Success in Columbus is nothing new for Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger.
Most recently, the former member of the Ohio State men’s hockey team showed his playmaking ability during opening night of the most anticipated season in franchise history.
“It’s a joy to play in front of these people with all my friends and family,” Umberger said.
“When you’re happy off the ice and you’re excited to come to the rink, you can do big things.”
The All-American Buckeye got the sold-out crowd on its feet after scoring the Jackets’ first goal of the season in the second period. Columbus went on to defeat the Minnesota Wild, 2-1, Saturday night at Nationwide Arena.
The second-year Blue Jacket broke Minnesota’s back defensive line on its power play before faking left, shooting right and sneaking the puck between Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom’s legs for a 1-0 Columbus lead.
“It’s just kind of the pressure we were trying to put on them when we were short-handed,” Umberger said. “‘Verm’ [Antoine Vermette] made a good play on the board and we flooded it with me coming over. I was able to get loose and I went post-to-post with it and was able to get it through his legs.”
The short-handed goal was Umberger’s 76th score in his fourth season in the NHL. Last year, he led the Jackets with nine power play goals and ranked second in goals.
“Our motto and the way we play has got to be hard with 60-minutes style hockey,” Umberger said. “Execution for the first game probably wasn’t the best, but sometimes you can outwork your opponent … that’s what we’re about. The goal really put a lot of pressure on their top line. If we keep guys off the board, we have a chance to win those types of games.”
Jacket’s coach Ken Hitchcock told the media after opening night that the 27-year-old will make plays for the team whenever he gets the chance, especially when he is alongside veteran players such as forwards Samuel Pahlsson and Jason Chimera.
“R.J. is going to get 25 or 30 [goals], no matter who he plays with or where he plays,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going to the net, he’s driving to the net. They could have had four or five tonight with that line. If they play their game, they’re not going to be easy to play against because when you got foot speed, skill and size, and you can bring it like that group can, it’s a good sign.”
Umberger did big things at Ohio State, too. In his three-year Buckeye career, Umberger posted 129 points, tied for 31st in the OSU record book.
He was named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Rookie of the Year in 2001 and was the highest draft pick out of Ohio State. The Vancouver Canucks selected him with the 16th overall pick in 2001.
As a former Buckeye, Umberger said the support he has received in Columbus had a positive impact on his game.
“It does make a difference sometimes when you’re happy where you’re at and comfortable off the ice, you can come to the rink with a smile,” Umberger said, who signed a four-year contract with Columbus in 2008. “I have great teammates here and I’m just happy to be a part of a great group.”
During his college years, Umberger said he imagined what it would be like to suit up for the then-new Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen with your future as a college hockey player,” Umberger said. “One day when I was at Ohio State, I wanted to play here and hoped that someday I could.”
For Umberger, Buckeye dreams do come true.