Zach Tuggle / The Lantern
Consider this a midterm week for the Blue Jackets.
Columbus (9-5-2) hosts central division rival Detroit (7-5-3) Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Nationwide Arena.
After practice Monday, coach Ken Hitchcock spoke with members of the media and said facing the Red Wings will be a good test for the team.
“Those guys have targets,” Hitchcock said. “They’re the measuring stick for everybody. Detroit gets everybody’s ‘A’ game early in the season. I hope our team is excited to play them because they gave us a lesson at the end of last year.”
In its first playoff appearance in franchise history last season, the Jackets faced Detroit in the first round. Although the Red Wings swept Columbus in four games, the team has added experience in postseason play.
“I think the big thing for us is we are finally getting to play some division games,” Hitchcock said. “We are going to get a better read on how good we are in our division.”
Columbus has played well at home, going 4-1-2 to begin the 2009-10 campaign.The Jackets began a four-game home swing with a 3-2 victory against Carolina last Saturday. Staying at home means extra practice time for the team and Hitchcock is taking advantage of it.
“Not being able to practice has really slowed down our game,” Hitchcock said. “I told the players that this is really it for getting two practice days. We won’t be able to do this for some time after, so these next two days are important for us.”
Detroit has been nowhere perfect on the road with a 2-4-2 record to begin the year, but Columbus knows the Red Wings are one of the top franchises in the NHL.
“Hopefully we will be on our game and be able to match them for 60 minutes of hockey,” forward Raffi Torres said. “It’s no secret that they don’t like playing us. We are going to have to make sure to get the puck deep in the zone and make it tough for the defense.”
Torres has scored big for the Blue Jackets. He has claimed eight goals in 16 games, including four coming off the power play.
“I trained hard this summer and got everything back to where it needs to be,” said Torres, who has 87 goals and 68 assists in 374 career NHL games. “I got my confidence up towards the end of last season and I’ve tried to take that momentum into this year.”
The Red Wings have three members with double-digit totals in points. Forward Henrik Zetterberg has four goals and nine assists to lead the team with 13 points. Forward Pavel Datsyuk has ten assists with two goals, while forward Tomas Holmstrom leads the team in goals with eight.
“They are one of the best teams in the NHL,” Columbus forward Jakub Voracek said. “They’ve made the Stanley Cup Final two years in a row and obviously it’s going to be a tough game. There is going to be a lot of people in the building and we are excited.”
As for the Jackets’ defense, the unit has been improving.
Key defensemen Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda have been back as regulars in the lineup after suffering injuries in the beginning of the year, and the squad continues to gel together.
“We have seven guys here that can play with anyone,” defenseman Kris Russell said. “As a group we feel we are starting to find each other and play well together. It’s nice to get a consistent groove when playing with the same group of guys.”
With goaltender Steve Mason playing in form lately, the defense could be the difference in the outcome vs. Detroit. Mason is 7-4-2 with a .891 save percentage in his second season in the league.
“He’s playing really well and is confident,” Hitchcock said. “I think the big thing is the puck has not been moving fast for him. He’s in sync with where the puck is on the ice and gets across the net really well now. He’s squared to shooter much better than the start of the year.”
In observance of Veterans Day, the matchup vs. the Red Wings will be military appreciation night in tribute to those in the armed forces.