Horton happy to be back on the ice for Blue Jackets

Jan 2, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Nathan Horton (8) is defended by Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Rostislav Klesla (16) and goalie Mike Smith (41) during the second periodat Jobing.com Arena.

Matt Kartozian/Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It had been 192 days since Nathan Horton had played an NHL game, dating back to the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals as a member of the Boston Bruins. In the interim, he signed a seven-year contract as a free agent with the Blue Jackets, had surgery on his left shoulder in July and watched his teammates ride the rollercoaster of their early season play. One game before they reach the halfway point of the season, Horton made his return.

The smile that has been a permanent part of his facial features since arriving in Columbus was, if it were really possible, even larger after his first game back on the ice. He had 14:47 TOI and scored the game-winning goal on the power play. He had two shots on goal and three hits. These numbers will go up as he gets back into the flow of playing game after game.

"Obviously, it’s nice to help contribute (to the win)," said Horton after the game. "It was fun. You can tell that we work hard and we are a good team when we work hard. I really enjoyed being out there with the guys, it was so much fun."

He scored his goal on the power play by being camped in front of the Phoenix net. He’s a big body, standing 6’2" (229 lbs.), with soft hands. Gathering in a rebound, he deftly tucked the puck behind the Coyotes goalie, Mike Smith. This marked the 199th goal in his 10th year in the league.

Blue Jackets win in Horton's debut

"Sometimes I felt good, sometimes I felt bad (shoulder). You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve played, but I was really happy, especially since we won the game. In the end, that’s all that matters."

They played a good game, staying within their system. This is the mantra that head coach Todd Richards has been preaching all season. Their bad games have come when they strayed away from playing their game.

"We’ve got a great structure and he’s a great coach," said Horton. "If we do what he asks, I think we’ll be in great shape. Tonight, for most of the game, I think we played that way."

Richards addressed the slight changes in the way they played the game compared to the last few games.

"Our specialty teams were probably the biggest difference," he said. "But 5-on-5 and how we played the game, I didn’t see much difference from this game compared to our last two or three.

"I thought we played hard. I thought we checked well. We did some things to create offense. The biggest thing was we didn’t give up any power play goals and our power play scored two."

Lost in the shuffle of the anticipation of Horton’s return, the Blue Jackets have a record of 8-5-1 since the beginning of December. This has happened with quite a few injuries to the roster and in front of the backup and third-string goaltenders (McElhinney and McKenna).

The importance of having Horton in the lineup cannot be understated. He’s a power forward that’s not afraid to go to the hard areas around the net. Playing on the top line with Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, it makes for a big trio of skaters coming down the ice.

"He did a lot of good things," said Richards about Horton. "I’m excited because I’m expecting more now. This was his first game and he’s kind of getting his feet wet and getting more comfortable with the group out on the ice. There’s still some more, systematically, that we have to do. But, I think it was a great start for him."

With the win, Columbus is now sporting a record of 18-19-4 (40 points). They sit in 7th place in the Metropolitan Division, yet only four points out of the third guaranteed playoff spot. Two of their next three games are against divisional opponents, playing at the New York Rangers on Monday and hosting the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.

But first, they have to get past the Ken Hitchcock-coached St. Louis Blues (28-7-5, 2nd in Central) on Saturday night. The Blues are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games and riding a 4 game winning streak. Columbus is 5-4-1 over their last 10 games.

Short Shift

— RJ Umberger scored his 37th power play goal for the Blue Jackets, which moves him to second on the all-time power play goals list for Columbus. Umberger on Columbus’ special teams play against the Phoenix Coyotes: "Tonight, that was the difference. Two goals for and none against."