Perhaps the most notable part of tonight's game is that Rick Nash wasn't great tonight, but the Jackets won 4-1.
That's not to say that Nash wasn't good - I thought he had a decent night - but he was not playing at the superlative level we so often have to see for this team to achieve a 2+ goal effort, let alone a 4 goal win.
With Ryan Miller and Steve Mason dueling in net, despite the team's being about a 60/40 mix of NHLers to prospects, it had a certain flavor of the end of last season, where the two netminders faced off to start the evening, and Steve Mason let an early lead slip away, blasted by a Buffalo Power Play that was given ample time to fire away at him.
So, facing a specter of last season's failure, how did Mase respond, and who drove the bus tonight?
I'll get the suspense out of the way: Steve Mason wasn't just good tonight, he was great. Though he had a couple of shaky moments early, they came from, if anything, being too confident and aggressive. Once past that, he locked down, andmade some truly inspiring and eye-popping saves through the course of the game.
The Jackets as a whole came out with an agressive, powerful tone, forechecking, hitting, and setting a fast pace that the Sabres, at times, seemed to have difficulty matching.
Just before the midpoint of the first period, that pace finally got the best of the Sabres, with Mike Weber taking a minor for boarding, and Colin Stuart following him to the box a few seconds later when he tried to tie up Grant Clitsome.
With a top PP unit of Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, and Alexandre Giroux being backed up by Clitsome and David Savard, the Jackets won the faceoff and had some excellent possession before Savard made a nice pass across the top of the zone to Clitsome, who loaded up and put a nice shot on net. Miller made the initial save, but the rebound was caught in Alexandre Giroux's skates, and he was able to shuffle the puck to Jeff Carter, who roofed it past Miller to give the Jackets a 1-0 lead.
The Jackets came within a hair of converting on the second half of the 5 on 3 when R.J. Umberger and Derick Brassard just missed connecting on a 2 on 1, but kept up the pressure until, in the dying minutes, Derek Dorsett and Dane Byers lead an aggressive rush into the Buffalo zone, dropped a pass back to Grant Clitsome as he joined the rush, and the Clitter blasted a snapshot past Miller after the Buffalo goalie dropped to his pads too early, clearly having expected Dorsett to shoot.
Taking a 2-0 lead into the locker room and heavily outchancing the Sabres, the Jackets were rewarded with more power play time to start the second period, but failed to convert. That wouldn't be the only bad news - a short time after the power play expired, Jackets' centerman Derek MacKenzie took a hard hit along the boards and fell to the ice in obvious pain. Laboring to the bench, he would head to the dressing room and would not return. According to reports from the post-game press conference, it's a fairly minor knee injury, but it was still enough to end his evening (and could potentially be the end of his pre-season, which would be a shame.)
Shifting their lines to adjust for being down a skater, the Jackets returned to the attack, and Dane Byers would factor into another goal, breaking into the zone, feathering a pass over to Cody Goloubef, who dropped the puck to Ryan Johansen, who fired a one-timer almost as soon as the puck touched his stick for his second goal of the pre-season.
With the surprisingly decent pre-season crowd at Nationwide roaring approval, Dane Byers would pour on the punishment, taking a nice setup from David Savard at the top of the faceoff circle and firing a glove side wrister to put the Jackets up 4-0 at the halfway mark.
The Jackets likely could have put themselves up by a 5 spot, but they ran into additional penalty trouble late in the period. Despite this, Dane Byers, John Moore, and Jeff Carter all came out with shorthanded chances, and only some excellent stickwork and positioning by Miller prevented the Jackets from extending their lead.
In the dying seconds, Steve Mason made a huge stop on Jason Pominville, and the Jackets took a 4-0 lead into the third period and looked to shut the door.
Offensively, the Jackets were unable to extend the lead despite a couple of excellent chances, including a Jeff Carter / Alexandre Giroux breakaway that fell apart due to a miscommunication, but the Jackets continued to stand tall defensively, including some more yeoman work by Mason, but Buffalo would break the shutout bid late in the period with Radek Martinek serving a double minor for high sticking. Tyler Myers would secure the puck from Pominville on a cycle, cut inside the Jackets' defense and unloaded a backhander in tight that Steve Mason had no chance on.
Despite facing more late penalty trouble, the Jackets continued to attack even into the final minute of play, with Nash charging down on Ryan Miller but couldn't quite convert, the puck hitting the side of the net and trickling away. No matter - the team had the situation well in hand as the final seconds ticked away, and Buffalo's pre-season winning streak, best in the NHL, had been snapped.
Final Score - Jackets 4, Sabres 1
- Dane Byers - A guy who Scott Howson clearly values in the organization (after all, he's traded for him twice!), Byers was one of the most dangerous men on the ice, constantly hustling after the puck. With a goal and two helpers, he easily could have had another goal or two if he'd gotten another bounce or two.
- Steve Mason - After looking good early on Wednesday and slipping late, Mason was a little loose early and razor sharp the rest of the night. The one goal he allowed wasn't really anything he could help, and but for that he was clearly in the "shutout mode" this evening.
- Radek Martinek - He didn't appear on the score sheet (except for his penalty), but even on the video feed I really noticed Martinek tonight. He made a lot of excellent defensive plays, he was a major factor on the PK, and was a big part of shutting down Ville Leino and Drew Stafford tonight.
- Penalties - It's pre-season, and a lot of this came down to nerves, timing problems, and in some cases players trying a little too hard, that was still a LOT of penalties.
- Injuries - In addition to the loss of MacKenzie, Ryan Russell also hurt his foot on a blocked shot. It doesn't seem to have been too severe, though, as he skated for 12:49 tonight.