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Mason, Jackets recover to chill Penguins

by Brian Hunter
Steve Mason lost his bid for an NHL-leading 10th shutout and he lost a three-goal lead in the third period -- but he won the game, and set a Columbus Blue Jackets record in the process.

After the Pittsburgh Penguins scored three times in a span of 3:25 to rally and tie the score, Mason returned to his flawless form. He kept the puck out of the net during overtime and the ensuing shutout, and Kristian Huselius scored for the Jackets in the third round for a 4-3 win Thursday night at Nationwide Arena that ended the Penguins' seven-game winning streak.

"As long as we score first, I feel pretty confident," Mason said. "It doesn't matter to me what the score is or what happens in the game. My demeanor never changes out there. I was calm throughout."

Mason finished with 38 saves, not including the three attempts he stopped in the penalty-shot tiebreaker. He improved to 28-16-3 in his rookie season and broke the team record for wins in a season by a goalie, formerly held by Marc Denis, who won 27 times in 2002-03.

The Jackets also tied their franchise record for victories in a season with 35, matching their total in 2005-06. Not only should they shatter the mark with 14 games still remaining, they're battling for fifth place in the Western Conference. Thursday's win pulled them within one point of Vancouver in the standings.

Marc-Andre Fleury denied both Jason Williams and Rick Nash to begin the shootout before Huselius, who also opened the scoring in the first period, skated in and snapped a shot past him to give Columbus the edge. Mason had already turned aside Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby, and he followed with a save on Evgeni Malkin to secure the second point.

"It was huge," Huselius said. "Mason played an unbelievable third period. He kept us in the game and I thought we deserved the win because we played well for two periods, but we were standing still in the third."

Williams and Antoine Vermette each had a goal and an assist for the Jackets, with Vermette scoring his first goal since being traded from Ottawa to make it 3-0 early in the third. Mason stopped the first 30 shots he faced, but the Penguins came back in rapid-fire fashion, as Sergei Gonchar, Pascal Dupuis and Maxime Talbot took advantage of a team that was going "backwards with the puck," according to coach Ken Hitchcock.

"We were a little tight and they started coming at us pretty good in waves," Hitchcock said. "It was a win that felt like a relief because we played so well for a period of time."

Each team tested the opposing goalie with 10 shots in the first period, but Huselius had the only goal. His 19th of the season came during a 4-on-4 situation when he skated from above the left circle to inside the dot and slid a low shot that slipped past Fleury at the 8:42 mark.

Williams made it 2-0 with 3:01 left in the second. Vermette intercepted Fleury's attempted pass to Letang behind the net, and while sliding to his knees managed to center a pass that deflected off the goalie's stick out in front. Williams gloved the pass near his hip in the high slot, put it on his stick and scored on a backhander.

Vermette had the favor returned when Williams set up his 10th of the season 1:03 into the third, giving him a goal and two assists in three games with the Blue Jackets.

"It was a great forecheck," Vermette said. "Berger (R.J. Umberger) worked hard down low as well as Willy, and Willy made a nice feed that was high in the zone there. I had a lot of time so I took a shot and was lucky it went in."

The Penguins certainly weren't feeling lucky up to that point, but their fortunes began to change when Jackets defensemen Rostislav Klesla and Fedor Tyutin took penalties 1:40 apart to set up a brief 5-on-3 situation. Pittsburgh didn't score on that advantage -- but after Klesla's penalty expired, Gonchar took a shot from the right point that appeared to deflect off the stick of Jan Hejda in front and surprised Mason. The Penguins were on the board with 11:27 left in regulation, and they didn't stop there.

Dupuis made it a one-goal game 1:20 later, jamming in a loose puck after Malkin took advantage of Jiri Novotny's giveaway and put a wraparound into the crease. Malkin made another nice play on the tying goal with 8:02 to play, digging the puck off the back wall and throwing a blind pass behind him that was converted by Talbot.

 
 
"Just from the talk on the bench and in the room, we knew we didn't play well tonight," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "After a few minutes in the third, we got (going). The first goal came, we dump it in, retrieve the puck and 10 seconds later it's in the net. That just hit the point home that that's how we need to play. We did it for 15 (minutes) and we get a point and we get to move on."

Pittsburgh took all three shots in the overtime period but got nothing past Mason, including an attempt by Chris Kunitz that went off the crossbar. Mason then denied Kunitz with a glove save and had a blocker stop on Letang.

"He made a big save on Tanger there in overtime," Crosby said. "He made some nice saves in the shootout. It's no secret that he's a great goalie. He played well again tonight."

Having to regroup and take back a game they seemingly had in hand wasn't necessarily a bad thing for the Jackets, given that the Penguins were just as desperate for points as they fight for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference. With one point, Pittsburgh moved into sole possession of sixth, but only two ahead of ninth-place Florida.

"Especially going into the playoffs, they're battling hard too, and sometimes you don't get the bounces your way," Vermette said. "But you've got to stay in your game, stay composed, work hard and, you know, we came on top, so hopefully we can learn from what we did today and not panic."

Material from wire services and team broadcast media was used in this report




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