In an otherwise forgettable season, for himself and his team, things finally fell into place for R.J. Umberger and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Umberger had three goals for the third time in his career and Steve Mason stopped 39 shots Friday night to lead the Blue Jackets to a 5-1 victory over Carolina, dealing a critical loss to the Hurricanes’ diminishing playoff hopes.
”We’ve taken a lot of flak the last six games for not scoring any goals,” Umberger said after his first hat trick since Nov. 30, 2009, against St. Louis. ”Honestly, I felt like one of these nights was coming. Because we’ve had a lot of chances. I know myself I’ve had chance after chance. We just weren’t scoring goals. Tonight it just seemed like everything lined up right.”
It was a costly defeat for the Hurricanes, who had won their last four.
They dropped seven points behind Buffalo and Washington in the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Carolina, 11th in the conference, has just seven games remaining.
”That wasn’t very good,” Carolina’s Brandon Sutter said. ”We obviously didn’t play the way we wanted to. A tough one for us. We need all the points we can right now to get in the top eight. It’s not acceptable.”
Interim Columbus coach Todd Richards refused to say it was the most impressive win of his short tenure. He took over Jan. 9, when the Blue Jackets were 11-25-5 under the fired Scott Arniel, and has guided them to a 13-18-2 mark since.
He preferred to lavish praise on the league’s worst penalty kill, which kept Carolina off the board despite five Hurricanes power plays including 1:35 of 5 on 3.
”Our guys did a great job,” Richards said. ”There was one really good opportunity they had (with a two-man advantage) that Mason made the save on. Fresh ice and fresh players out on the ice, with a 3-1 lead, that was a huge kill. That kind of set up the rest of the third period.”
The Blue Jackets continually victimized Carolina goalie Cam Ward.
Vinny Prospal added a goal and an assist, Mark Letestu also scored, Derick Brassard assisted on each of Umberger’s goals, and Nikita Nikitin and Jack Johnson each had two helpers. The second for Johnson was the 100th assist of his career.
”We know he’s a world-class goalie,” Brassard said. ”For us to struggle scoring goals and come out and play against a hungry team, it’s huge.”
It was a particularly huge night for Umberger who has been suffering through one of the worst seasons of his seven years in the NHL. After scoring at least 23 goals and scoring at least 46 points in each of the last three years, he came into the game with only 11 goals and 17 assists.
He felt that scoring on the power play – breaking a string of 35 straight failures with a man advantage – was a big key.
”The first one, getting a goal on the power play, was sort of a breath of fresh air for us,” Umberger said. ”It’s been tough to get one lately. We haven’t been converting. I think the whole team felt good when that one went in.”
After Prospal scored on a wrister for a 1-0 lead, Umberger made it 2-0 when his rising slap shot from the left point beat Ward high on the glove side.
The Hurricanes cut the lead in half when Drayson Bowman jammed in a rebound of his own first shot.
”We didn’t come out real hard, fell behind, and then they made a couple of nice plays,” Bowman said. ”We were fighting to get one from then on. Nothing seemed to go right.”
Ninety seconds later, the lead was two again. Brassard slid a cross-ice pass from the short boards on the left side to Umberger, who cranked up a hard one-timer to again beat Ward on the glove side.
With 5 minutes left in regulation, Brassard took advantage of a Carolina giveaway at the blue line and coasted in on a 2 on 1. He waited patiently before saucering a pass to Umberger for the one-timer to set off a shower of hats on the ice.
”The last five games, we didn’t bury any of our chances,” Brassard said. ”Tonight all of the guys did a good job.”
Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said there wasn’t much to do but forget the loss and get ready for Saturday night’s game at Detroit.
”We just looked like a tired hockey team tonight,” he said. ”We’ve had a lot of games here in March. Guys have been battling every night. It’s a tough loss for us. We’ve got to bounce back and get ready for a good opponent.”
After the game, fans surrounded TVs on the main concourse and could be heard cheering for Ohio University in its NCAA regional semifinal basketball tournament game against North Carolina. The Tar Heels ended up winning in overtime, 73-65.
Notes: Before the game, a teenage girl held up a sign near the Carolina dressing room ramp that read: ”Jeff (Skinner): Last chance. Wanna go to prom?” … Mason has won six of his last eight starts. … Ward gave up five goals on 26 shots.