With the New York Rangers in town to face the Jackets, Scott Arniel and his players decided to throw everyone a few curveballs...including the crowd.
On a night where the team had been scheduled to wear their new third jerseys, they instead came out with the tried and true Union Blues to face the blueshirts. Head coach Scott Arniel joked that he just wanted to see how the competing team's red hockey pants would look against the other, but locker rooms are funny places - with the issues the team has had winning in Nationwide Arena on Saturdays (1-3 at home on Saturdays going into last night's game), and the 0-4 record in the new sweaters, perhaps it was a decision to bust one whammy by carefully ignoring the other.
For whatever reason, though, it worked, thanks to some late game efforts, and a bit of luck.
From the start, the Jackets came out with a physical, hard checking game - and almost as quickly it nearly got them into trouble, with Derek Dorsett going to the penalty box for a charging call less than two minutes in. The Jackets were able to kill the early power play, though, and drew some energy from it, getting several good chances at Henrik Lundqvist, and had their own share of frustration when Rick Nash was hauled down from behind yet did not get a penalty call.
Scoreless after one, despite the Rangers leading on the shot clock it felt like the Jackets had given a good accounting of themselves, including a dominant 25-1 edge in hits.
In the second period, the Rangers took the ice with a bit more jump, getting several early chances, and earning another power play, but the Jackets' PK remained solid, and even earned a power play when Sean Avery hooked Jakub Voracek.
Unfortunately, the Jackets' first power play was much like the last several power plays - unable to generate chances and a jerky, spasmodic thing rather than a smoother application of pressure, particularly on the points, where both units had issues with keeping the puck in the zone after face offs.
A few minutes later, Andrew Murray went to the box for a trip on Avery, and the PK was initially solid (including a couple of fantastic saves by Steve Mason), but with time running down in the penalty, Brandon Dubinsky fed the puck from the right faceoff dot behind the net to Ruslan Fedotenko, who found a cheating Marc Staal with a pass just above the goal line. Mason tried to respond to the pass and turn to the shooter, but Staal was able to shoot around him and into the open net to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
A thinly muffled groan might have escaped the 15,000 fans at Nationwide, but things would start to turn around a few minutes later. After a couple more big hits from Dorsett and Tom Sestito, the Jackets began turning up pressure, with several shots by Umberger and the second line on Lundqvist, before Erik Christensen went to the box for a slash on Andrew Murray.
This time, the power play actually looked...dangerous? cycling the puck back and forth between the boards and the blue line, Rick Nash would make a nice play to spin around Brandon Dubinsky and pass the puck over to R.J. Umberger, while Antoine Vermette curled in behind a pair of Rangers and set up in front of the crease. Umberger took the puck to the bottom of the faceoff dot and wired a quick shot at the net, which Vermette was able to redirect past Lundqvist's glove side.
That power play goal got the fans back into things, and almost seemed to reset the game. Both sides got a few more licks in, but the game would remain tied at the end of the second period with the Jackets still trailing on the shot clock, but continuing to dominate physical play.
At the start of the third, Steve Mason did exactly what a goaltender needs to do in a tight game - big, big saves. First a big save on Derek Stepan early, and a lucky but good situation when a Michael Del Zotto shot rang off the iron, but Mason was able to swallow the rebound and cover up.
For much of the period, it was starting to feel like a game destined for OT, but with just over five minutes left in the game, Rick Nash put the game on his stick, and told the team to climb on board. Taking a nifty feed at center ice from Voracek after the winger corralled a long lead pass from Jan Hejda, he went down along the far boards, keeping possession as he cut across the Rangers' zone, then fired the puck at Lundqvist from below the goal line, squeaking a shot between the back of King Henrik's leg pad and the goal post. The netminder seemed utterly flummoxed that the goal had gotten past him, and the Rangers would not manage a shot for the next two minutes.
With less than three minutes left to play, Antoine Vermette was whistled down for a trip on Brandon Prust, and things got a bit nerve wracking. Despite some good pressure from the Rangers, however, the Jackets PK lived up to the requirements, preventing the Rangers from getting good shots in on Steve Mason, and clearing the puck much better than the past two or three games.
