COLUMBUS, Ohio - Down 3-0 and nearing extinction in their first-round series with the powerful Detroit Red Wings, the Columbus Blue Jackets are trying to keep their heads up.
Too bad R.J. Umberger didn't do that in Game 3.
Umberger was carrying the puck down through open ice when he glanced at the puck for an instant. Detroit defenceman Brad Stuart closed fast and lowered the boom on the Blue Jackets forward. Umberger looked like a cartoon character with his eyes rolling around in his head for a short time, but later returned and scored his second goal of series - the Blue Jackets' only goals so far.
Umberger tried to look at the upside of that jarring hit.
"I had a kink in my neck for the last two months. It's gone now," he cracked Wednesday. "So I'm actually pretty happy. I should send him a thank-you note. ... It was better than a chiropractor can do."
For his part, Stuart was happy to oblige.
"Anytime, anytime. Glad to help," Stuart said with a grin. "I don't charge anything. Pro bono."
That one play spoke volumes about the entire series. The Blue Jackets, making their first trip to the playoffs in the franchise's eight years, have skated hard and been focused. But the wily veteran Red Wings have repeatedly beaten them down.
The Blue Jackets are in desperate straits.
"We're playing for our lives now," defenceman Kris Russell said.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings have won by a combined score of 12-2. The defencemen have been superlative. Cycling the puck on offence has been raised to an art form. Chris Osgood has stopped 76 of the 78 shots he's faced.
Many of the Blue Jackets have bemoaned their giveaways and missed scoring chances, adding that the Red Wings are approaching perfection.
Not even close, Detroit coach Mike Babcock said.
"We're a long way from error-free," he said. "It's not a perfect game. It's not supposed to be like that."
The Wings don't strive for perfection. As a result, they don't play with hesitancy, nor are they afraid to take chances.
"It's a game of mistakes and what we try to do and our philosophy and our program is to not be careful - Put your foot on the gas, go as hard as you can go, we'll fix it later or tomorrow," Babcock said. "But let's make mistakes on the aggressive side, not the passive side."
The Wings have no plans to alter that high-risk, high-reward attack in what could be the series-clinching game, set for Thursday night at Nationwide Arena.
"It's one of the toughest things to close a series," winger Marian Hossa said. "Obviously, no one wants to be swept. They're going to be ready for us and we have to make sure that we come out strong like we have."
The Red Wings had played indifferently down the stretch, long after they were assured of a playoff spot. But once the puck dropped in the post-season, they've been a different team.
"We had been looking forward to it for quite a while. So to do it and to be having fun doing it is a big thing for us," Osgood said. "But each game is a different moment. Game 4 will be completely different. We have to make sure we go out there and play solid hockey and play smart and make sure we're ready for the full game because we expect their best. We're expecting the best of ourselves as well."
The Blue Jackets have played well at the outset in all three games, but have not been able to keep up. On top of that, they've not been able to find the net - blame that on Osgood, Detroit's stout defence or Columbus' inefficiency and inaccuracy with the puck.
Unlike Stuart, they've even missed the Red Wings on checks.
In Game 3, defenceman Mike Commodore swooped in on Detroit's Daniel Cleary on the short boards. The largest crowd ever to see a hockey game in Columbus tensed for the thunderous hit. Except Cleary slipped past Commodore, who sprawled over the wall and under the Red Wings bench.
"He about got Babcock yesterday, so that would have been a good thing," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock joked. "He just missed him."