COLUMBUS, Ohio – Suddenly, hockey is a lot of fun for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Steve Mason stopped 28 shots for his third shutout of the season, and Rick Nash and Raffi Torres scored against the NHL’s top penalty-killing team, leading the Blue Jackets past the Buffalo Sabres, 4-0 on Saturday night.
In their second game – and second win – since Ken Hitchcock was replaced by assistant Claude Noel on Wednesday, the Blue Jackets looked loose and dominated from end to end.
“We’re having some fun out there,” forward R.J. Umberger said. “Guys are playing with a lot of jump and confidence.”
Anton Stralman had a goal and an assist, and Milan Jurcina scored on a lucky bounce to snap an 87-game goal-less streak. Jake Voracek tied a career high with three assists.
Mason, last season’s Calder Trophy winner as the league’s rookie of the year, won back-to-back games for the first time since Oct. 17. His 13th career shutout gave him the Blue Jackets’ franchise mark.
“I don’t think it was the best game we’ve played,” said Noel. “We can play a lot better than this,” he said.
His players say they are letting go, not worrying about mistakes and just enjoying themselves on the ice. They hadn’t won consecutive games since Oct. 10.
“We played two great games here,” Stralman said. “We hope to keep continuing. What Claude has brought, he’s spoken with us to try and relax and play the game we all know we can play.”
The loss was the fourth in a row for the Sabres, who still retained first place in the Northeast Division. They came in killing 87.4 per cent of opposing power plays.
Buffalo, playing its third game in four days, is just 2-7-1 since Jan. 19.
“The message is we have to put it behind us,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “There have been games where we have played well and lost and games where there have been a lot of breakdowns and a lot of frustration. The message is we are a better team than we are playing right now.”
It was the largest margin of victory by the Blue Jackets all season, and it came before a huge throng of visiting Buffalo fans who swelled attendance to 18,576.
“Obviously Buffalo had their share (of fans),” Mason said. “But our fans completely took over the game. It’s always fun playing at home, to have the home-ice advantage for an extra while is going to be great. We just have to keep taking advantage of it.”
The Blue Jackets did not get on the power play in Noel’s debut on Thursday but had four opportunities in the second period against Buffalo, finally notching a goal on the very last one.
From the right goal line, Kristian Huselius saw Nash crashing the net and slid a quick backhanded pass. Nash, while being shadowed by mammoth (six-foot-eight, 222 pounds) defenceman Tyler Myers, had to dive and stretch forward to get his stick on the puck, jamming it into the net while falling to make it to 2-0.
The first goal was a total fluke. Jurcina, a defenceman acquired along with Chris Clark from Washington for Jason Chimera on Dec. 28, skated to mid-ice early in the second period.
Barely across the centre line, he dumped the puck into the right corner. It hugged the dasher and goalie Patrick Lalime turned to watch it go behind the net – only it hit a seam in the boards and ricocheted wildly at him. Before he could react, the puck bounced off his skate and into the net.
“It is probably the first time I (have seen) the puck coming from behind the net that hard,” Lalime said. “I knew the glass was bad, so I was looking up for it. It was like a shot from behind the net.”
Jurcina didn’t even know the puck went in.
“I was going for a change and I was on the way to the bench,” he said. “I just heard the fans going crazy. Guys were looking at me and giving me high fives. I didn’t know I scored until I got to the bench.”
NOTES: Nash hit the 25-goal mark for the sixth straight season. … The Sabres have also lost their last four road games. … Columbus improved to 7-2-1 in the series with Buffalo, including 3-0-1 at home. … The Blue Jackets had alternated wins and losses in their previous 10 games before winning their second in a row. … Columbus was 2 of 6 on the power play, Buffalo was 0 for 5.