Now in his fourth season as a Blue Jacket, R.J. Umberger
has become one of the emotional leaders for the team both on and off the ice. It should come as no surprise that few players take losses harder than he does, and in a trying season, he has stepped up his game down the stretch.
The 2011-12 regular season did not start well for Columbus, and like all of his teammates, Umberger was no exception. On several occasions, he could be seen looking to the rafters as quality scoring chances went by the wayside and the Blue Jackets slipped to 0-7-1 in their first eight games. He had to wait until game No. 8 – fittingly the night of the team’s first win of the season against the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 25 – to tally his first goal of the season, and it came in the opening minute of the game.
As the season comes to a close this weekend, the Blue Jackets coaching staff and players are seeing the Umberger they are used to. Though he will tell you it’s not as special because the Blue Jackets are not in the Stanley Cup playoff picture, his scoring pace of late is still one of the best of his career. And in true Umberger fashion, he’s scoring goals at pivotal junctures in games.
Umberger recorded back-to-back two-goal performances against the Red Wings and Florida Panthers last week, and scored a beautiful breakaway goal in Columbus’ 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night.
“I think he’s played hard, and he’s put it on the line,” interim head coach Todd Richards said. “One of things we try to do – every coach does it, and I’m no different – is asking guys to go to the front of the net. Some guys do it willingly, and for some guys it’s a little more difficult to get past that.
“Because chances are you’re going to get hit, you’re going to get cross-checked, punched or hit by the puck. But that’s how goals are scored. You look at RJ and the success he’s had (lately) with his goal-scoring, he’s been going to the net.”
What has been most encouraging to the coaches, Richards said, is the trickle-down effect Umberger’s net-drive mentality has had with the rest of the team. He sees more players going hard to the “tough areas” looking to score goals, rather than take shots and low-percentage opportunities from the perimeter.
The result has been more offense, but more importantly, an attitude Richards hopes to see develop within the club going forward.
“You’ve got Derek Dorsett
who’s doing the same thing now,” Richards said. “To me, that’s one of those things that can become contagious. We talked about blocking shots earlier on the year, and I think Ryan Russell came up and started that.
“I think the whole team caught on, and we do a very good job of that now. When R.J. goes to the net, Derek goes to the net and I think it forces other guys to go to the net.”
Playing primarily with center Derick Brassard
since the All-Star break has benefitted both players, Umberger said. Each has been in Columbus for about the same amount of time, and they have spent a lot of time together both at even strength and on the power play.
With 19 goals on the year, Umberger is on the verge of his fourth consecutive 20-goal season, all of which have come as a member of the Blue Jackets.
“The season feels like it’s gone too fast, but we’re finishing with a lot of fun here,” Umberger said. “The last few games have been great efforts.”
Umberger has eight goals and 10 points in his last seven games, including a hat trick on Mar. 23 vs. the Carolina Hurricanes. Brassard played a hand in all three goals, highlighted by a cross-ice one-timer that Umberger ripped into the top corner in the second period.
“I’ve had a lot of time with Brass in his four years here,” Umberger said. “Through all those seasons, we’ve had big spots where we’ve played together. His game is starting to come to a whole new level with his confidence, handling the puck, and he sees the ice so well.
“He’s an excellent passer and we like playing together. I felt like this (scoring streak) has been coming. Even when we went through that stretch where we weren’t scoring for about six games, I wasn’t worried and knew it was coming.”