Three Keys: Phoenix
The Blue Jackets are back on the road tonight and are about six hours from taking on the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. If you'll recall, Columbus had one of its better games last season in that building: a 5-2 win on Mar. 3 that came days after the Coyotes polished off a perfect record in the month of February.
Steve Mason played well in that game and he's going to get the call tonight, making his first start of the season. The plan (at the moment) is for Sergei Bobrovsky to play tomorrow night against the Colorado Avalanche, Todd Richards said after the morning skate. That could change pending the outcome of tonight's game, but for now, that's where we stand.
I like the idea of playing Mason tonight, too. I know there's some skepticism out there and everyone has a right to express their opinion (my Twitter feed is proof of this), but I'm eager to see how Mason performs. He's worked hard this offseason to get into better shape and improve his agility, and since training camp began, he's logged some long days working with goaltending coach Ian Clark before and after practices.
Mason had some strong efforts against the Coyotes last season, and though his lifetime record against them is 3-4-0, his play has been better than the numbers suggest.
As we reported in today's game blog, Richards has implemented some lineup changes. Mark Letestu is in, Derek MacKenzie comes out of the lineup, and Derek Dorsett has switched right wing spots with Cam Atkinson. The defense pairs will remain the same.
Keeping all that in mind, here are my "three keys" to success tonight:
1. Puck management: the Coyotes are sticklers to their structure and it's very rare to see them deviate from their game plan. They're extremely disciplined and don't make many mistakes (when on top of their game), and are one of the NHL's best teams in terms of being opportunistic. The Blue Jackets have to fight fire with fire, and be sure to take care of the puck in all three zones. The neutral zone is going to be a battleground tonight, and Columbus has to hold its own.
2. Protect the house: the Blue Jackets have played many games in front of Mason, but none so far this season. There's an element of the unknown involved, particularly in the early going, so a commitment to being tidy in their own end of the rink is going to be an important factor. Clearing pucks from the net-front, clogging up shooting/passing lanes and making quick transition out of the defensive zone are paramount when playing a team like the Coyotes that thrives on grinding down the opposition.
3. Ride the PP wave: if there's one thing consistent about the Blue Jackets' game right now, it's their power play and they're drawing a ton of confidence because of it. They tied the game up in Nashville (thanks to a Nick Foligno deflection) and scored a pair of power play goals against Detroit to turn a third-period deficit into a 3-2 lead. Knowing that you have a power play capable of producing is not only a comforting thought for the head coach, but a source of energy for the players. Everyone on the bench knows the power play has the ability to turn the momentum of a game.
Stay tuned to BlueJackets.com and the CBJ Today blog for more player interviews, updates and analysis during tonight's game. Follow us on Twitter (@BlueJacketsNHL, @RobMixer) and join the conversation!