Mike Richards scored his first goal of the season early in the third period Friday, helping the Flyers beat Columbus 3-2 and spoiling Hitchcock’s first game with the Blue Jackets. Despite the setback, Hitchcock was thrilled to be back.
“It felt good to go on the bench. It felt good to coach the game. It felt good to try to help the team win,” Hitchcock said. “I’m excited to get back and teach again.”
There was little reaction from Flyers fans on Hitchcock’s return, but the coach knows the difference between coaching in Philly and Columbus.
“This is a whole different atmosphere because … the Flyers’ goal is to win the (Stanley) Cup,” he said. “Ours is respectability at Columbus. There’s a whole different set of pressures.”
Peter Forsberg and Freddy Meyer added goals for the Flyers, who snapped a club-record, six-game home losing streak and stopped a three-game overall skid. Antero Niittymaki finished with 39 saves.
Jason Chimera and Rick Nash replied for the Blue Jackets, whose struggles continued. Pascal Leclaire stopped 19 shots for Columbus, which tied a franchise record by losing its eighth straight.
The game was a matchup of teams with five wins each, the fewest in the NHL. But this contest was all about Hitchcock’s return.
“It was a little bigger game,” Forsberg said. “I think it would have been tough for us if we had lost this game, and real tough on (coach) John (Stevens), too.
“I don’t think we played our best game, but we got a win and that’s what counted.”
Richards, who provided the eventual winner on a tough-angle shot 2:02 into the third period, agreed.
“We came in trying to focus on our game and not who was over there,” Richards said.
At least one Columbus player noticed a positive impact with Hitchcock’s arrival.
“It’s just one day so far, but he’s brought a lot of good stuff,” Leclaire said. “It’s going to be good. I think everybody is excited working with him.”
The 54-year-old Hitchcock struck a familiar pose, with arms folded, behind the bench for Columbus less than 48 hours after being hired. He replaced interim coach Gary Agnew, an assistant who took over after Gerard Gallant was fired on Nov. 14.
Just a month ago, Hitchcock was let go by Philadelphia after the Flyers opened 1-6-1 – tying the worst start in franchise history. He was fired on Oct. 22 and replaced by Stevens, who was given a two-year contract on Monday.
The Blue Jackets had just one practice under Hitchcock before facing the Flyers, but put up a spirited effort, rallying from a pair of one-goal deficits in the second period.
“We’ve got a big challenge to build on this for tomorrow,” Hitchcock said. “But to take from where we were two days ago to play like this, not just from the effort, we got a pretty good hockey club. We deserved a better fate.
“The pressure on me at Columbus is to build a team. We’ve got to take baby steps here. If we can continue to take the steps we did (today), that would be just terrific.”
In the end, it was Richards, scoring on a shot from the right circle – his first goal since March 11 – who made the difference.
“It’s nice to get the first one, but you can’t stop at that,” said Richards, who had 11 goals and 23 assists in his rookie season last year. “Hopefully, I don’t have to go 20-something games before I get another one.”
The Flyers opened the scoring midway through the first period, when Forsberg scored his seventh of the season on a power play. The Flyers captain, who sat out Wednesday night’s loss to Ottawa because of a sore back, deflected a wrist shot from the point by Lars Jonsson at 9:59. The goal marked the 11th straight game that Columbus trailed 1-0.
The Blue Jackets had a two-man advantage for 1:34 when Kyle Calder and Derian Hatcher were whistled for hooking, but managed few real scoring chances.
They carried the bulk of the play in the second period and outshot the Flyers 19-7.
Columbus tied it at 12:31 of the second on Chimera’s third goal.
But Meyer put the Flyers ahead with less than two minutes remaining in the period, taking a pass from Mike Knuble while storming in from the right point and one-timing a shot past Leclaire.
Nash’s power-play goal tied it 2-2 with 18.9 seconds left in the second period.
Notes: Hitchcock is 408-250-100 in 758 regular-season NHL games. In 503 games with the Dallas Stars from 1996-02, he went 277-166-60-7. He won the Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999. He said he received a note from Stevens, his friend and successor. “I’m happy he’s back in the game and wish him nothing but good luck in Columbus,” Stevens said. … The Blue Jackets sent LW Alexandre Picard to AHL Syracuse. … Philadelphia is 5-8-2 since Hitchcock was fired.