After two losses that could be politely described as "rough", the Jackets needed a boost, and they received it with the news that Dalton Prout, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Nathan Horton would be activated off the IR.
For Nathan Horton, this game had been a long time in coming, and there was no hiding the enthusiasm on his face. Every time the camera focused on him, he seemed to be grinning, laughing, and visibly relieved to finally be playing hockey once again.
The Coyotes, like the Jackets, had been in a rough patch of late, losing three of their last four games, missing captain Shane Doan due to illness, and their penalty kill sitting at the bottom of the NHL. One team had to win tonight, but neither one wished to take undue risks to get there.
With each club playing a more defensive style, the opening minutes were spent looking for opportunities. Each team had a few quick opportunities, but Curtis McElhinney and Mike Smith were ready for them.
The physical play started heavy and got nasty near the midway point of the first, when Derek MacKenzie rocked Oliver Ekman-Larsson with a hard check that sent him to the ice. D-Mac would be challenged immediately by Keith Yandle, and after the dust from the fisticuffs cleared, OEL was taken to the dressing room and would not return to the game.
There were a few minutes of deja vu as the Jackets gave up several penalties in the early going, but C-Mac was much improved tonight, and the PK responded with a strong effort, including a couple of great shorthanded opportunities, but the game would go to the first intermission with no score.
The Horton / Anisimov / Dubinsky line went out with a will in the second period, and set a pace that the entire team followed, pressuring the Coyotes and racking up several excellent early chances, but the game would still be scoreless until late in the period, when Mike Smith was called for playing the puck outside of the trapezoid.
Horton set up in front of the net, creating space inside the Phoenix PK, and would be rewarded when James Wisnewski fired in a shot that rebounded off Smith's pads, where #8 was waiting to scoop it up and redirect it into the net for his first goal as a Blue Jacket, and his 199th career NHL goal.
The lead held through the second intermission, but the Coyotes would push hard in the third period, dominating the possession and forcing McElhinney to stay sharp for extended stretches before the team finally caught a break.
David Rundblad would be called for sending the puck over the ice, and the Jackets set up for another power play opportunity.
This time, it would be the Johansen line that drove the bus, with Nick Foligno carrying the puck in and driving to the net, then dropping the puck back to Fedor Tyutin. Tyutin's shot created another big rebound, and this time it would be R.J. Umberger in front of the net, grabbing the puck and shooting into a wide open net to give the team a much needed insurance goal.
Even with a 2-0 lead, there was still ten minutes left to play, and the Coyotes worked hard to try and find an answer, racking up 21 shots in the third period alone. Tension built as time clicked down, until finally Mike Smith was pulled for an extra skater.
Artem Anisimov broke out of the Jackets' zone with Dubinsky, and attempted to seal the game with an empty net, but his shot would go wide, allowing the Coyotes to keep after the puck, and to make matters worse Fedor Tyutin would be forced to hook down Mikkel Boedker to keep him from getting off a point blank shot, leaving the Jackets with the wrong side of a 6 on 4 power play and 30 seconds left to play.
Fortunately, the PK had a few more minutes of good hockey left in the tank, and did a great job of keeping the puck along the boards and forcing Phoenix to come in and try to dig it out, killing time until the horn sounded, and the victory was finally secured.
Final Score: Jackets 2 - Coyotes 0
- Nathan Horton - Game Winning power play goal in your debut? Yeah, that's not a bad way to start things off. In honesty, the whole game was a great debut for him. His line was constantly pushing the Coyotes around, and there certainly didn't seem to be anything wrong with his energy.
- Curtis McElhinney - I honestly wondered if Sergei Bobrovsky would get the start after the meltdown in Colorado, but this was a great rebound game, particularly with the way he handed the pressure during the third period. Suddenly the coaching staff has a tough decision for Saturday's game in St. Louis.
- Nick Foligno - This lines up with the TV's three stars, but that's because every time I saw #71 on the ice, he was fighting for the puck, and he had more than a few rushes to carry the puck into the offensive zone. I do wish he'd shot the puck rather than pass a few times, but it paid off for the insurance marker.
Bottom of the Barrel:
- 21 Shots in the Third Period - The Jackets needed to clamp down on this game, especially after Umby's goal, and instead they let Phoenix set the pace. That easily could have backfired, and they know it.
- Penalties - Again, the Jackets took over 10 minutes in minors, plus the major for MacKenzie's fight. The penalty kill was better tonight, but they need to improve on this, particularly in the case of the offensive zone fouls.
- Ryan Johansen's Point Streak - Sadly, it came to an end tonight.
After 41 games, the Blue Jackets are four points out of a playoff spot. Nathan Horton made an immediate impact. Bob is going to be back in the net soon. Matt Calvert is rejoining the team in St. Louis. Dalton Prout is ready to draw back in. The power play got themselves on track. We faced a tough opponent tonight, and came out with a big win.
Interestingly, in the post game coverage on Fox Sports Ohio, Jeff Rimmer all but stated that he thinks Horton will be named captain. I'm honestly torn on it. There's no question the guys in the room respond to him, and that he can be one of the leaders on this team.On the other hand, he's only been back one game, and I'd really like to see a few more before anything happens.
If he's earned it? Fine. If he's getting it because he's the highest paid player on the team? We've been down that road, and it didn't end well.
Still, that's a footnote on a great story. The entire team worked hard to make this win happen, and were rewarded with the best possible result.
The team is halfway out of the dark, and there's signs of some bright days ahead. You can't ask for more than that.