bad bounces and the bad luck and things never going right, there is something great waiting to explode. This may not be a Stanley Cup team, this may not even be a playoff team, but on April 9 th when 82 games have been played, I want to believe that my team has tried. I will take 82 complete games – win or lose – over wasting my nights trying to predict the unpredictable. Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.

I’m not gonna write you a love song
Cause you tell me it’s make or breaking this
If you’re on your way, I’m not gonna write you to stay
If your heart is nowhere in it, I don’t want it for a minute
- Sara Bareilles, “Love Song”

Well, after an explosive (or, shall we say, implosive) first week of the season, jammed-packed with four games, week two was not so accomodating. With only two games on the schedule — both against Dallas, both losses — there wasn’t much to work with in picking this week’s Boyfriend. Yet again, we got only two goals in each game, each coming from a different guy (Prospal, Giroux, Brassard, Russell). Secondary scoring finally showed up, yay! It would be easy to pick Prospal again, especially on the basis of: he’s leading the team in goals and his public calling-out of his teammates’ effort in the Dispatch (speaking of — good on you, Vinnypants, let’s go on a second date?). But… I don’t make anything easy! In lieu of starting repeats already, I’m going to pick a brand spankin’ new boyfriend this week: KRIS RUSSELL. 

D'awww, don't act like you didn't see this coming.

In honor of his greatly improved play from Game One until now, and despite the fact that he was a part of the group EpicFailure that allowed Jamie Benn’s highlight reel goal, he did score a pretty fantastic goal from the blue line that we need to see a lot more of from our defensemen. Especially him. Not to mention, shortly after his goal, he showed tremendous battle and kept Dallas from scoring on the vacated net in the waning moments of the game Tuesday night when the pressure cooker was turned up on high. The little guy is showing great “compete” (as our trusty broadcasters like to say) and his effort has picked up ten-fold. At a point (already) in this season where effort level may be the deciding factor between 0-5-1 and, perhaps, 3-3 or better, it’s important to give kudos (or brownies, or cupcakes) to a guy who has not taken a night off. Since Opening Night, anyway. But we’re going to pretend that game didn’t happen.

So, Krissyface, much to the groans and chagrin (also, “non surprise”) of my friends, you are Week Two’s Boyfriend of the Week. #10 in your programs, #1 in your hearts! (Or just mine.) Keep playing well and pretty soon the media will be forced to find even more creative ways to make fun of you! ;)