Cross Checks: Vernon Fiddler

Jack Johnson's calm belies the decidedly jittery situation in which the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves.

Johnson was taking time before the Blue Jackets boarded their flight to Dallas, where they will play one of the most important games in the 13-year history of the franchise.

Did the defenseman stay up late the previous night to watch the Stars and Sharks play in San Jose?

Nope, Johnson said, explaining that because of the time change, he was in bed and waited until the morning to find out that the Stars had allowed two goals in a 30-second span in the third period en route to a 3-2 loss.

Surely the Blue Jackets were planning to gather en masse to root for the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night when they visited the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena?

Well, Johnson said, he supposed if the game was on in the restaurant where they went for dinner, they'd keep an eye on the score. And of course guys would be keeping up to date on the game with their smartphones.

But as for gathering in one giant circle of nail-biting hockey players sticking pins in their Red Wings voodoo dolls ... uh, no.

That game, won impressively by the Red Wings 3-1, was beyond the control of the Blue Jackets.

Thursday's game in Dallas? That's something they can control.

"We're all very aware of what needs to happen for us and what's going on," Johnson said.

But, he added, "we have to win our last two games. At the end of the day, that's all we can control."

Detroit's win moved the Red Wings ahead of Columbus into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 52 points, one more than the Blue Jackets. The Minnesota Wild are still in the mix, one point ahead of Detroit, while Dallas (48 points) has the biggest challenge of those still in the hunt for a postseason berth.

All four teams have two games remaining, including Thursday's now-monster clash between Columbus and Dallas in Big D. The fact that both the Stars and Blue Jackets can still discuss the postseason at this late date is something of a minor miracle and adds an upbeat backdrop to the game.

The Stars have missed the playoffs in four straight seasons, and when general manager Joe Nieuwendyk dealt veterans Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr and Brenden Morrow during the trade deadline period -- all of whom were set to become unrestricted free agents this summer -- it appeared the team was conceding that this would mark five in a row without a postseason game.

But role players such as Vernon Fiddler and Cody Eakin, who came to Dallas in the Mike Ribeiro trade last summer, have provided key production, while veteran Ray Whitney, back from injury, has rewarded the Stars' faith (they signed the soon-to-be 41-year-old to a two-year deal last summer) with much-needed leadership. Goalie Kari Lehtonen, also just back from an injury, has been solid as the Stars have kept a playoff drive alive far longer than expected.

Going 0-2-1 on their current road trip means the Stars' margin for error is zero, but they play at home Saturday night against the Red Wings, and if they can beat Columbus and get some help from the Nashville Predators, who play both Detroit and Columbus, perhaps it will mean something -- indeed, everything.

Columbus, on the other hand, was again trending toward a top draft pick in another desultory season that included the introduction of new team president John Davidson and the midseason firing of GM Scott Howson, who was replaced by Jarmo Kekalainen.

Suddenly the culture around the team shifted and coach Todd Richards began to receive consistent, hardworking performances from a hard-skating, forechecking team that might be short on flash but is long on grit. That, coupled with all-world goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, now a front-runner for the Vezina Trophy and a dark horse to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP, has seen the Blue Jackets go 17-5-4 since the beginning of March.

"We've got a lot of new faces here, and we really wanted to make sure the mindset and the goals of the team changed," said Johnson, who became a Blue Jacket at last year's trade deadline, when he was acquired from Los Angeles in a deal that saw Jeff Carter go to the Kings.

In the past, the goal seemed to be about getting into the playoffs, but that seemed shortsighted, Johnson said.

"Your goal should be to win the Stanley Cup because, truthfully, if you don't win the Cup, you haven't won anything," he said.

So the Blue Jackets, who have qualified for the playoffs just once in franchise history and were swept in that appearance, started thinking big, not letting a big deficit in the standings affect their level of play.

"I'm sure some teams didn't take us seriously that should have," Johnson said. "I wouldn't trade this group of guys in our room for anything."

After Thursday's game, the Blue Jackets close out their season Saturday at home against Nashville. If they don't beat Dallas, that game may become meaningless vis à vis the playoffs, but that's something to think about after Thursday.

For a team used to slinking out of regular seasons and trying to sell fans on the promise of something better down the road, there is a new excitement surrounding this late-season push.

"There's a buzz around the city," Johnson said. "It's been a long time since they've had these kinds of meaningful games."

Sell, sell, sell ... win, win, win!

