The Columbus Blue Jackets strolled into Nationwide Arena Wednesday night with a two-game win streak and the inflated enthusiasm that a shiny, new coach brings to a team.
They strolled out with a 3-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks, the team with the best record in the NHL, on the back of an epic performance by goalie Steve Mason. Mason made 40 saves en route to his second straight shutout.
New Jackets bench boss Claude Noel continued to try to distance himself from fired coach Ken Hitchcock’s regime by showing his commitment to a youth movement. His starting lineup included center Derick Brassard and right wing Jakub Voracek, two of the youngest players on the club.
Columbus capitalized on its current momentum by scoring first in the opening period. After winning a battle against San Jose defenseman Douglas Murray in front of the net, Columbus captain Rick Nash took a pass from Kristian Huselius and promptly put the puck in the goal. It was Nash’s 26th score of the season.
Nash understands the importance of momentum.
“This is a team with a lot of firepower,” Nash said of the Sharks while entering the dressing room at the first intermission. “We have to keep initiating the play.”
His teammates were listening.
The young lineup seized their opportunity when it presented itself. Derick Brassard received a pass, put a move on a San Jose defenseman and made his way up ice. He fired a pass to line mate Voracek, who backhanded the puck towards the net. It trickled off Sharks goalie Thomas Greiss’ pad and into the goal.
Some of that youthful exuberance showed through when Brassard raced to congratulate his teammate. For Voracek, it snapped a 26-game scoreless streak.
The Jackets continued to dominate the ice in the final period as Mason flashed the form of last season’s rookie of the year campaign while making dazzling save after dazzling save. With each stop, the Columbus fans voiced their appreciation for the young goalie.
Jackets’ center Antoine Vermette added an empty-net goal in the final minute to cap the scoring.
One of the primary reasons for the Blue Jackets victory was their ability to take San Jose’s top scorers out of the game. Sharks stars Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley had a combined one shot between them.
If there was anything at all to quibble with, it was Columbus’ failure on the power play. The unit, ranked sixth in the league entering the night’s play, was unable to convert on any of their four chances.
Noel didn’t seem entirely satisfied with his team’s performance. He discussed their room for improvement while tempering his comments with some optimism.
“We could have done it prettier, but we got the result we wanted,” Noel said. “I see good things coming for our group.”
The Jackets faithful will have to remain realistic in their enthusiasm for their new coach. Few of the 15,234 in attendance may remember, but Doug MacLean also won his first three games behind the bench. What they will remember is exactly how that debacle turned out.
Time will tell.