Nash puts zip in Jackets

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

It was late in the Columbus Blue Jackets-New York Rangers game.

The score was tied when Blue Jacket Rick Nash took a pass from Nikolai Zherdev and bore down on defenceman Thomas Pock, a guy playing his second NHL game this season. Pock probably thought nothing good was going to come of this.

He would be right. Nash gave him a quick move and went to the inside, sticking his leg out to deflect Pock's stick. Pock pushed, but it was like shoving against a wall. Nash went by and stick-handled around goalie Kevin Weekes to score the winner.

When Nash gets back to where he's 100 per cent healthy, he's going to be really scary.

The Blue Jackets need that to happen -- and soon.

The 21-year-old former London Knight still isn't completely healthy after missing 28 games with first an ankle, then a knee injury. But even at 80 per cent, the Jackets need him.

When you combine his injury with big chunks of time missed by Luke Richardson, Adam Foote, Manny Malhotra and others, there's good reason why Columbus had such a horrible start. Rumours started to circulate about a house-cleaning that included everyone from the coaching staff to president Doug MacLean.

Now the players are all back and the Blue Jackets are playing better.

They came up with a big 6-5 win over the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday in front of a wild home crowd. Nash was held pointless for the fourth straight game.

"It's been horrendous with all the injuries," Blue Jackets director of player personnel Don Boyd said.

"Now we're starting to get a little healthier and we're playing a lot better. Like anything, we've taken a couple of steps forward and every once in a while, a step back."

All these names should be familiar. In fact, the connections between London and Columbus are many. Nash is a former Knight. MacLean was a Knights assistant coach. Boyd was the Knights head coach and still owns a house here. He's bought a house in Columbus as well.

Also on the Blue Jackets roster is former Knight Dan Fritsche. And if you are looking for more connections, former Knights coach Gary Agnew is guiding the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate in Syracuse, where another former Knight, Marc Methot, is playing.

The key to it all, though, is Nash. In 21 games since his return, he has 12 goals and seven assists. He came back early from the ankle injury and after two games, he injured a knee. It was a worry for both Nash and the Blue Jackets.

"It's the first time I've really ever been hurt," Nash said. "When I was in London, I was never really injured.It's been a tough two months going to the rink every day and rehabbing and having to wait to play. You're watching the game from the stands and your team's struggling and you can't do anything to help. That was tough.

"When you're trying to get the knee strong, you are always worried about coming back and having something happen to it. But these last couple of games, I've started to feel strong and confident with both these injuries."

Nash is prepared to take on the pressure of making this team perform better.

"We have a team that was supposed to make a big jump this year," he said.

"I feel like I'm one of the leaders, one of the guys who have to push the other guys. But we've been playing better the second half of the season. We've gotten to a couple of games over .500 in the second half. There is a lot of pressure to score goals and win games. That's my job. That's why I'm here. I feel obligated that I have to do it."

It doesn't reduce the pressure that Columbus has embraced the Blue Jackets through the difficult times. Nash understands the frustration the fans might feel.

"We have one of the best group of fans and the most supportive group of fans in the league," he said. "We've been around for five years and we haven't succeeded -- and we still almost sell out every game. We owe them something. This year was the year they kind of expected we were going to something and we did, too. We owe them a good rest of the season and playoffs."

Boyd is one of the guys who has helped stock this team. His main responsibility is amateur players. He just got back from Quebec and Ottawa. He leaves in early February for Europe.

Boyd believes when this team is healthy and the good, young players mature, they'll be more than competitive. Most players need time in the minors to develop their skills.

He uses Methot, a defenceman with last year's Memorial Cup-winning Knights, as an example. Methot has just returned from injury.

"We see a future for him," Boyd said.

"It's all about learning the consistency of being a pro. You have to prepare yourself every night. You're not playing against 17- and 18-year-olds any more. Now you're playing against guys that are feeding their families. There's a business side to it. He's learning that.

"I still believe it would be a good thing for everyone to play in the minor leagues to learn how to prepare every night as a professional. You don't have school, don't have the teenage issues. You prepare for a career. You need to learn what to eat, when you need to sleep, when you need to rehab something. You need to learn how to spend your time to become a professional."

Nash was plucked from the Knights as an 18-year-old and never played in the minors. But Nash is a special player. How special was only emphasized earlier when he was named to Canada's Olympic team despite his season-long battle with injuries.

"I'm very excited," he said. "I didn't know what to think after my injuries and with (Eric) Staal, (Jason) Spezza, (Sidney) Crosby having good years, I didn't know if they would have the confidence in me. But obviously, they've judged me off my past -- not what I've done this year. I just can't wait to represent my country.

"You play in the world junior and world championship and the Olympics is the cream of the crop for any sport. For me, it's a dream come true to play in the Olympics. I just can't wait . . ."

But for now, the No. 1 priority is getting his team and himself healthy.


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