I was going to write my “Third 10″ piece about the Jackets, as they played their 30th team game on Sunday. But, with work being what it is, and with Sunday’s Jackets game being a deflating let-down, I elected to table it. And, then Wednesday night’s game against the San Jose Sharks happened. And I think it might be one of those games that can re”make” a season that was clearly headed for “break” status.
14-14-3, 31 points
(4th division, t11th conference)
The Sharks came into Nationwide Arena last night riding an almost unprecendented streak. They stood at 25-3-2 to start the year, which set an NHL record for best record through 30 games; the Sharks are far and away the league’s best team. Coming in, they had won 13 out of 14 (and the 14th was another overtime loss), and hadn’t lost a regulation game since November 9th. And, technically speaking, their points streak continues, leaving Columbus with another overtime loss, but this team is a juggernaut. But that’s not what this game was about for Columbus.
I usually never write up individual games here, but this game is potentially one of those “season-making” wins that warrants discussion. The Jackets and Sharks played a tightly contested game through two periods, but the Sharks finally capitalized 3:41 into the third period to give themselves a 1-0 lead. The Jackets were down in the third period: something that usually signals death for them, especially against good teams.
Steve Mason was standing on his head unlike any time I’ve ever seen for a Columbus goaltender. All told, he stopped 47 of 48 shots, facing 35 total shots in the second and third periods to keep the Jackets alive. Some of the scoring chances the Sharks had down the stretch were just massive, but he just kept stopping shot after shot. “Mase is the reason we won this game, no doubt about that,” RJ Umberger said. “If he doesn’t play like he did tonight, there is no overtime. I think that’s fair to say.”
“He’s the real deal,” center Michael Peca said.
The refs were brutal; they slapped two ticky-tack penalties on Columbus in the third, and then called nothing when one of the Sharks bowled Mason over in the crease from the side/behind (usually an easy “goalie interference” call). But, continuing a recent trend, the Jackets stood tall on the penalty kill, holding the Sharks scoreless on the man advantage in five chances. In short, last night’s game was just one of those games the Jackets should NOT have won… they seemingly never win those games.
But, they hung tough, and they won a game that The Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline calls “their signature win”. Both Jackets goals were beauties. The game-tying goal was amazing from top to bottom, as The Captain made a great play to keep an errant clearing attempt by the Sharks in the zone. Cap made a nice crisp pass to Jakub Voracek who was set up in the center of the offensive zone, but covered. Voracek then basically made a no-look spinning pass to Peca, streaking in from the wing, and Peca absolutely BURIED the shot.
The game winner… wow. This Jackets team has just SUCKED on break-aways all season long, but thanks to the hustle of Kristian Huselius in his own defensive zone, they executed a break-away to perfection and caught Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov cheating. Huselius and Umberger broke out on a 2-on-1, and Huselius seemed almost to slow up a bit waiting for Umberger to get in position. A perfect saucer pass over the stick of the Sharks defender, and Umberger had an easy one-timer past Nabokov who was out of position anticipating a shot from Huselius. According to Portzline:
Huselius spent part of early yesterday studying Nabokov, noticing that he comes way out of the net to confront shooters. This was going through Huselius’ mind as he and Umberger came down the ice in overtime: “Once I got the puck over to R.J., I knew it was over,” Huselius said. “It was basically an empty net.”
The goal had to have been especially sweet for Umberger, who took the loss on Sunday really hard (he had said, “Words can’t describe it. It’s just such a terrible feeling to lose a game like that. It just keeps happening over and over again.”), and then came back to tally the game-winner.
Mason has taken the cracked-open door of Pascal LeClaire’s injury from earlier in the year and just forced it wide open for himself. He’s started eight of the last nine games for the Jackets, and 15 total games overall (now almost exactly half of their games). He has a 9-5-1 record, and is currently leading the entire NHL with a 1.91 goals-against average. He sits fourth in the league in save percentage at 92.9%, and is tied for fifth with a host of others with 2 shutouts. The Jackets placed former backup Fredrik Norrena on unconditional waivers this week because Mason made him utterly expendable. It’s also not a coincidence that the team’s penalty killing has improved since Mason has become the #1 goalie.
Now, in spite of this novella I’ve written, I probably shouldn’t get too geeked up about the win, even if it does carry the potential to be that proverbial “thing that brings it all together” for this team. Call me cynical, but I’ve been burned by this team too many times before. They have a roadie tonight in Dallas… and these are the games they have usually managed to lose in the past in spectacular fashion: second of a back-to-back, letdown against an inferior opponent (Dallas is currently 14th in the Western conference). “I don’t know if this takes us to another level,” Mason said post-game. “It’s one game. And two- or three-game winning streaks don’t cut it. We have to put a string of games together now.”
We shall see. One thing is for sure: Steve Mason has been putting together strings of games at age 20 that few goalies do in the NHL. And, the team seems to play better with him in goal.
And, most importantly, at least we won’t have to see Sean Avery’s mug tonight in Dallas.