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If there's a team that needs a win before the Christmas break, it's the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight in Dallas.
One win in 11 December games (1-7-3) has the Jackets only one point from the basement in the Western Conference, a stunning development for a club that was looking to build on last season's playoff berth.
"It's a tough time right now for everybody," Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "We have to find a way to enjoy the process more and not get overwhelmed by the result."
The Jackets looked tentative and slow Monday night in a 5-2 loss at Phoenix. The hope is that this is rock bottom. Hitchcock canceled practice for Tuesday in Dallas and instead met with the leaders on the team.
"Our challenge right now as coaches is to find a way for the players to stay in the moment," said Hitchcock. "The toughest thing for the player is to get overwhelmed by the end result. It's like playing golf; if you're standing there worried about what tee shot you're going to hit on 18, you're not going to play the first 17 holes. Our job right now is to help the players really narrow their focus. They need to enjoy that and stay in the moment."
The most glaring statistic for the Jackets is the team sits 28th in the NHL in goals against per game at 3.35. When you think defensive hockey in the modern era, you think Jacques Lemaire, Jacques Martin and Hitchcock. The last's career defensive record is impeccable.
"This is my first time as a coach that I've had a defensive record like this," said Hitchcock, the strain in his voice coming across clearly over the phone line. "I would say that this is a new experience for me. I've learned more in the last month than I have probably in the last five years. The challenge for us is which way do we dig out of this. I'm a big believer in checking your way out of it. That has to be our focus right now."
Hockey is a team game, so there's plenty of blame to go around; but it clearly starts in goal. Steve Mason is going to have a fantastic career, but, right now, he's redefining the sophomore slump. He's making Carey Price's sophomore season last season look good. Mason is ranked 45th out of 46 NHL goalies with a .887 save percentage and 45th out of 46 goalies with a 3.41 goals-against average.
As we saw with the Habs last season when Price struggled, the season goes off the tracks in a hurry. Players begin to lose confidence and look over their shoulder. Mathieu Garon (.900 save percentage, 2.96 GAA) is not the answer, either. He's a backup goalie even if Hitchcock has declared the No. 1 job open for competition. The Jackets don't stand a chance until Mason rediscovers his mojo.
Hitchcock, however, would not point the finger at him.
"I think you can point at everywhere," said the veteran coach. "It's our five-on-five play. It's a lot of things. But at the end of the day, it's trusting what we know how to do and what we know how to do well. We're at a stage right now where we're worried about the end of the game. We've got to start to enjoy the process and focus more on the process than the end result. We get scored on and we get discouraged and you can't do that. You lose your energy that way.''
I suspect Jackets GM Scott Howson is working the phones, trying to find some help for his blue-line corps. Until then, Hitchcock has to find a way to get his team to believe again. Because, right now, the Jackets look like the Jackets of old.