There is an axiom in sports that all die-hard fans embrace. Once a team has reached a level at which its coach is grumpy after a victory, that team has “arrived.”
So it was with the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday in their 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings before a crowd of 15,251.
On the back of their strong special teams’ play, the Blue Jackets improved to 5-1-0 this season, the best start in franchise history.
The Jackets got two goals from their power play unit, and captain Rick Nash scored a short-handed goal during the penalty kill.
It didn’t seem to be enough for coach Ken Hitchcock.
“We didn’t play that well tonight,” he said. “We competed, but we didn’t play that well. We need better play if we’re going to get to the next level.”
The energy was noticeably absent from the building at the beginning. At least a third of the stadium’s seats remained empty at the first drop of the puck.
The subdued atmosphere wasn’t improved when L.A. right winger Dustin Brown kicked off the scoring with a shot from just outside the slot that beat Jackets goalie Steve Mason.
This Jackets team, unlike many in the past, refused to head into the dressing room down a goal.
With just under a minute remaining in the period, left winger Jason Chimera brought the puck out of Columbus’ end, sped through the neutral zone, and fired a slap shot from the left circle.
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick was too slow for it, and the Jackets went into the first intermission tied up.
The Jackets never looked back.
Mason continued to flash the kind of dazzling goaltending that made him the NHL Rookie of the Year last season, making 27 saves, many of the jaw-dropping variety.
During one stretch in the second period, Mason made a series of saves on a flurry of opposing shots, including one in which he was caught out of position but made a diving recovery to cover up the puck in front of the net.
Mason was quick to credit his teammates.
“It’s extremely huge the way these guys are stepping up right now,” he said. “These guys are coming in and putting up a big effort and making my job easier.”
Columbus’ Raffi Torres took some of the pressure off him with a rebound goal out of a scrum in front of the Kings’ net on the power play. He was assisted on the play by Derick Brassard and Kris Russell, who had just been signed to a contract extension by the club earlier in the day.
Columbus was not finished yet.
Down a man because of a cross-checking penalty on Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin, Rick Nash decided to take matters into his own hands.
Jackets center Samuel Pahlsson deftly stole the puck away from a Kings forward and swept it to a waiting Rick Nash, just past the blue line. Nash raced up the ice and undressed the Kings’ Justin Williams with a deke to his left before letting fly with a backhand shot that beat Quick.
“I noticed there was a forward playing defense, and I thought I’d try something. Luckily enough, it worked,” Nash said of the goal.
Jakub Voracek finished the scoring with an empty-net, power-play goal with 1:11 left in the game.
As Jackets fans stood and applauded their team’s victory, there was joy once more in Mudville as the sting of the Buckeye football team’s defeat faded from memory.