COLUMBUS, Ohio - Pascal Leclaire is stopping every shot, the Columbus Blue Jackets are winning, and for one of the first times in franchise history there's an air of abiding optimism.
No wonder the Blue Jackets are having fun.
"Everyone's having a good time," Leclaire said after stopping 21 shots for his NHL-best fifth shutout of the season in a 3-0 win over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday night. "It's a lot more fun. As long as we keep doing the same thing, it's easy to have a good time."
Manny Malhotra, Rick Nash and Jason Chimera had goals for the Blue Jackets (8-3-2), who are off to the best start in their seven seasons. Malhotra added an assist and Adam Foote had two.
The Blue Jackets, the only team to never appear in the playoffs, are 5-0-1 in their last six games. In their first full season under head coach Ken Hitchcock, they're tied for second place in the Western Conference.
"It's everybody just buying into the system and believing in Hitch's game plan," said Nash, who picked up his 10th goal on a catch-and-shoot late in the second period. "The guys are getting more mature and understanding that you need to trust the system. I don't know what the issue was last year. It seems like we're buying in, and it works."
Leclaire came into the year with one shutout in 59 career games, but has five in nine starts this season - tying a Columbus season record.
"The numbers kind of speak for themselves," Malhotra said. "He's played incredible for us."
The Blues have been shut out twice this year, both times by Leclaire.
"I don't really have to say much about that, do I?" Blues coach Andy Murray said. "There's been enough written. He's shut us out twice in a row, so he's obviously played pretty well against us."
After the Blues had successfully killed 1:34 of the opening period with the Blue Jackets on a two-man advantage, Columbus controlled the puck on a delayed penalty. The Blue Jackets pulled Leclaire for an extra attacker while swarming the net with waves of skaters for 52 seconds.
The patience and puck control paid off when Foote saucered a pass to Malhotra, swooping in from the high slot. Malhotra faked goaltender Hannu Toivonen, whom he beat high with a chip shot over the goalie's right shoulder.
With the Blues pressing the issue in the second period, Leclaire stopped Keith Tkachuk on a mini-breakaway, then made two sterling saves when St. Louis had a two-man advantage, blocking a hard shot by Martin Rucinsky and gloving a laser of a one-timer by Paul Kariya from the left circle.
"We didn't give their top players a chance to work it on the power play and that was a big key," Leclaire said.
Nikolai Zherdev carried the puck to the blue-line and then flipped a high, backhanded pass that Nash caught at the right circle. He dropped the puck, settled it, waited while two Blues slid out of his way and then rocketed a low shot inside the far post.
Chimera's goal came on a shot from the left point in the third period.
Asked if the Blue Jackets' start felt like it was real, Nash grinned and said, "It's as real as it's going to get."
Notes: Columbus C Sergei Fedorov extended his points streak to four games with an assist on Malhotra's goal. ... Tkachuck and Kariya had four-game points streaks end. ... It was the first time St. Louis lost consecutive games this season. ... Foote had two assists for the first time since March 24, 2006, against Calgary.