Just before the Jackets' sole appearance on Versus in the regular season (barring a playoff appearance), Scott Arniel held meetings with a number of his players, one on one.
At the pre-game warmup, he shocked and surprised many observers with a list of scratches. Rostislav Klesla. Jakub Voracek. Derek Dorsett.
Steve Mason was given the start, and the Jackets shrugged on their third jerseys for the sixth time this season, looking for the first win in the new threads.
At the start of the game, the Jackets had some bad early turnovers that Mason bailed the team out on, but the Wild would get an early lead when Nick Schultz would bring the puck in from the neutral zone and Mason made the initial save, but the rebound sprang out in front of him, and the defense was out of position, leaving Chuck Kobasew in the slot unchallenged to bury the rebound.
Recently, that might have been enough to break Mason's confidence, but tonight the netminder did just what everyone has been saying he needed to do - shake it off, relax, and put it behind him.
After a Jared Boll put a big open ice hit on Mikko Koivu, Brad Staubitz came off the bench to challenge the Jackets' scrapper, and a short but fairly energetic fight ensued - give Staubitz the decision for getting Boll down to the ice, but Boll had a few good shots, too.
The fight seemed to fire up the team a bit, much like Boll's scrap in the win over Calgary a week ago, but the Jackets had little chance to show it - they would spend much of the remainder of the first period shorthanded, something that would continue into the second frame with the Blue Jackets trailing 1-0.
After Mike Commodore was sent to the box for a big hit in the corner on Cal Clutterbuck that drew a boarding major, the Jackets found themselves killing off penalties for the first seven minutes of the first period, which extended to eight minutes when Fedor Tyutin went into the box for an elbowing call near the tail end of Commie's major.
Despite the disadvantage, the Jackets' PK was stellar, particularly Mason, who made some excellent saves on Koivu, Martin Havlat, and Brent Burns before the Jackets finally got to play a little 5-on-5 hockey - and just like that, something good happened.
Rushing up the ice after the PK, Rick Nash poked the puck to Kristian Huselius, who came down the boards deep into the Wild's zone before making a beautiful no-look pass to Derick Brassard at the left faceoff dot, and Brass one-timed the puck past Theodore's shoulder to tie the game.
For the rest of the period, the Jackets seemed to be gathering momentum, despite killing off another interference call on Samuel Pahlsson, and an inconclusive round 2 between Staubitz and Boll.
Things looked great until just under 10 seconds left in the period. Marc Methot tried to skate the puck out from behind his own net, failed to make a clean pass when pressured, and turned the puck over at the boards to Anti Miettinen - then compounded the error by trying to skate up ice after Miettinen instead of getting back to cover his defensive responsibility, Mikko Koivu.
Left wide open at the side of the net, Miettinen got the puck to Koivu, and the Wild's captain scored past Mason with a quick wrister with less than a second left to play in the period.
Howls of frustration could be heard up and down Nationwide Boulevard, not the least of them likely coming from the coaches' office and Scott Howson's seat in the press boxes.
Despite the frustration, or perhaps because of it, the Jackets came out flying in the third, starting with the third bout of the night, when Tom Sestito took exception to Staubitz whacking at Mason following a save early in the third period. Sestito won a pretty clear decision, and a few short minutes later, the Jackets would capitalize on the energy boost with not one but two goals - the first a beautiful Fedor Tyutin slap shot from just below the blue line that smoked its' way past Theodore, set up by a nice feed from Jared Boll up at the top of the zone, then less than a minute later, Andrew Murray hustled the puck up into the zone, skated around the Wild net, and attempted a wrap-around stuff on Jose Theodore...and the puck bounced off Theodore's skate and into the net for the go-ahead goal.
Unfortunately, the Jackets decided to try to give the Wild more chances to get back into the game - first with Marc Methot cross-checking Cam Barker - though he and Barker did end up getting coincidental minors in the ensuing scrum, the Refs had already had their arms up to call Methot, and the PK was asked to shoulder the load again in a one goal game.
Then, as the Jackets continued to kill the Methot penalty, Derick Brassard did a just plain dumb move - after being hit by Andrew Brunette's stick while sitting on the bench while the Wild forward battled for a puck, he reached out and grabbed Brunette's stick from the bench. The refs decided to put both Brassard and Brunette in the box, luckily, but it came perilously close to giving the Jackets a two man disadvantage.