With less than a minute and a half to go, Rusty Klesla blocked a shot from Brian Boyle, then poked the puck free, sending it rolling out onto center ice just as Lundqvist had started heading to the Ranger bench for an extra attacker. Marc Staal attempted to get a stick on it, but Nash leaped up and poked the puck further ahead, then skated past the defense to get control of the puck and charge into the Ranger zone. Staal would attempt to catch up, and Lundqvist tried to skate back fast enough to prevent Nash from scoring on an empty net, but neither would really be successful.
Nash was one on one with Lundqvist, the goalie well outside of his crease, when Staal tried...well, I'm sure he'll claim he was attempting a poke check, but it sure looked like he was trying to knock Nash off his feet. Nash, however, controlled the momentum of the skid this caused, pushing his shot to the right even as King Henrik slid left as he tried to collapse his 5-hole, then using his reach to extend his stick well past the Ranger goaltender and tuck the puck into the wide open net for the insurance goal before tumbling to the ice.
John Tortorella would call a time out to light his team up like Times Square, but it wasn't enough to change the tune of this one - even a late crosschecking call on Klesla would not be enough to give the Rangers an opportunity to get back into the game, and when the horn sounded, the team had won for the first time in regulation since the end of November.
Final Score: Jackets 3 - Rangers 1
- Steve Mason - This is the Steve Mason we like to see - need to see, even. A few more games like this will get the team where it needs to be, and give the fans more confidence in the young goaltender. He made some wicked stops, and I think he took a bit of a lesson from Lundqvist on swallowing the puck - neither goalie was giving up a lot of rebounds or second chances.
- Rick Nash - He may not be able to draw penalities like a "superstar" player, but he sure came out and acted like one tonight. For whatever reason, he decided that the team was not going down, and had a piece of the tying goal as well as his individual efforts. If he can put together some more games like this one, consistently, people ought to stop wondering about his claim on the Captaincy for good. Nasher also tends to be a streaky goal scorer. Here's hoping that tonight was the start of a new run.
- Sammy Pahlsson - Pahlsson spent the majority of the game shutting down Marian Gaborik, and it showed. Despite the Rangers' dynamo having 22 minutes of ice time - the most of any NYR forward - Gaborik was a non-factor thanks to Pahlsson bottling him up.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- Derek Dorsett - As weak as some of the officiating was tonight, Dorsett's opening penalty was a textbook charge, and totally unneeded. Pasting Rozsival in the Jackets' offensive zone may have sent a message about physical play, but it killed a fairly good up-tempo start for the team and forced them on the PK way too early, and easily could have gone wrong. He played better for the rest of the game, but c'mon, man.
- Little Things - It just felt like the team took a lot of "egh" penalties, especially late. Did it need to happen? Something for the team to try and address before leaving for Western Canada.
- The Rat Race - While the win briefly put the Jackets up in 6th place, by the end of the night in the Western Conference they had fallen back down to 11th, one point back of the playoff line. 9 teams, including a division leader, are separated by one point. It's that close right now. If the Jackets can string together a bit of a winning streak this week, it could be enough traction to push them up above the bar to stay for awhile, but if the roller coaster of wins and losses continues, it could be a very bumpy ride.
There is some solace, though, that the team's issues early in the month have not scuttled them, as the month of December did last year. The 16-11-1 start is still the best in team history...in fact, last season, they didn't get win # 16 until January 7th.
Meanwhile, Columbus is not the only team fighting for a playoff spot that's run into trouble. Dallas dropped another game last night, as did Vancouver. LA fell in OT, and so did Chicago and St. Louis. In the East, Washington has dropped 5 straight, and Montreal dropped another game, this time against the Toronto Waffle Leafs. It feels sometimes like the rest of the NHL will plow past Columbus whenever this team struggles, but a look around shows that life's hard all over. What really matters is how the team will come together and respond to the hard times, and tonight was an encouraging step in the right direction.
The Jackets will fly to Calgary tonight, and take on the Flames Monday night at 9PM EST from the Saddledome.