Friday November 2nd, 2007

It's one of the hoariest clichés in team sports. A lightly regarded group of athletes gathers together in the locker room while their leader fires them up with an us-against-the-world speech.

"No one out there believes in us, boys," he says. "But we know better. So we have to prove them wrong."

What tends to happen next is that fired-up group heads out to battle...and gets beaten up and relieved of their lunch money. See, there's usually a very good reason why no one believes in them.

Heading into this season, the Columbus Blue Jackets were one of those teams and they got one of those speeches. Every writer in North America -- this one included -- ranked them as a postseason afterthought, cannon fodder for the elite teams in the West. But the Jackets believed in themselves. And armed with coach Ken Hitchcock's battle-tested system, they went to work proving us all wrong.

Safe to say they're not the only believers anymore.

No one is suggesting that the Jackets' hot start is a signal to start printing playoff tickets quite yet. But as their franchise-record start of 7-3-2 suggests, a lot of people may have seriously underestimated what this team is capable of.

Despite a roster littered with castoffs like Ron Hainsey and Jason Chimera that doesn't scare anyone on paper, these aren't the aimless Blue Jackets of old. They're crafting an identity as a big, strong, committed team that brings it every shift.

It's an amazing transformation for a franchise that's lacked real purpose in the past. Give the bulk of the credit to Hitchcock, the man who not only imposed a structure on this team when he took over last November, but convinced them they could become winners.

"From day one, he's been an honest guy," says goaltender Pascal Leclaire. "He told us it wouldn't happen over night, and it didn't. But around February, we started getting used to the system. You could see the improvements month by month. Now everybody knows what to do. He brought something that actually works for us. We're really happy to have him in Columbus."

Htichcock may have mellowed from his tyrannical early days in Dallas, but he remains a demanding taskmaster. His system requires a cult-like adherence to defense above and beyond all else. That applies to offensive threats like Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev as well as fourth-line grunts. Master that, and you'll play. Freelancers need not apply.

So it's tough. But not as tough as losing. And with so much of that in their collective past, these Jackets were ready and willing to be molded into winners.

Leclaire is the first to proclaim himself the beneficiary of that approach. Playing behind a more disciplined squad, he's not seeing fewer shots, but he is facing fewer quality chances. As a result, he's posted the most impressive numbers of any goalie this season. The NHL's Second Star for October, Leclaire went 6-2, with a 1.25 goals-against, .953 save percentage and four shutouts. Two of those whitewashings victimized the Ducks and Sabres. In two of his other four appearances, Leclaie gave us just one goal.

People have been waiting a long time for Leclaire, the eighth overall pick in 2001, to reach his potential. At 24, he's not there yet, but he's getting closer after an injury-plagued 2006-07 season.

"Last year was a rough year, but I didn't really change anything," he says of his dramatic turnaround. "But obviously the team is playing better defensively. We don't give up as many scoring chances, so it makes my job easier."

Of course he is being a little modest. Leclaire can claim a sizable chunk of the credit for the team's success, especially its league-leading penalty kill. It's not a particularly aggressive kill, but it relies on the basics of solid positioning, active sticks to shrink the passing lanes, and excellent rotation. If a scoring chance does materialize, he's there to snuff it out.

Hitchcock also isn't afraid of using players like Nash late on the kill. He's not only looking to take advantage of tired attackers, but to give his guys more responsibility. It's an approach he used to turn lifelong floater Mike Modano into one of the game's best two-way forwards in the late '90s. Nash struggled with the transition early on, much as Modano did when Hitchcock first attached the yoke, but has become a different player this season. He's back to scoring goals like he did in his Richard Trophy campaign of 2003-04. More important, he can be counted on to go head-to-head against an opposing team's top line, and come out on top.

Hitchcock's ability to get a consistent effort out of the streaky Nash will be key to the team's continued success. Without a legitimate No. 1 center -- Mike Peca is a placeholder at best -- and a true defensive horse, Nash has carried a lot of weight in the early going. Hitchcock, for one, has faith.

"Rick Nash can be a special player for us," he said. "We haven't seen his best yet."

The month of November will reveal what kind of team the Jackets can be. In seasons past, slow starts left them hopelessly out of the running by Thanksgiving. This year, they're looking to build on October's momentum. It won't be easy. Eight of their 14 games are on the road, and they face the Red Wings three times. That's the sort of mountain that would have stopped previous Columbus squads cold.

Not this one, says Leclaire.

"We feel good about ourselves. We trust each other. Maybe that's what was missing. By winning, it really builds confidence."

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