We’re in uncharted waters. This is the best start ever for Columbus. I can’t find a better way to say it than that. After a three-games-in-four-days road trip through California in which Columbus went 3-0, it would have almost been OK (or at least understandable) if Columbus had come out Monday night—after just one day off including traveling 2,500 miles—a little flat. But, all credit to coach Scott Arniel and the guys as they were not only ready to play, but ready to dominate. “I think we had the same mentality as the road games,” said Captain Rick Nash. “We forget about our last game. We were just worrying about tonight against Nashville and that’s why I think we played so well.”
And Nash has been one of the main reasons, earning the NHL’s First Star of the Week last week. Nash carried the offense on the road trip, and was a big reason for the win last night. He’s earned points in nine straight games, and kept his goal-scoring streak going as well. Steve Mason did the rest, stopping all 27 shots that he faced to earn his first shutout of the season and the second straight shutout for the Jackets.
I will admit that for the first couple of minutes, the Jackets looked a little flat-footed. Again, that was to be expected; Nashville had been in Columbus longer than the Jackets had been, actually. But, as the game kept going they settled in. Steve Mason was sharp early, and looked like the Mason of his Calder Trophy winning year. That gave Columbus all the margin they would need, and they would capitalize early to tilt the ice in their direction.
Nashville cycled a puck deep, and RJ Umberger poke checked it away to Antoine Vermette. Umberger, Vermette, and Nikita Filatov set up a rush up the left side of the ice, and no one on the Predators took notice of Mike Commodore joining the rush up the right side. Umbgerger took the puck over the blue line, and fed a sweet cross-ice pass to Commodore, who was wide open. The pass landed right on Commie’s stick, and he then wristed a shot that beat Preds’ netminder Pekka Rinne 5-hole. “I had to look over my shoulder,” Commodore said. “I wasn’t sure it went in.” It did, and at 8:37 in the first, it was 1-0 Jackets, and they would never really look back.
This game turned largely into a defensive battle, but the Jackets got the better of their counterparts in this one. The forecheck was stifling; Nashville struggled at times to get the puck out of their own zone, and the Jackets repeatedly forced turnovers and scoring chances using their forecheck. They were able to roll all four lines for the majority of the game, and their new focus on conditioning was on display as what had to be tired legs never stopped skating.
Columbus gave themselves some breathing room in the second, and it was again The Captain providing the margin. A Jackets’ clear to Nash on the right half-wall ended up on the stick of Derick Brassard as he headed out of his own zone. He snapped a quick pass to a streaking Jakub Voracek up on the left wing. Much like the first goal, the Preds weren’t able to mark up the trailer on the far side of the ice, only this time that trailer was Rick Nash. Voracek got the puck deep, and fed a beautiful pass across the crease area to Nash on the right wing, who one-timed a sniper-shot past Rinne to give the Jackets a more comfortable 2-0 lead.
For Nash, it was his 13th goal of the year in 18 games, and his 17th point. It also marked the ninth straight game in which Nash has earned a point, and the sixth straight game in which he’s scored a goal (nine goals in those six games). Nash is white-hot right now, and the team is on his shoulders while he is. Nash’s goal was also yet another great combination of the new top line of Brassard, Voracek, and Nash: since being put together 13 games ago, the line has combined for 19 goals, 21 assists, and a +13 rating. “Things are just going in right now,” Nash said. “It’s fun playing with Jake and Brass. They’re setting me up. I’m setting them up. And the shots are going in right now.”
The Preds would try to crank it up in the third to get back into the game, and they managed 12 shots in the period. It was a somewhat curious move of coach Scott Arniel to start Steve Mason when the conventional wisdom generally says a goalie coming off of a shutout—in this case Mathieu Garon in San Jose—generally gets the next start. “It was a big divisional game and I just thought, going against Nashville, Mase was the guy I wanted in there,” Arniel said. “I thought coming home, it was a good time for him to make a statement to himself. He has had some tough luck in the building, and it was a chance, early in the season, for him to step up. And he did a tremendous job.”
Indeed he did. Mason was sharp all night, and didn’t give up the big rebound which is usually when he struggles. In the third he made a tremendous stretching save on JP Dumont in the third to preserve the 2-0 lead. Mason was down, and Dumont grabbed the puck in the slot and tried to skate it around Mason. But, Mase was able to do basically a full-split and get his left pad on the puck to preserve the shut-out. In all, Mason stopped 27 shots. It was the first time in franchise history that the team had posted back-to-back shutouts with two different goalies.
It sure seems like a lot of “firsts” have been happening for this team of late. The guys seem to be all-in, and they believe they can win against anyone. And, that will be put to the test the rest of this week. They face a tough “trap” game on Wednesday against the New York Islanders, who have lost 13 straight games. 13! It’s a trap! And then, it gets interesting: back to back games against Detroit, at home on Friday and in Detroit on Sunday. Stuff just got REAL.
Let’s hope this team is REAL, too. Right now, they certainly look the part.
Photo Credits: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images