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The Columbus Blue Jackets expected Pascal Leclaire to be their goaltender of the future when they selected him eighth overall in the 2001 draft. It took longer than expected, but the future has finally arrived.
Leclaire looks to win his fifth straight start Wednesday night when the surprising Blue Jackets visit the Central Division rival Chicago Blackhawks.
Leclaire was unable to seize control of the No. 1 goaltending job in his first two full seasons with the Blue Jackets (8-3-2), sharing time with Marc Denis in 2005-06 and Fredrik Norrena last year.
After missing 42 games last season due to knee injuries, Leclaire apparently is fulfilling the promise Columbus saw when it made him such a high pick.
Leclaire recorded his first shutout of the season in a season-opening 4-0 victory over Anaheim on Oct. 5, and hasn't cooled off since. He is 7-2-0 and leads the NHL with a 1.12 goals-against average and five shutouts.
"The numbers kind of speak for themselves," center Manny Malhotra said. "He's played incredible for us."
Leclaire turned aside 21 shots and Malhotra had a goal and an assist Sunday, leading Columbus to a 3-0 victory over visiting St. Louis.
The Blue Jackets, who have never made the playoffs in their seven seasons, are 5-0-1 in their last six games, including 3-0-1 on the road.
"Everyone's having a good time," Leclaire said. "It's a lot more fun. As long as we keep doing the same thing, it's easy to have a good time."
After allowing 249 goals in 2006-07, Columbus has been a much better defensive team in its first full season under coach Ken Hitchcock.
"It's everybody just buying into the system and believing in Hitch's game plan," star forward Rick Nash said. "The guys are getting more mature and understanding that you need to trust the system. I don't know what the issue was last year. It seems like we're buying in, and it works."
Also contributing lately to the Blue Jackets is veteran center Sergei Fedorov, who has a goal and three assists during a four-game point streak. Malhotra, meanwhile, has a goal and four assists during that span.
Chicago, which has missed the playoffs each of the last four seasons, has also shown improvement with a .500 record after 14 games. The Blackhawks (7-7-0), though, were unable to overcome an early two-goal deficit Sunday in a 5-2 home loss to Nashville.
Robert Lang and Yanic Perreault scored for Chicago, which has allowed 15 goals during a three-game home losing streak.
"We're going to change something up," coach Denis Savard said. "We've got to have urgency every shift, every battle. And if you don't, this is what happens in this league."
Nikolai Khabibulin started in goal for the Blackhawks, but allowed three goals on six shots in the first period and was replaced by Patrick Lalime to start the second. He gave up one goal on 12 shots.
Nash and Jiri Novotny each scored twice in Columbus' 7-4 victory at Chicago on Oct. 23. The Blue Jackets have won four of their last six meetings with the Blackhawks, including two of three at the United Center.