The Coyotes really needed this game, and the Blue Jackets knew it. At the end of the night, Columbus’ 3-2 win could go a long way toward derailing the playoff hopes of a desperate opponent.
But on the other side of that coin, this was an important game for the Blue Jackets, too. Despite being out of the playoff picture and having but pride to play for, they set a team goal to focus the group for the balance of the season. While the players will not go public with the bar they’ve set, it has clearly motivated them during the three-game winning streak.
An authoritative 3-2 win over the Coyotes at Nationwide Arena proved to be yet another example of Columbus relishing its spoiler role – and though not the most enviable position to be in, they have done well in unnerving opposing teams and making any game against the Blue Jackets an unpleasant experience.
Blue Jackets interim head coach Todd Richards doesn’t lay claim to his club’s turnaround, but simply points to the morale boost that comes with winning hockey.
“I talked to you guys earlier about the room leading up to the trade deadline,” Richards said. “Looking back – because my response to you was ‘I think everything’s good’ – seeing the way we’re playing now post-trade deadline, I think that had a big effect on us.
“Guys seem more relaxed, and seem to be enjoying the game and enjoy being around each other. The morale is good, and whenever you have that it’s easier to play the game. I think it affects all facets of our game, so I think we are better.”
JACK IN THE BACK OF THE NET
Since coming over in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings, defenseman Jack Johnson has stepped right into a prominent role on the Blue Jackets blue line. Playing his fifth game in a Columbus sweater this evening, Johnson’s performance may have been his strongest to date.
He led all players with 27:32 played, finished with a plus-2 rating and had a multi-point game before the first period came to a close. He made a deft outlet feed to set up R.J. Umberger’s icebreaker and ripped a wrister by Mike Smith at 3:54 to give Columbus a 2-0 lead.
“Vinny (Prospal) made a great pass to me,” Johnson said of his goal. “It’s nice playing with forwards that see a defenseman jumping in like that, and I think all of our forwards are looking for that. I think I had all day to walk in there, but our forwards made the play.”
Chasing one of the NHL’s top goaltenders in the early stages of the game didn’t hurt the Blue Jackets’ confidence level, either – especially a player of Smith’s caliber, who went 11-0-0 in the month of February.
“It’s nice in any game, it means you’re doing something right and goals are going in,” Johnson said. “I think it was a big confidence booster for everyone when we saw (Smith) going out. It’s great to be able to chase a guy out that early.”
'JOHNNY' ON THE SPOT
Nikita Nikitin blocked a shot off his foot early in the second period, but did not return to the game. Rather than play five defensemen
the rest of the game, Richards elected to shift Aaron Johnson (a regular defenseman) back to the blue line from his forward position.
Captain Rick Nash took fourth-line shifts in his stead and allowed assistant coach Brad Berry to better manage the minutes for the blue liners.
“It was big having Aaron on the bench at the time,” Richards said. “When you’re putting guys in the lineup, you’re obviously not expecting situations like this. It was nice having him there to help chew up some of those minutes on the back end.
“(Niktin’s) X-rays were negative, so that’s a good thing. But it’s going to be sore tomorrow. We’ll have to assess it more tomorrow.”
PK SEALS THE DEAL
The Blue Jackets could have put themselves in danger of losing a lead in the third period, but their penalty killers stepped up and gave them the biggest boost of the night. Fedor Tyutin (tripping) and Aaron Johnson (hooking) took minor penalties less than two minutes apart, giving the Coyotes a 5-on-3 for 20 seconds.
Derek MacKenzie, Ryan Russell and Colton Gillies were large factors in helping Columbus escape without damage. Steve Mason – who made 38 saves and several of high quality - turned in some of his best work as Phoenix pressed for the tying goal.
“Your goalie has to be your best penalty killer and he sure was tonight,” Jack Johnson said. “We were trying to keep the shots to the outside, and he did the rest. He made some spectacular saves to win us the game on those special teams, and he came up big.”