The Dallas Stars continued their mystifying ways over the weekend with wins Friday night at Nashville and Saturday at home against San Jose. This stretches their season-high winning streak to five games and very much keeps their playoff hopes alive.

The winning streak began after the April 3 trade deadline came and went, the Stars using the annual transaction window to shed three big-name UFAs from their roster. They dealt longtime captain Brenden Morrow to Pittsburgh, future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to Boston and No. 2 center Derek Roy to Vancouver.

White flag? Hardly.

The Stars have reeled off win after win since the deadline passed and are just two points out of a playoff spot with less than two weeks to go in the regular season.

"It's been good, I think the young guys like [Alex] Chiasson and [Matt] Fraser have stepped in and have really added a lot of spark," Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk told "But one of the keys, too, has been the veteran guys and how they've responded, guys like Vernon Fiddler, Eric Nystrom and Erik Cole and Ray Whitney -- those guys have been terrific. They've really stepped up their games."

Here's where it gets tricky: the schedule. The Stars have some mighty tough games left, starting Monday night at Chicago, followed by a home date Thursday with Vancouver, then Friday at St. Louis, Sunday at Los Angeles, April 23 at San Jose, April 25 at home to surprising Columbus, and the finale at home April 27 versus Detroit -- the club the Stars are chasing for eighth in the West.

If the Stars make it in, they will have earned it, that's for sure.

Of late, goaltending has been central in the winning streak. The Stars have been outshot in four of their five wins during the streak, but Kari Lehtonen and Richard Bachman have been outstanding in net.

Bachman has filled in lately as Lehtonen rests a sore groin. Bachman is just part of the unlikely starring cast for Dallas, which also includes rookie Chiasson with six goals in six games, and veteran center Fiddler putting up 10 points (2-8) in his past six games. (Veteran Stars beat writer Mike Heika had a nice piece on Fiddler in Monday's Dallas Morning News.)

"Going back to the last five we've won in a row, they were not easy games, they were heavy games against divisional opponents," said Nieuwendyk. "We've been battling hard, we know the road ahead is tough, too. But we're playing a good brand of hockey right now and I think the guys feel pretty confident with it."

The schedule suggests Dallas will fall short, but it would be ironic if the Stars made the playoffs after shedding their UFAs before the trade deadline. I say ironic because the Stars were also on the playoff bubble in 2010-11 and 2011-12 but chose to not trade away assets at those deadlines in the hope of making the postseason, only to fall just short each time.

Is karma at play here? We will soon find out.

Funny how the expected can suddenly get turned on its ear in the push for a playoff berth.

A week ago, after the trade deadline had passed and the Dallas Stars had sold off three key pieces of today for a bunch of tomorrows, they were whipped 5-2 by the Anaheim Ducks. Fair enough. The Ducks are a good team, running away with the Pacific Division and gearing up for the postseason, while the Stars had apparently turned their attention to looking at some kids and starting to think about next fall.

But since that loss a funny thing has happened to the Stars. Instead of simply playing out the string after GM Joe Nieuwendyk moved captain Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy and Jaromir Jagr in the days leading up to the April 3 deadline, the Stars have won three straight. Tuesday night, Dallas overcame the loss of netminder Kari Lehtonen early in the game to a "lower body" injury and scored four times in the third period en route to a 5-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

Ray Whitney, one of several pieces brought in last offseason to help catapult the Stars into the playoffs after four straight seasons out of the postseason mix, scored twice. So did journeyman Vernon Fiddler as the Stars look to the collective to keep their playoff dreams alive. The win moved Dallas into ninth place in the Western Conference, two points behind the Detroit Red Wings with nine games left for each team.

The loss of Lehtonen would be a backbreaker, at least in theory, although coach Glen Gulutzan described the injury as mild. Richard Bachman came on in relief, and while the youngster has struggled in a limited role this season with Lehtonen playing the bulk of the games, he was impressive, stopping 22 shots in 45:42 of play.

The road doesn't get any easier for the Stars. Of their nine remaining games, seven are against teams that are currently above them in the standings.

But maybe the schedule-maker knew something we didn't, because Dallas closes out the regular season April 27 at home against the Red Wings. After the trade deadline, many folks figured that would simply be another in a line of meaningless contests for a Dallas team that already was imagining next season. Might still turn out to be that way, but credit the Stars for giving us pause and for not playing to type.

Hit of the Night: Ovechkin takes on Fiddler

February, 15, 2011

Alex Ovechkin put a big hit on Vernon Fiddler, but the Coyotes edged the Capitals 3-2 on Monday night.