In the ensuing 4-on-4 hockey, the Jackets had a couple more chances, including an aching "ALMOST!" moment when Kristian Huselius came down on a rush, fired at Theodore, generated a rebound and Kris Russell just missed wide on the ensuing chance, but the Wild were able to corral the puck after Russell's attempt, rush up ice, and get around the defense, with Marek Zidlicky taking a shot that bounced off the boards to Cal Clutterbuck, who tapped in the rebound past Mason as he attempted to get over to cover.
Tied up, the game would go to OT, but Steve Mason made some of his best saves in the extra frame, including a sequence where he made a kick save on Mikku Koivu after the Wild Captain got free on a breakaway, then sprang up from his butterfly to snatch the follow-up shot from Koivu out of the air with a little over a minute left to play.
The Jackets had a couple of chances at Koivu, including a nice hustle play by Rick Nash, but the extra time passed without a decision, so the teams would be off to the shootout, with Scott Arniel electing to have the Jackets shoot first.
First out of the gate was Rick Nash, who came in with a move to the right, drove in from the angle, and beat Theodore with a quick shot, while Mikku Koivu came out for the Wild and was denied with a pad save by Mason.
Kyle Wilson was up next, charged straight in, and burned Theodore with a a top-shelf wrister, giving the Jackets a 2-0 lead.
If Mason could stop Pierre-Marc Bouchard, it was all over.
Unfortunately, Bouchard used a move that we've seen get the best of a Jackets goaltended before this season, coming in very slowly and dekeing back and forth several times until Mason slid himself out of position trying to anticipate the shot, then tapping the puck into the open net to keep the Wild alive.
Kristian Huselius, denied on a couple of opportunities tonight, came off the bench and rifled the puck in for the Jackets' third shootout goal, slamming the door and giving the Jackets a well deserved win.
Final Score: Jackets Win 4-3 (SO)
- Steve Mason - Mason gave up one really ugly goal (the tying score from Clutterbuck), but stopped 37 of 40 shots during regulation and OD in addition to giving the Jackets the early edge in the shootout by stoning Koivu. After the early goal, he could have packed it in, and instead he turned around and delivered one of his best performances all year, particularly his clutch saves in OT.
- Rick Nash - With two assists in regulation, giving him the franchise record for assists at 260, and a goal in the shootout, Nash pushed hard to get the team to the win tonight, and had several good opportunities that just didn't quite go in.
- Andrew Murray - Even before his goal tonight, Murray was playing like someone who doesn't want to sit in the press box again - generating a great shorthanded chance, strong work on the PK, and making his line a threat that the Wild had to respond to late in the game. Great work.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- Marc Methot - I've generally been pleased with how Methot has developed this year, but he made a lot of bad decisions tonight, particularly the blown coverage on the Koivu goal.
- R.J. Umberger - I love RJ, and I hate saying this, but he was really pretty invisible tonight. Given the way he hasn't shown up terribly much in the past couple of games, I'm starting to wonder if he's playing hurt.
- Officiating - Seeing as I was not at the game, I cannot confirm or deny the incident being reported about Paul Devorski making a crying face and an obscene gesture at CBJ fans. What I can say, based on watching the game, was that the Wild had a ridiculous amount of power plays tonight, several on very "ticky-tack" calls, while the Jackets weren't given a single man advantage, despite plays where Rick Nash, Marc Methot, Chris Clark, and Ethan Moreau were hauled down or clearly interfered with in plain sight of the boys in stripes. Unsurprisingly, the NHL has no comment, but at least internally, SOMEONE needs to ask questions about why the kind of officiating we've seen at recent games in Nationwide Arena is happening. One game with a bunch of bad calls is going to happen. Two games in a row sucks, but the refs are human. Three in a row, something stinks.
The Jackets are off tonight and tomorrow before flying into Toronto for a match with the Maple Leafs on Thursday. The puck will drop at 7pm from the Air Canada Centre....assuming the Leafs ever manage to get out of New Jersey. They've been stuck there since Sunday night's blizzard after facing the Devils.