Wow. Wow wow wow. What a game! In the preview, I wrote: “The only solace the Jackets can take is that Boston is only 4-7-3 since February 5th. … Columbus is also 10-3-1 on the year against the Eastern Conference, and Steve Mason has five of his eight shutouts against Eastern foes as well.” How prophetic that would all turn out to be. The Jackets brought their top effort once again, managed to score a timely goal, and Steve Mason was again flat-out awesome when he had to be.
The Jackets really put it all together. In the preview, we also talked about how they would have to work at least as hard as they did against Detroit to probably get half of the scoring chances. Well, shots were not hard to come by, as Columbus managed 34 shots on goal.
We talked about how the Jackets have been solid on the PK, and about how they needed to limit the amount of penalties they took on top of that. The Jackets only had three penalties to kill, and they killed them all. And frankly, the first kill of the night late in the first period was quite possibly (as a friend would text me afterward) THE BEST PENALTY KILL IN JACKETS HISTORY. The league’s #4 PP unit didn’t even get a shot off, and there were times where the Jackets cycled the puck—while shorthanded—around their own zone and up and down both ends of the ice. Rick Nash capped that PK off with a short-handed break-away, only to be stopped by Boston goalie Tim Thomas as he moved the puck to his backhand at the last moment.
Most importantly, we talked about the Jackets’ and Bruins both having a solid commitment to defense as well as solid goaltending, and quite honestly neither team disappointed. 69 shots between the two, and it wasn’t decided until Rick Nash’s empty-netter with just over 26 second to go. Mason and Thomas traded masterful saves, and each team was super physical and played solid defense, blocking 34 additional shots (18 by Columbus and 16 by Boston)! In short, it was a true defensive slugfest.
And, it took perhaps a freak change of goalie masks for Thomas for the Jackets to finally break through.
Early in the third, Thomas retreated behind his net to play the puck, and instead of circling back around into the crease, he turned and went back the direction he had come. Jiri Novotny plowed into Thomas (incidentally, no penalty was called) and Thomas’s mask went flying. It turned out he had broken his chin strap. Play was called, but unable to get the mask fixed, Thomas returned to game action wearing backup Manny Fernandez’s mask. The FSOhio commentators wondered if that would affect him, and we may never know if it did…
But with 13:10 left at the very tail end of a Jackets Power Play, Antoine Vermette rushed up ice and slipped a pass to Raffi Torres on the right wing. Torres whipped a quick shot which seemed to surprise and handcuff Thomas all at once, making its way to the back of the net. It was an unlikely goal, as well as Thomas had been playing for most of the game. And, thankfully for Columbus, it was all Steve Mason would need.
Mason made 35 saves, earning his league-leading ninth shutout of the season. In doing so, he not only tied the franchise record for shut-outs in a single season, but he notched his 27th win on the season—a mark that ties him with Marc Denis for the franchise record in that category as well. Mason had solid back-to-back games for the first time in quite a while, and if this is a sign of how he can play over the last 15 games, the Jackets have to be encouraged. As the guys at The Dispatch also point out: “Mason’s stats against the Eastern Conference are sick: 10-1-0, six shutouts, .968 save percentage, 0.93 goals-against average.”
My friend Jeff always says that the Jackets without fail play either up or down to the level of their competition. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to play the tough teams game in and game out, but it’s hard to argue that this Jackets club has played two of its best games back to back over the past three days, coincidentally against the conference leading teams from BOTH conferences. They had their swagger back in both games. They weren’t passive, back on their heals. I commented to my wife late in the third period as they were clinging to a 1-0 lead that I hoped against all hope that they wouldn’t morph back into the short-shift-skating puck-icers they tend to be when nursing a late one-goal lead. They certainly avoided that tonight. They maintained their forecheck (though it was more of a neutral zone forecheck at that point) and never really let Boston get comfortable in their zone—even after the Bruins pulled Thomas for the extra skater with almost 90 seconds left.
Oh, and the Jackets ALSO had their stud goalie back, too, which never hurts.
If you read The 5-Hole on Tuesday, you no doubt saw my insane mapping of the remaining schedule. This game against Boston was certainly not one I was counting on for *any* points, and so to come out with two points was a huge boost. To do it in such smothering fashion makes it all the more sweet. And, as we’ll see below, they got a fair amount of help along the way, too.
Other Important Scores
Thanks to the great people at Sports Club Stats, we have started looking at Jackets games in the context of the rest of the conference and who the Jackets are fighting with for those playoff spots. Picking up from the “Who To Root For” section of the preview, here are the “Other Important Scores” from around the Western Conference last night:
Boston at Columbus – CLS wins, 2-0
Edmonton at Montreal – MON wins, 4-3 (OT)
Washington at Nashville – WAS wins, 2-1 (OT)
San Jose at Minnesota – SJ wins, 5-4 (OT)
Dallas at St. Louis – STL wins, 5-2
The Jackets’ foes did manage to get points despite a lot of losses (thanks to the OT rule), but it’s still better than the two-point wins. UPDATE: SCS has the Jackets as the biggest mover-upper yet again, with their win combined with the other four teams losing in some fashion bumping the Jackets’ percentage up 12.1% to a balmy 76.8%. Dallas was the biggest loser, as everyone else got at least *some* points last night, and the Stars did not.