With Jeff Carter returning to the Jackets lineup and Nikita Nikitin making his debut, the other "X-factor" for the Blue Jackets tonight against the Winnipeg Jets was rookie forward Ryan Johansen, returning after a healthy scratch on Thursday night to play on the second line with Vinny Prospal and Mark Letestu.
Facing former Interim head coach Claude Noel and the reborn Jets, both teams were looking for a rebound after poor performances in their last game, and neither side gave ground easily, but it would be the impact of the new and returning players for the Jackets that decided the game.
With Ondrej Pavelec starting in net for the Jets, the Jackets attacked the Winnipeg netminder early with several shots from the point, then saw the return of an absent friend - an early goal.
Breaking up an attempt by Dustin Byfuglien to enter the Jackets' zone, Marc Methot bounced the puck across the ice to James Wisniewski, who sent a strong lead pass to Ryan Johansen, giving him the chance to enter the Winnipeg zone with speed. The rookie unleashed a blast from the faceoff circle that beat Pavelec top corner for the Jackets' first lead in the last four games.
Despite the early lead, the Jets would challenge the Jackets for much of the remaining period, especially when Methot would take a hooking penalty shortly after the Johansen goal, but Steve Mason was more than equal to their attempts - particularly an impressive set of saves against a long shot from Mark Flood and then snapping his glove out to snare the rebound attempt from Alexander Burmistrov.
Though heavily outshot through the first 20 minutes, the Jackets had an all-important 1-0 lead, and they held that lead through the second period.
Though neither team would score in the middle frame, the Jackets had some incredible chances on the power play, with the Jets taking back to back penalties early that helped the home team gain momentum.
A further jump in the energy level came when Chris Thorburn put a hard hit on Jared Boll, and the Jackets' pugilist immediately dropped his gloves in search of satisfaction. Despite concerns over his recently mended hand from the coaching staff, boll wasted no time in launching a furious assault that eventually ended with Boll force-feeding Thorburn his own jersey, a pretty clear decision for #40.
After a few more opportunities for each side, the Jackets still had their narrow lead after 40 minutes, but Mason continued to inspire hope rather than fear, while the revised defensive pairings clicked from the start, particularly the combination of Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin, who delivered a strong effort in all zones, though Tyutin did have a few turnovers that his partner was forced to cover.
The addition of Jeff Carter to the top line with Rick Nash and R.J. Umberger was also worth mention - though Carter was unable to impact in scoring, he still delivered three shots on net, set both his linemates up for attempts, and won 63% of his faceoffs. He had a few moments of rust with the puck, and made one late decision that I can't help but question, but his general play was strong, and when you consider that he had two practices to prepare for today's game, you can't help but think that his rust will work off quickly, making a real threat that opponents must game plan for - in fact, the Jets seemed to generally have a healthy respect for Carter's abilities, and were quite careful about how they engaged him around the ice.
In the third period, the Jackets nearly found the game tied on a Kyle Wellwood breakaway that John Moore was able to break up, though at the cost of a hooking penalty that the Jackets were able to kill off before the Prospal - Letestu - Johansen line saw another chance to impact the game.
Letestu would win a draw in his own zone, kicking the puck back to Nikitin, who sent a perfect long lead pass up to Vinny Prospal, who raced into the Winnipeg zone with Johansen on a textbook 2 on 1 rush. Waiting almost too long, Prospal shot the puck up to Johansen from below the goal line, connecting at the top of the crease for a beautiful backhand to pop the puck past Pavelec.
With a 2-0 lead and over 16 minutes left to play, fears of "playing not to lose" had to creep into the fans, but for the most part the Jackets continued to attack, even drawing another penalty with just over seven minutes left in the period, but unfortunately that would lead to more problems. With the Johansen/Letestu/Prospal line drawing a hooking call on Blake Wheeler, Scott Arniel would send out his #1 PP unit (Umberger / Carter / Nash, Wisniewski / Tyutin), but a bad turnover would lead to Burmistrov getting a shorthanded chance against Steve Mason, and Wiz sent to the box for a hook in an attempt to stop the Russian forward.
Through the 4 on 4 hockey the Jackets did everything right, even drawing another penalty early on in Winnipeg's abbreviated power play, but after being forced back into their own zone Fedor Tyutin would send a lazy pass around the boards and away from Wisniewski, who attempted to catch the puck but had to back off when it was intercepted inside the Jackets' blue line by Dustin Byfuglien. "Big Buff" would bowl through Wiz and get around R.J. Umberger before sending a centering feed to Mark Stuart, who fired a puck that squeaked through Mason's five hole with just under four minutes to go, leading to more than a few "Here we go again..." thoughts.
The Jackets kept solid pressure on the Jets for the next few minutes of regulation, but Pavelec would finally be able to leave the crease for an extra attacker at just under a minute to go. The Jackets would do a good job of keeping Winnipeg from getting good looks and blocking shots, but when they had attempts at the empty net Derek MacKenzie, Rick Nash, and Jeff Carter would all whiff, and when Carter had the puck behind the empty goal cage he chose to try and send a pass up to Umberger for a tap-in rather than simply wrapping it around and burying the dagger, an act that probably made him an unselfish teammate but nearly backfired when Andrew Ladd was able to take the puck away and get up ice for one final shot with less than two seconds left.
Fortunately, Steve Mason was able to glove the puck and skate it for the final seconds, and the Jackets finally claimed their third win of the season with the fans finally getting a taste of what Scott Howson's vision for this hockey team might look like.
Final Score: Blue Jackets 2 - Jets 1
- Nikita Nikitin - So, you just got traded. Your new team gave up a fan favorite, you've had all of one pre-game skate to get used to your new teammates, and you had to drive all day Friday to make it to town? No problem! The Russian d-man played 24 minutes, showed some excellent defensive plays, had a couple of brilliant breakout passes (including the key pass that lead to the GWG) and even had a few nice shots on goal. Pretty nice debut.
- Steve Mason - While the shorthanded goal was a little bit of a weak one (though Mason certainly wasn't helped by his team on the turnover), we generally got the "Good" Mase tonight, with several flashes of Great. Despite the near-miss on the shutout, it was a great overall effort - but the real question is what we'll see from him on Tuesday.
- Ryan Johansen - Not only was his combination with Vinny and the Test Tube an immediate success, Johansen spent every chance he had on the ice creating opportunities. He's still growing into the NHL game (Byfuglien and Ladd were both able to knock him of the puck during battles), but his response to his healthy scratch was to come back and just play better. A fantastic outing - but at the same time, we need someone else to step up and score some GWGs.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
- R.J. Umberger - He's Umby, Dammit, but he still seems to really be fighting the puck. He had several solid opportunities with Nash and Carter, but nothing seemed to be working, and both of his linemates tried to set him up for a goal or two and he was unable to cash in.
- Antoine Vermette - Demoted to the third line, Vermette had some flashes of speed and a few opportunities, but also handed out quite a few nasty turnovers.
- Lack of Finish - I've called out abstract concepts before - and this is a perfect time for one. With a two goal lead and several power play opportunities in the third period, the Jackets not only failed to capitalize, they made their situation worse because of a lazy play that backfired spectacularly. When they had an empty net, no less than four players blew opportunities to salt the game away. This team needed to put the skate down. They didn't. If there had been another minute left in this game, I fear for what the result might have been.
All in all, it was a win. Ugly, easy, hard, pretty, it doesn't matter when it's two more points than you had the previous morning. The Jackets did some very good things, and they found some nasty problems. What we need to see is for the team to correct the errors and put the same level of work out for their next outing. This could be the start of something good - but the first step on that road is not taking it for granted.