COLUMBUS, Ohio – This is usually the time when the Columbus Blue Jackets plan ahead for April golf outings and trips back home.
Not this year.
Steve Mason earned his NHL-best ninth shutout, stopping 35 shots and making Raffi Torres’ third-period goal stand up in the playoff-chasing Blue Jackets’ 2-0 win over the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night.
The Blue Jackets, in their eighth NHL season, are trying to make the playoffs for the first time. The chase is a new experience for the club’s veterans, even grizzled 24-year-old star Rick Nash, who has never played on a winner in his five previous seasons in Columbus.
“It’s fun playing this time of the season when hockey means something,” he said after stretching his goal streak to three games with a seeing-eye empty-netter that clinched the outcome. “We’re not used to this. We’re used to just playing for our fans right now. Right now there’s a bigger picture and we’re excited to be playing.”
The Bruins came in leading the Presidents’ Trophy race with 95 points, but now trail San Jose and Detroit by one point. The Blue Jackets entered in sixth place in the Western Conference with 72 points.
“Everybody’s having fun with this thing,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Every shift is magnified. It requires a certain focus and concentration.”
Eight teams are within six points in the race for the bottom three playoff positions.
“The thing is, we’re winning some big games right now,” Torres said. “Every game from now on is going to be a playoff game. Guys are getting excited, guys are putting in the work off the ice, and showing up to practice and going hard. We’re putting that into the game and turning in 60 minutes.”
Tim Thomas matched Mason save for save most of the night, finishing with 32 for the Bruins, who have lost four straight road games.
Torres broke the deadlock 6:35 into the final period, but the goal may have come as a result of something that happened 2 1/2 minutes earlier.
The game was held up for several minutes earlier when Thomas was handling the puck behind the net and collided with Columbus centre Jiri Novotny. The contact knocked off his mask, breaking a part of it.
“I didn’t see it coming at all,” Thomas said of the collision. “I got hit pretty hard. I was pretty stunned. I couldn’t really react to it.”
During the next break, Thomas skated to the bench and returned to the ice with backup Manny Fernandez’s mask.
Thomas was bothered by the substitute mask the rest of the game.
“You can ask any goalie,” he said. “It’s not fun to use anybody else’s stuff when you’re used to your own.”
After stopping 29 shots, many in spectacular fashion, Thomas gave up a goal on one of the weakest drives he faced.
With Columbus on the power play, Torres skated with the puck on the right wing. Just inside the dot, he shifted to a left-handed shot and somehow slipped the puck past Thomas high on the stick side for his seventh goal.
“I saw there was a lot of room coming in, so I was just fortunate to get a quick shot off,” Torres said. “I think I caught him cheating a little bit (to the near post).”
Thomas angrily pulled the puck out of the net and fired it at the glass in disgust. He then skated to the bench to have his helmet and mask looked at again.
Mason stopped Chuck Kobasew’s hard shot from the left hash with 7:44 left, then nonchalantly gloved Patrice Bergeron’s slap shot with 5 1/2 minutes remaining.
With just under a minute left, and Thomas pulled for an extra attacker, Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara’s shot from a hard angle at the left goal line was deflected by Mason. The puck slid behind him, but the Blue Jackets were able to clear it.
Nash then found the empty net from the far blue line.
Mason declined to look at it as a win over Thomas, statistically the two best goalies in the league right now.
“Tim is a great goalie,” the rookie said. “When you come out on the winning end, it’s definitely a nice feeling. But you really don’t look at it that way.”
Columbus defenceman Rostislav Klesla smothered what might have been the Bruins’ best scoring chance. After Mason had blocked Chara’s shot in the opening minutes of the game, the puck settled between Mason and the goal line. Klesla dived on the puck to prevent the Bruins from poking it into the net.
“It’s a matter of timely goals and timely saves, and we’re getting neither,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “That makes for tough losses like tonight.”
Notes: Boston C Phil Kessel was rocked on a check into the boards by Columbus D Jan Hejda with 6:30 left in the second period. He was in pain as he skated to the bench and was helped into the dressing room, but returned for the third. … The Blue Jackets played the first of four at home in a five-game span.