GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Columbus Blue Jackets are learning to enjoy their role as a spoiler in the Western Conference playoff race.
The Phoenix Coyotes? Not so much.
No longer the subject of a league-wide trade watch, Columbus captain Rick Nash dominated the Coyotes again with two goals early and huge steal and diving set up of linemate Derek Brassard to ice the game in the third period as the Blue Jackets backed up Thursday's shutout win at Colorado with a 5-2 win at Jobing.com Arena on Saturday night.
Almost 30 points behind the playoff teams and after trading several top players at the deadline, the Blue Jackets are playing relaxed and more open down the stretch against teams that need every last point for playoff position. They built a 2-0 lead on the road for the second time in as many games but had to dial up a few more late after the Coyotes rallied.
"Everyone knows we’re out of the playoffs, but we've set goals for ourselves for these last 18 games," said Brassard, who has 6 points in his last six games. "It shows a lot that guys are showing character and still trying to beat teams. We're trying to get ready for next season and try to finish the season strong."
Nash has 6 goals in his last seven games and continues to wear out the Coyotes. He now has 17 goals and 33 points in 32 career games against Phoenix. Steve Mason backed up his shutout in Colorado with 30 saves on Saturday.
"The guys built a lot of momentum in that Colorado win, it was a big one for us," said Nash, who now has 25 goals for the season. "I think Mace was the difference for us tonight. He's been playing some solid hockey."
The Coyotes, who were 11-0-1 in February, have now lost two straight to open the month of March and are 0-2 against the League’s worst team this season. The two teams meet again in Columbus on Tuesday, but the Coyotes first have to face the red-hot Penguins in Pittsburgh on Monday.
Ray Whitney and Lauri Korpikoski wiped out an early 2-0 deficit for Phoenix, with captain Shane Doan setting up both goals. But after collecting 23 of 24 points in February, the first four up for grabs in March have slipped away.
"They are obviously playing for their jobs and they want to win as badly as we do," Doan said. "We recognize we don't have two games to give away and we have to have to go back to what was making us successful."
Columbus defenseman Nikita Nikitin snapped a 2-2 tie with his second straight game-winning goal with 10:48 left in regulation. Brassard followed with his goal set up when Nash scooped up Keith Yandle's turnover behind the Phoenix net and, while heading to the ice, swatted a feed out in front.
Colton Gillies added an empty-net tally with 59.1 seconds left. The Blue Jackets had been outscored 80-43 in the third period this year before getting three unanswered Saturday.
"It was a great play," Brassard said of Nash's feed. "He was really good for us tonight."
The game pitted the League's worst power play from Phoenix (13.3 percent) against the worst penalty kill from Columbus (76 percent), and the Blue Jackets won the first battle between the units decisively. Nash corralled a flip-pass from Derek MacKenzie in the neutral zone, muscled Whitney for a partial breakaway and beat Phoenix goalie Mike Smith to the top-right corner for his second shorthanded goal of the season at 16:21.
It was the second shorthanded goal allowed by the Coyotes in the last two games and the 10th first-period goal they have allowed in the last six games – they have been outscored 10-2 over that span.
"We're just not good enough," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "We have the emotional engagement that we can bring in for short minutes … why can't we have that the whole time? That's puzzling for our group right now."
Nash struck again early in the second period, when Brassard sent him down the ice with a pass at the Columbus blueline. Nash flashed by one Coyote, fought off chops and swats from defenseman Chris Summers from behind and put a shot around Smith just before they all tumbled into the Phoenix net.
"He's a big-time player in a big-time game," Columbus interim coach Todd Richards said.
Down at least 2-0 for the fourth time in the last five games, the Coyotes turned it on again with goals 5:22 apart to get back even. Gillies took exception to a big neutral-zone hit by Summers and drew a roughing penalty before the two hooked up for a fight.
Phoenix defenseman David Rundblad – called up from Portland to help the laboring power play – put a shot on goal that Columbus goalie Steve Mason stopped, but didn't control. Doan grabbed the rebound and sent a no-look, behind-the-back to Whitney, who had half a net to deposit his 20th goal at 8:18 to wake up the sleeping Desert Dogs.
Doan manufactured the game-tying goal as well. He took the puck away from Nash in the Phoenix zone, chugged down the left side and put a hard shot on net. Mason made a pad save, but Korpikoski flew down the slot and banked the rebound off Mason for his 14th goal to put Phoenix back even.
The Coyotes came hard to start the third period but Mason made big saves on Doan, Boyd Gordon and Rundblad and the Columbus offense too over from there.
R.J. Umberger won a faceoff back to Nikitin, whose shot from the point hit a teammate and then Phoenix defenseman Michal Rozsival and was directed down and by Smith. It was Nikitin's fourth goal all year, but two have come in the last three games and both were game-winners.
Yandle then made a huge blunder behind his own net, losing a leave behind the net from Smith that Nash gobbled up and fed to Brassard.