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After fast start and then dreadful stretch, Jackets hope they've turned a corner

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Rick Nash smiled as he discussed his selection Wednesday to Team Canada for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the thrill of playing alongside Sidney Crosby or Joe Thornton, and even the pressures applied on a young superstar by his hockey-mad homeland.

Then the topic shifted to the troubles surrounding Nash's NHL team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. The answers were harder to come by. So were the smiles.

"It's been tough," he said. "Things like this happen with teams. You go through a lot of ups and downs."

On Nov. 19, the Blue Jackets opened a season-long five-game road trip with an impressive 4-1 win at Dallas. The victory improved them to 12-6-2, one of the best records in the Western Conference. The NHL's youngest team, coming off the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, appeared to be headed for another season of promise.

But, instead, it has turned to ashes. Since the victory in Big D they've won just three of 21 games. The prolonged tailspin has dropped them to one of the worst records in the league.

Just about everything has gone wrong. They lost games they were in control of late and were blown out of others. Their defence hemorrhaged goals for a couple of weeks, now has been effective while the offence has scored two or fewer goals in each of the last eight games.

Worse, no one really seems to have a firm grasp on what the problems are.

"We just have to play better. There's no easy out. This is a tough league and we haven't played well enough consistently to get rewarded," said general manager Scott Howson. "For one reason or another, we've lost that focus, confidence, energy - whatever it is. So we have to overcome that."

Howson tinkered with the roster earlier this week, trading third-line forward Jason Chimera to the Washington Capitals for defenceman Milan Jurcina and winger Chris Clark. Jurcina, a stay-at-home blue-liner, shores up what has been at times a mistake-prone defence, while Clark, a former captain of the Capitals, puts another experienced leader in the dressing room to work with Nash, who is just 25 and learning on the job how to be a captain.

Coach Ken Hitchcock believes that his players have not totally committed.

"You can't win in this league, it's that close, unless you have total buy-in," Hitchcock said. "I don't think we were there. We were kind of dipping our toes in it. We're starting to get back to that buy-in and it's getting better and better."

The Blue Jackets ended a nine-game winless skid on Monday night with a 1-0 overtime victory over Detroit before a packed arena. For at least one night, goalie Steve Mason regained his touch from a year ago when he was the NHL's rookie of the year and had 10 shutouts, and the rest of the players made big plays that turned Fredrik Modin's first goal of the year into a game-winner.

But they turned around last night and, despite a 42-25 advantage in shots, mustered just one goal in a 2-1 shootout loss at the New York Islanders.

Nash has had a solid season with 19 goals and 18 assists in 41 games, but at times has been overburdened.

"From what I've heard around the league, he's one of the better (captains), one of the great guys," said the 33-year-old Clark, a veteran with 517 NHL games under his belt in Calgary and Washington. "We have some veteran guys here. If they can take some of the pressure off him in the locker-room, that's less that he has to think about and he can just go on the ice and be that Olympic player that he is."

With a day off before hosting Nashville on Thursday night, the Blue Jackets (15-18-8, 38 points) are still only nine points out of the last playoff spot at the midpoint of the season. A year ago, the St. Louis Blues were 16-22-3 midway through the season and made a remarkable 25-9-7 run in the second half to make the playoffs. So there's still hope.

Jurcina was asked if it was difficult to be dealt from first-place Washington to near-the-bottom Columbus.

"We're still only halfway (through the season), you know? It's still open. There's still a lot of hockey to play," he said. "You cannot say we're out of the playoffs right now. We just have to keep playing hard."

Hitchcock is certain that the worst is past.

"We've been showing marked improvement in a lot of areas and it's starting to pay off in points," he said. "Hopefully it starts to pay off in wins."



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