DENVER – For the Colorado Avalanche, it was a huge wasted opportunity. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, it was a rare bright spot in what otherwise has been a dismal season.
The Blue Jackets, who have the worst record in the NHL, handed the Avalanche what could prove to be a most damaging 2-0 loss Thursday night at the Pepsi Center, preventing them from moving into the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference.
With 17 games to play, the Avs remain tied with Los Angeles with 70 points apiece. The Dallas Stars, who have 71 points, and Kings have each played one fewer game.
The Avalanche had outscored opponents 17-5 during a four-game winning streak and won nine of the previous 10 meetings with the Blue Jackets, including a 5-0 victory in Columbus last Friday. The Blue Jackets had been outscored 14-5 during a three-game losing streak and won just seven of their previous 31 road games.
"We came into the game and we were playing pretty well," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "We had put a nice string of wins together. Tonight, for whatever reason, we just didn't … our execution wasn't sharp, especially at the start of the game. That's the type of team, when they get a lead on you like they did, they make it hard to play against them. You have to give them credit. I give them credit over there. They played hard. They outworked us. There's no question that they came in and they were ready to work tonight."
Defensemen Nikita Nikitin and Fedor Tyutin scored goals to back the 33-save performance of Columbus goalie Steve Mason, who posted his first shutout of the season and 19th of his NHL career.
"It is nice to get the payback," said Mason, who yielded five goals on 25 shots to the Avalanche a week ago. "Obviously, they are in a tough playoff push right now, and if we can play spoiler and have a big game like this, then we'll take pride in that."
Avalanche rookie Stefan Elliott came close to spoiling Mason's shutout bid when he cranked a shot from the right circle that struck the post with 2:34 remaining. Colorado also failed to convert a 6-on-4 power play that began with 1:38 to go.
"But we can't dwell on this game," Sacco said. "We've been playing really well; we've been playing good hockey here and we're going to have to put this one behind us very quickly and get ready for Saturday (against Pittsburgh). We have a very strong opponent coming in. Sure, it would have been nice to grab the two points here tonight, there's no question. There's no excuses, but we have to move forward pretty quick here."
The Jackets frustrated the Avs in the first two periods, clogging up the neutral zone, knocking pucks off their sticks and hemming them in their own end.
"We talked before the game about following pucks to the net and we didn't do that, especially in the first period," Sacco said. "I thought we were trying to make too many cute plays. When you do that, you slow the game down and your team looks slower, and we're not a slow team. We're a fast team. We tried to force some plays that just were not there. They did a nice job of bottling up the neutral zone. It's a lesson learned, but we have to be ready."
The Jackets scored what proved to be the only goal they would need when Nikitin fired a shot from the right point past goalie Semyon Varlamov at 12:53 of the first period, 31 seconds into a power play after Avalanche rookie Gabriel Landeskog went off for holding Rick Nash.
Tyutin made it 2-0 with a shot from high in the left circle that eluded Varlamov low to the short side at 15:11 of the second period for his fifth goal of the season and first point in eight games.
Thirty seconds later, a frustrated Landeskog fought with Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, the first bout of his fledging NHL career.
"I had a few in juniors and I was waiting for the first one here, I guess," Landeskog said. "It was just one of those things where it was about to happen and it was just a matter of time. Johnson is a good player and it is fun to fight him, I guess."
But Landeskog, who had amassed five goals and as many assists in a six-game point-scoring streak, didn't find anything amusing about the game.
"It's frustrating, for sure," he said. "We definitely weren't ready to play. I don't know what the reason was, but we weren't sharp enough. We were chasing the game after the first (period)."
In an attempt to get his offense going, Sacco replaced Hejduk with Peter Mueller on a line with Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny in the second period, moving Hejduk to a unit with Cody McLeod and Jay McClement.
"We didn't move as good as we usually do, or at least as of late," said Hejduk, who didn't have a shot on goal and has one goal in his past 14 games. "Just a bad game right from the first period. These were two really important points for us and I feel that we wasted them tonight."