Sometimes being a hockey fan means you root even when you know it's a lost cause. Sometimes it means you close your eyes for the start of the game and pray. Sometimes, you just hope, no matter how unlikely the vessel may be, and you hang on.
You do all this, and more...and sometimes, just sometimes, you get rewarded.
With Steve Mason starting against the Minnesota Wild, most fans expected the worst, particularly with Minnesota looking to avenge their 3-1 loss earlier in the week, but the return of James Wisniewski from the IR was worth a few embers of hope even in the most cynical heart.
Despite a few good early looks for the Jackets, and the advantage of the first power play in the game, it looked like another long night for fans in Columbus. Several ugly turnovers lead to opportunities that Mason was forced to stop, and finally Devin Setoguchi would open the scoring after a textbook cross-ice feed from Mikko Koivu. Going to one knee in the slot, the former Shark beat Mason glove side, the netminder's reaction seeming a bit sluggish.
Some nights, that might be the end of the story.
Tonight, it wasn't.
Despite being badly outshot by the Wild, the Jackets would see a spark in the final minute of the first period. Derick Brassard would thread an unreal pass through all five Wild defenders to Rick Nash, and the Captain would drop the puck back to R.J. Umberger as he came into the play. Throwing the puck at the net, the shot went between Niklas Backstom's legs and slowly trickled into the net, crossing the goal line before Backstrom or his defense could stop it.
Riding that lead into the second period, the Jackets seemed to bring themselves back to life, but the biggest play may have been a moment of gut-wrenching tension. With the Wild swarming, Steve Mason made an incredible desperation save on Kyle Brodziak, falling backwards into his crease after losing the goal stick and slamming the puck to the ice with his blocker before it could cross the line.
It was eerily similar to the last minute stop Mason made against Kyle Wellwood (then a member of the Canucks) on the way to the Jackets' lone playoff appearance in '08-09, and had a similar effect on the netminder's confidence, pushing him to one of his best performances Jackets' fans have seen from him recently - and the team needed it.
Several ugly turnovers by the defense in the second left Mason alone against Heatley, Brodziak, Koivu, and Powe at different times, but Mason was there to bail out his D at every turn. (How often have we said THAT?) and Mason's effort would not be wasted.
With the team on the power play as the second came to a close, James Wisniewski would find a loose puck and move it across to R.J. Umberger as he cut through the crease, and Umby was...well...UMBY. The top shelf goal marked his first multi-goal game since last March - the kind of effort the team hoped to see much more often after his extension this summer.
Despite taking the lead and the Wild losing a big contributor when Cal Clutterbuck left the game following a collision with Fedor Tyutin, the Jackets were strangely hesitant going into the third, and the Wild outworked almost everyone on the ice...except Mason.
Despite outshooting the Jackets 14-1 through the period, the score was still 2-1 when Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo called Backstrom to the bench, and it would be Wisniewski, back for the first game since his ankle injury, who sent a long chip shot up ice as a clearing attempt, only to see the puck hop, skip, and jump its' way into the net to ice the game, evening the season series at two apiece.
Final Score: Jackets 3 - Wild 1
- Steve Mason - Without question, the first star of this game. Mason stopped 34 shots, 15 of them in the third period. He didn't look terribly comfortable in the first period, particularly on the Setoguchi goal, but as the rust shook off, he was a far less tarnished player than many expected. Great work, and here's hoping we see more of this on Sunday.
- R.J. Umberger - He's Umby, and perhaps he's finally getting the monkey off his back. While his first goal was a bit of a fluke (though Grant Clitsome was there to bang the puck in if it hadn't quite crossed the line), the second one was perfect move, exactly what this team and the fans had come to expect.
- James Wisniewski - God knows I don't want to see Wiz getting hurt any more (and his brief trip to the dressing room early in the first period had my heart in my throat), but he always seems to have a big game every time he comes back to the lineup. His assist to set up Umberger for the GWG may have been more important, but the hilarious trick-shot empty netter was great to see.
- Jeff Carter - No, he didn't score, but Carter once again was a big impact player on this game both with and without the puck. Responsible for several key faceoffs and ringing several goalposts, his play since the California trip is far more like the Jeff Carter we traded for.
Bottom Of The Barrel:
Turnovers - Seriously, what the buttons? The Jackets turned the puck over like it was a lefse on the griddle.
- Prevent Defense - The team got incredibly lucky - in almost any game, that third period would have come back to bite them in the ass. I'm OK with shutting down offensively when you can force the puck out to the perimeter and prevent your opponents from making any solid plays on the net. That wasn't the case tonight - Minnesota had the opportunities, they simply got shut down by a hot goaltender. (...wow, talk about the shoe being on the other foot.)
- Freaky Numbers - The Jackets lost the first two meetings 4-2. They win the final two by a score of 3-1. That's just odd.
The win puts the Jackets a mere 11 points....out of 29th place. *cough*
The real test may be tomorrow night, when the Jackets get to meet the Ducks in an early evening matchup back at Nationwide Arena. One would expect Mason to get the back to back start - he certainly earned it.