Christopher Uhler / The Lantern
The day could not have been scripted better for Blue Jackets defenseman Rostislav “Rusty” Klesla.
The 2009-10 campaign started with a four-year contract extension for Klesla and the opening-night, game-winning goal Saturday, defeating the Minnesota Wild 2-1 in front of a sold-out Nationwide Arena.
“He was a good player today,” Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. “I think we are the youngest team in the league, and he wants to be a part of it. He’s gone through all the tough times, and he wants to reap the benefits of being on a good team. For us, it’s a good thing any time you can tie up your core group. That’s a good sign for us.”
It was an easy decision for the 27-year-old Klesla, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2000 Entry Draft. Columbus (1-0-0) made its first playoff appearance a season ago and now rolls into the most-anticipated season in franchise history with a victory in the home opener.
“We had a little pressure in their zone, and from the slot I had a wide-open look,” said Klesla, who has registered 37 goals and 79 assists for 116 points in 445 career games with the Blue Jackets. “It’s very exciting to be a part of this city and organization.”
With the score tied 1-1, Klesla shut the door on the Wild (0-1-0) after blasting a shot at 10:10 in the third period, sending it through the back right of the net.
Klesla’s contract extension will keep him in Columbus through the 2013-14 season, and Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson is excited for the Czech Republic native to continue to carry the flag.
“Rusty is an original Blue Jacket, who over the years has grown and become a leader for our hockey club,” Howson said. “It was important for our organization and for Rusty that he continue to be a vital part of what we are building here.”
One couldn’t help but look around the arena and feel the excitement from the players, fans and even the “Boom” Jackets, the team’s drum line.
Midway through the first period, last season’s Calder Trophy winner and NHL Rookie of the Year Steve Mason was recognized for the award as Blue Jackets fans gave the 21-year-old a standing ovation.
“It was very classy by the Blue Jackets organization,” said Mason, who finished with 32 saves after tallying several in the final seconds on a Wild two-man advantage. “It was nice to get the cheers from the fans, but at the same time I tried not to focus on it too much because it was a big game for us.”
Columbus was the first to strike after former Ohio State men’s hockey member R.J. Umberger got the fans on their feet with a short-handed goal at 10:30 in the second period.
Last year, Umberger led the club with nine power-play goals and ranked second in goals.
But this time, the Blue Jackets skated with a five-on-four disadvantage.
“Sometimes if it happens, you know you can’t quit on the power play,” said Umberger, who enters his second season as a Jacket. “You’ve got to keep working and we want to keep them to the outside and try and put as much pressure as possible when their backs are turned.”
Columbus defenseman Marc Methot caused havoc on the left wing, while Umberger flexed his strength through Minnesota’s back line and gained possession with nothing but open ice ahead.
The Buckeye All-American faked left and went right to sneak a shot between Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom’s legs for a 1-0 Columbus lead.
The second period of play looked to be more like what the Jackets would like to do this year: physical up front defensively and attacking the goal whenever possible.
Columbus outshot the Wild 39-33, and now are 4-3-2 all-time in home openers.
“I’m really excited for the upcoming season and to make a championship team here,” said
Klesla, who is the club’s all-time leader among defensemen in games played, goals, assists, points and penalty minutes. “Columbus is a great place to live and play hockey.”
The Blue Jackets now face their first road swing of the season, beginning today with the Canucks at 10 p.m. in Vancouver.