Horton scores in Columbus debut, McElhinney posts shutout as Jackets beat Coyotes 2-0

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Nathan Horton just kept on smiling.

He grinned during warmups, beamed after his first shift and screamed with joy following his first goal.

Horton sure is happy to be playing hockey again.

And the Columbus Blue Jackets are thrilled their big investment made an immediate impact.

Horton scored in his Columbus debut, Curtis McElhinney made 34 saves for his second shutout of the season, and the Blue Jackets beat the sluggish Phoenix Coyotes 2-0 on Thursday night.

R.J. Umberger also scored for the Blue Jackets, who snapped a two-game losing streak amid a burst of energy provided by Horton, Columbus’ $37 million off-season free-agent acquisition.

“I had so much fun out there,” said Horton, unable to contain his smirk even after the game in dressing room. “It’s so exciting to be back.”

Horton, the ex-Boston Bruins winger who missed the first 40 games following shoulder surgery, poked in a rebound late in the second period for his 199th career goal.

Umberger added a second power-play goal midway through the final period and the Blue Jackets shored up their struggling penalty kill in a performance they hope helps them climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.

“You can tell we’re a good team when we play hard,” Horton said. “I really enjoyed being out there with the guys.”

Mike Smith stopped 29 shots for the Coyotes, who lost defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to injury early in the first period and they were shut out for the first time this season.

It also ended a streak of six straight overtime games for the Coyotes.

“We didn’t compete hard enough,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said.

Horton, who helped Boston win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and then had 19 points in 22 playoff games for the Bruins last season, signed a seven-year, $37.1 million free-agent deal with the Blue Jackets last summer.

In his first game since last season’s Stanley Cup final, Horton was matched with Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. They had two solid opening shifts before Horton’s first shot was kicked away by Smith midway through the first period.

Late in the second period after Smith took a penalty for playing the puck outside the trapezoid, James Wisniewski took a shot that Smith poked away.

But the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Horton was in front of the net and tapped in the rebound at 15:51.

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“Sometimes I felt good, sometimes I felt bad,” Horton said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played.”

How much did the Blue Jackets need Horton? His goal snapped an 0-for-18 power-play drought. His presence even seemed to inspire the defence, which had allowed six power-play goals in the previous two games.

Columbus killed all five Phoenix power plays.

“We had a big talk about it (Tuesday),” Umberger said of the penalty kill.

The Blue Jackets also activated goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (groin), who had been out 12 games, and defenceman Dalton Prout (upper body), who had missed six games.

Bobrovsky served as the backup to McElhinney. He made several difficult saves, including on Keith Yandle’s point-blank shot early in the third period.

“I think he was disappointed after last game,” Columbus coach Todd Richards said of McElhinney, who allowed five goals in Colorado Tuesday. “You could tell after the game he wasn’t happy. Even (Wednesday) he wasn’t happy. And it’s a great response.”

Ekman-Larsson suffered an upper-body injury early in the first period on a hit into the boards by Derek MacKenzie. No boarding was called on the play and Tippett said they kept him out as a precaution, leaving Phoenix with only five defencemen.

A day after being passed over by the U.S. Olympic team, Yandle soon went after MacKenzie. The two served fighting majors in a sloppy first period that saw only six shots apiece.

But the Blue Jackets dominated the second period and Phoenix had little energy as it failed to earn a point for only the third time in 12 games.

“We didn’t manage the puck very well tonight,” Smith said. “You lose Ekman-Larsson early in the game like that and you turn pucks over, it puts a lot of stress on five (defencemen). It wears on them.”

NOTES: Blue Jackets D Jack Skille (abdominal injury) returned to Columbus after being injured Tuesday vs. Colorado. … The Blue Jackets sent F Jonathan Marchessault, D Tim Erixon and G Mike McKenna to Springfield (AHL). … The NHL record for consecutive OT games is seven, set by Edmonton (2003) and Toronto (2008). … Former Columbus first-round pick Rusty Klesla (illness) returned for Phoenix after missing three games.