Coach Hitchcock: Different players are stepping up

October, 20, 2009

The Columbus Blue Jackets are intent on not regressing from last season's first playoff berth, cobbling together their best start in franchise history through six games (5-1-0).

"We're finding ways to get some points," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock told from Calgary. "Different guys, different parts of the game, are stepping up."

And as you might suspect from a Ken Hitchcock-coached team, the Blue Jackets have done it with a stingy effort; they have the fourth-best defensive record and the top-ranked penalty-killing unit in the NHL.

Now comes a nice early-season test with a four-game road trip, which starts tonight in Calgary followed by games in Edmonton, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

"Calgary is a tough place to play in and a tough team to play against," said Hitchcock. "We played our best game of the year against the Flames [a 2-1 win in Columbus on Oct. 13]. So it'll be interesting to see how that goes."

The Jackets have put together a great start despite some injuries, including to a pair of top-four blueliners in Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda. Commodore has yet to play this season with a groin injury, but he's close to returning.

"We're thinking that he's going to play Thursday or Saturday. So that's good," said Hitchcock.

Hejda led the team with a plus-8 rating and was second in ice time at 21:45 minutes per game, but he injured his knee last week and Hitchcock expects him to be out another "2-3 weeks."

"Same goes for [winger] Freddie Modin, he'll be out another three weeks or so," Hitchcock said. "But we've had other people step up."

Hitchcock singled out defenseman Marc Methot, who played more than 21 minutes in Saturday's win over the Kings, as well as blueliner Anton Stralman, who has helped with his puck-moving skills.

Two or three seasons ago, having these key injuries early in the season would have likely been too much to overcome. But GM Scott Howson continues to improve the depth and skill level of this club, and the team learned a great deal last season after finally reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

"It's what we had to do to get into the playoffs last year that's created chemistry," said Hitchcock. "We went through a lot last year, a ton. Everybody talks about all the injuries to St. Louis, well our team went through a ton of things, too. We came out the better for it because we were able to survive it and our chemistry was created because we were able to survive a lot and still got into the playoffs.

"That has fed itself into this season. Not a lot bothers us, because we've been there before. We have learned to handle adversity and rally around tough times."

If there's been one fly in the ointment so far this season, it's been the struggles of rookie center Nikita Filatov, who has been a healthy scratch the past two games after seeing his ice time diminish in his four opening games.

Filatov was seen as a possible Calder Trophy candidate this season and the 19-year-old Russian center no doubt has oodles of talent. But the 2008 first-round pick clearly has to prove to Hitchcock he can play a 200-foot game in order to gain his trust.

"He's got tremendous skill," said Hitchcock. "But there's a certain level that you have to play at on a consistent basis. Our attitude is, when a player's level starts to drop, rather than having him hit rock bottom, let's get him out and work with him, and let's help him along so he can get some confidence back rather than going out there and going out of his way to get out of the way.

"So we pulled him out, we've worked really hard with him, his level is back up where he's going to get back in one of the next two games and let's see where it goes."

Hitchcock believes the Blue Jackets are a good enough team now that they don't have to keep players in the lineup when they struggle. "We can afford to work with people," he said.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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