Horton's impact was immediate. The Blue Jackets' prize free agent scored his 199th career goal in the second period and R.J. Umberger added a power-play goal midway through the third to give Columbus a 2-0 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday at Jobing.com Arena.
Horton, who signed a seven-year, $37.1 million contract last summer but missed the first 40 games following shoulder surgery, was parked just outside the crease when he gathered in a James Wisniewski shot and stuffed it past Phoenix goalie Mike Smith at 15:51 for a power-play goal.
"We've been waiting anxiously to see him play and be a part of the team," Umberger said of Horton. "He's such a positive influence in our locker room. He's has fun and he truly loves hockey.
"He didn't even look rusty. You just knew he was going to score tonight. He's done a lot of work to get back and it's good to see him rewarded."
Horton's goal was all Blue Jackets goalie Curtis McElhinney needed. Though starter Sergei Bobrovsky is back from a groin injury and dressed for the first time in a month, McElhinney got the call and made 34 saves for his fourth career shutout and second of the season. Phoenix pounded the Columbus net with 21 shots in the third period - tying a season high for shots in a period - but came up empty.
"I'm not sure when [Bobrovsky's] next game is going to be," McElhinney said. "If that's my last one, then I wanted to make a good impression. It's good to have him back, and I enjoy working with him. We got Nathan back tonight and that's a lift and we'll get another one with Sergei coming back."
Umberger made it 2-0 at 10:03 of the third. Smith stopped shots by Nick Foligno and Fedor Tyutin, but the second rebound rolled right to Umberger for the put-away with David Rundblad in the Phoenix penalty box for delay of game.
Special teams, normally a trouble spot for Columbus, played a huge positive role for the Blue Jackets. Columbus had scored two power-play goals in its past 11 games and had allowed six in the past two games. But Columbus went 2-for-4 with the extra man against the Coyotes and killed off all five Phoenix power plays.
"I was just standing in front of the net. I got the rebound and it was a pretty good feeling, said Horton, who has five goals and 11 points in nine career games against the Coyotes. "I wanted to come back and get a win and just keep winning."
Horton gave himself mixed reviews in his first game with Columbus.
"Sometimes I felt good, sometimes I felt bad. It's been a long time but I was playing and we won and that's all that matters," he said. "You can tell we're a good team when we work hard.
"It was nice to get hit a couple of times and hit someone, it made me feel more comfortable on the ice. We have a great structure, [Todd Richards] is a great coach and if we do what he asks I think we'll be in good shape."
Richards was happy with Horton's first effort.
"He did a lot of good things and I am excited because I am expecting more now," he said. "There is still more systematically that we have to do, but I thought it was a great start for him."
Smith made 29 saves for Phoenix, which was shut out for the first time this season but has failed to score in its past two games against Columbus. The Blue Jackets won 1-0 in a shootout after 65 minutes of scoreless hockey last March 16 in Columbus, with Bobrovsky getting that shutout.
"We didn't play well enough, we didn't execute well enough, we didn't compete hard enough," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "I didn't like a lot about our team tonight."
The Coyotes not only lost the game, but a key member of their team. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson suffered an upper-body injury when he was hit from behind and into the glass by Derek MacKenzie of Columbus almost nine minutes into the first period.
No penalty was called on the play, but MacKenzie was immediately engaged by Phoenix's Keith Yandle for a fight. Ekman-Larsson was quickly taken to the dressing room and did not return.
"He looked all right," Tippett said. "We'll call him day-to-day with an upper body injury."
When asked if he was concerned with Ekman-Larsson status, Tippett said. "Not that I know of yet. We'll see. I haven't really talked with them yet."
Expected to represent Sweden in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Ekman-Larsson has four goals and 22 points and had played in all 40 games for the Coyotes. His usual first-unit defense partner, Zbynek Michalek, is already on injured reserve with a hip injury.
"Losing anybody is tough but losing a guy like Oliver is really tough," said Yandle, who played a season-high 30 minutes. "It hurts even strength, power play, penalty kill … You hope he's OK."
|Corey Tropp Tripping against Oliver Ekman-Larsson|
|Keith Yandle Fighting (maj) against Derek MacKenzie|
|Derek MacKenzie Fighting (maj) against Keith Yandle|
|Tim Kennedy Too many men/ice - bench|
|Derek Morris Cross checking against Brandon Dubinsky|
|Ryan Murray Hooking against Antoine Vermette|
|Ryan Johansen Hi-sticking against Martin Hanzal|
|Mike Smith Delaying Game-Ill. play goalie|
|R.J. Umberger Tripping against Radim Vrbata|
|David Rundblad Delaying Game-Puck over glass|
|Fedor Tyutin Hooking against Mikkel Boedker|