The Columbus Blue Jackets had plenty to be happy about in the last week of 2007. Three solid wins in four outings, but those W's over Atlanta, Carolina and Edmonton on the Nationwide Arena ice suggest that the Jackets' are returning to the brand of hockey that got them off to the best start in franchise history this season.
Disciplined defense, unselfish shot blocking, efficient special teams, great goaltending and a physical approach have Columbus in hunt in the West at the midway point of the season.
"That's the kind of hockey we need to play if we're going to win and keep ourselves in the mix for a playoff race," Pascal Leclaire said following the 4-1 route of the Hurricanes.
"There's no other way. We have to show up and play full games all the time.
"We're playing with confidence and guys aren't afraid to make mistakes. Guys are backing each other up. It's a good mood right now and we just have to keep the ball rolling."
Perhaps the most promising aspect of where the Blue Jackets find themselves in the standings – second place in the Central Division with 44 points through 41 games – is that the team has been succeeding without the services of key players. Sniper Fredrik Modin has missed all but six games with a bad back; veteran off-season acquisition Michael Peca, who returned with a bang in Los Angeles scoring twice in a 4-3 win, has missed 15 games with various ailments; Manny Malhotra and David Vyborny have sat out 11 and nine games respectively with injuries; D-man Duvie Westcott has missed half the season; and even star winger Rick Nash sat out a couple straight dealing with tonsil problems.
Through it all, Columbus has played the same way – hard, with no excuses.
"It's a matter of putting out the same effort every night and being consistent," says Sergei Fedorov. "If we're very positive we can get it done.
"For a young team, it's a normal process."
Fedorov believes that players like Curtis Glencross and Kris Beech, just two of the guys responsible for picking up the slack with the regulars out, have done a good job. The opportunity, he says, has taught them to worry about nothing more than doing their job well.
"I think we've gotten that right," Fedorov says. "The behavior shows in games, which is very important to go to the next level.
"They're excited to play. They seem to be able to understand the things we need to do on the ice. It's a lot of learning, how we play with each other and learning how the coaches want us to play. When game time comes, we're very focused."
Beech's play up the middle has been particularly important while fellow centers Malhotra and Peca were out. With five goals and four assists through 16 games since being called up, the Salmon Arm, B.C. native has been making the most of his chance.
"I've played in the league enough to be ready for anything," Beech says.
"It's up to the individual to be ready. He (Ken Hitchcock) expects performance and if you perform, you will play. That's the bottom line."
With key regulars working their way back into the lineup, there's reason for optimism. And Hitchcock has no reservations about getting his returning players significant ice time from the get go, Peca's 14-plus minutes in his first game back in L.A. being a prime example.
"I have the attitude, whatever they were playing, they're going right back in," Hitchcock said. "I know that they struggle usually the second or third game out but my opinion is that whatever role he had, he gets back. We put him in there knowing that in three games, he's going to hit the wall and then he's going to have to fight through it. I don't believe in easing anyone into it. The guy's ready to play or not and then we put him in the same role with the same ice time.
"Where I think our coaches do a great job is that they really condition the guy. They make it almost easier to play. They really go at it with the player and make sure that he's in great shape before he plays.
That's consistent with Hitchcock's general approach that there are no shortcuts when it comes to winning hockey games. Throughout the 20007 calendar year, the Jackets have proven that formula works. And as they get healthier, the team has the opportunity to ascend further in the deep and unforgiving Western Conference.
"It's definitely a lift to get quality players back," says Beech. "It's a big lift.
"If we continue to play the way we've been playing and we insert those guys into the lineup, it's going to be good."