DENVER - Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco often talks about his team's resilience, a quality that was very much on display Saturday night.
Three nights after an embarrassing 6-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, the Avalanche rebounded with a 5-2 win over the reeling Columbus Blue Jackets at the PepsiCenter.
The Avs, who completed a five-game homestand with a 3-2-0 record, regained sole possession of first place in the Northwest Division, moving two points ahead of the Calgary Flames, who lost to Nashville at home earlier in the day. The Flames have played two fewer games.
"It's a good way to respond," Sacco said of his team's rebound after being smoked by the Caps. "All year long when we've had a game where we felt we didn't play well as a team, we've responded very well. We've come out and we've been assertive in our game and we've played with more desperation. Our guys have done a very good job as far as responding this year."
The Avalanche built a 4-0 lead in the opening 8:02, then got a goal from Milan Hejduk with 3:28 to play in the third period to clinch matters and send the Blue Jackets to their sixth consecutive loss and 14th defeat in 16 games.
"It looked like we would just roll them over and it would be an easy game," said Hejduk, who contributed two first-period assists in his first game back after missing two games with a sore knee. "But that was not the case. They came back pretty hard, but we kind of expected it. It was a tough battle.
"If you told us at the beginning of the season that we would be in first place, I would have thought that you were kidding."
Wojtek Wolski led the first-period charge with two goals and an assist. He fed Chris Stewart for a breakaway goal 21 seconds into the game and scored twice in a 53-second span before John-Michael Liles added a power-play goal at 8:02.
"That's the way we want to set the tone," Sacco said. "We came out with lots of energy and with lots of jump in our game."
Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock replaced goalie Steve Mason with Mathieu Garon 4:15 into the game after Wolski's second goal gave the Avs three tallies on seven shots.
Hitchcock absolved his second-year goaltender of any blame.
"I don't know how you can blame Mason for the goals," Hitchcock said. "First shift of the game we give up a breakaway after a glorious scoring opportunity. The second shift we get scored on after hitting the goal post and they come down on an odd-man rush and score.
"It is our tentativeness. It is a game of initiation and you cannot play on your heels. It is really going to get boiled down to a competitive issue."
To their credit, the Blue Jackets didn't quit. They turned what had the makings of a runaway into a competitive game with two power-play goals in the second period that trimmed the deficit to 4-2.
R.J. Umberger got Columbus on the board at 3:29 when he deflected Jakub Voracek's shot past goalie Craig Anderson, and Jason Chimera tipped Fredrik Modin's point shot into the net at 13:24.
It wasn't enough.
"We have done it all year," Hitchcock said. "We play well in the second and third period, but it is not enough. When you are reacting to the other team, you're down and on your heels. The other team is initiating; it is not a good sign.
"It is an area of deep concern for everybody, including the players. It comes from the willingness to engage earlier in the hockey game, and we are not willing to do that right now."
The Avalanche came out flying in their best first period since Nov. 6, 2006, when they scored four times in Edmonton.
"We came out and we did the right things," said Wolski, who has 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists) in the past 17 games. "We played with a lot of energy and we were rewarded with some power plays and we capitalized."
Wolski's first goal came at 3:22 after Mason made a save on Liles' point shot. The rebound bounced to Wolski in the right circle and he put it into a half-open net.
The Avalanche made it 3-0 on Wolski's power-play goal at 4:15 when he ripped a shot from the high slot past Mason for his 15th goal, one more than he scored in 78 games last season.
Liles cashed in the rebound of Hejduk's shot during a 5-on-3 power play with Kris Russell and Raffi Torres sitting in the penalty box.
"We knew they were going to come back," Wolski said. "They've had a tough go lately. Any time you're going against a team like that -- they've been losing games -- they're going to respond. You know their coach is going to get on them in-between periods. We knew they were going to come hard, that they weren't going to just give up."
Anderson, who finished with 28 saves, had to make a number of big stops to maintain the two-goal lead before Hejduk iced the win.
"For me, it was just a matter of preserving the win and making sure that it didn't get to a one-goal lead," Anderson said. "For us, it was holding the lead and playing good, solid defense in the third that kind of sealed the deal."
|Chris Stewart (8) ASST: Wojtek Wolski (21), Craig Anderson (3)|
1 - 0 COL
|Wojtek Wolski (14) ASST: John-Michael Liles (10), Matt Duchene (12)|
2 - 0 COL
|PPG - Wojtek Wolski (15) ASST: Milan Hejduk (9), Paul Stastny (27)|
3 - 0 COL
|PPG - John-Michael Liles (3) ASST: Paul Stastny (28), Milan Hejduk (10)|
4 - 0 COL
|PPG - R.J. Umberger (12) ASST: Jakub Voracek (13), Kristian Huselius (14)|
4 - 1 COL
|PPG - Jason Chimera (8) ASST: Freddy Modin (1), Antoine Vermette (17)|
4 - 2 COL
|Milan Hejduk (13) ASST: Matt Duchene (13), Brett Clark (10)|
5 - 2 COL
|Mike Commodore Holding against TJ Galiardi|
|Kris Russell Cross checking against Matt Hendricks|
|Raffi Torres Roughing against Chris Durno|
|Brett Clark Interference against Jakub Voracek|
|Matt Duchene Hooking against Rick Nash|
|Freddy Modin Interference on goalkeeper against Craig Anderson|
|Brandon Yip Hooking against Derick Brassard|
|Samuel Pahlsson Holding against Matt Duchene|