With the Blue Jackets staring down the barrel of a franchise worst 0-7-1 start while they burned off James Wisniewski's season opening suspension, it seemed like the team that had so much promise had broken under the weight of their expectations.
With the Red Wings coming into Nationwide Arena for the first time this season, Ty Conklin was given the start after Jimmy Howard left the team to attend the birth of his first child. The journeyman netminder seemed off his game from the start, and when the Jackets' starting line of R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette, and Ryan Johansen tore through Henrik Zetterburg and Pavel Datsyuk to attack the net, Umberger collected the rebound of a Vermette shot and slammed it home through Conklin's legs just twenty one seconds into the opening frame.
The next "first" would be a much less fun one for the home team several minutes later, as Kris Russell lost a battle for the puck behind his own net. Justin Abdelkader would retrieve the loose puck and shove it back to Darren Helm, who managed to stuff the puck between Steve Mason's outstretched skate and the post. More than a few fans were fearing a tennis match at this point, particularly when Mason went to the bench almost immediately afterward while trying to pop his shoulder.
With Mason in the locker room, the Jackets called upon former RPI Engineer Allen York, in Columbus on emergency recall after the injuries to Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford, who found himself in net for his first NHL regular season game. It lasted for all of 2:33 before Mason returned from the locker room following a TV timeout, and York fulfilled the mandate of "God, don't let me $*@# this up."
The Jackets made York's life easier by increasing their aggression, registering no less than five shots on Conklin while their backup held the line, then finally drawing the first power play of the game when the Wings were caught with too many men on the ice.
Giving the Umberger line another chance to shine, the next "first" would come from the stick of Jackets' 2010 first round pick Ryan Johansen, who slid behind the net, corralled a rebound from a Grant Clitsome point shot, and banked the puck off Conklin's skates and into the net for his first NHL goal. It was the Jackets' 5th game in a row with a power play goal after starting the season 0 for 20 on the man advantage.
That goal also marked the first time the Jackets had scored two goals in one period since March 7th, against St. Louis, and likely makes the decision on Johansen's potential return to the Portland Winterhawks that much harder. "The Johan" struggled in his first four NHL games at his natural center position, but since moving to the wing for Saturday's game in Ottawa, he has a goal, two assists and is a plus-3.
Taking a healthy shot advantage and the 2-1 lead into the dressing room after 20 minutes, most might have expected Columbus to fade, particularly as the Wings turned up their own efforts, outshooting the Jackets heavily in the early going and earning their own power play chances. But the story was a combination of a determined PK effort and Mason playing with a rejuvenated, confident attitude -- snapping up pucks, dropping on rebounds, and showing major self-possession, even after the "upper body injury." Mason has been the brunt of much criticism, locally and nationally, but shone brightly under pressure on Tuesday night.
The next goal, and perhaps the turning point, would be another rookie's first NHL goal, this coming from 2009 first rounder John Moore, who capitalized when the fourth line forced a turnover. Cody Bass cycled the puck up to Moore at the point, and the young d-man unloaded a bullet that tipped off Drew Miller's glove before wobbling its way past Ty Conklin's head and picturesquely popping the Detroit netminder's water bottle.
Energized by the goal, Columbus would hem the Wings into their own zone for the final minute of the period, failing to extend the lead but not allowing Conklin or his defenders to catch their breath until the horn sounded and the teams went back into their locker rooms.
With a nervous tension rising among the 15,100 in Nationwide Arena and hordes of Jackets fans following the game on TV or online, the Red Wings tried to push back against the resurgent Blue Jackets, but caused themselves as many problems as they created in penalty trouble, with Jonathan Ericsson, Pavel Datsyuk, and Valtteri Filppula all spending time in the box.
Steve Mason would make another eight saves leading up to the final two minutes of play, when Derek Dorsett was caught up with Tomas Holmstrom and took a poorly timed holding call in retaliation. Mike Babcock sought to repeat the success of the Ottawa Senators, pulling their goaltender in favor of an extra attacker.
Unlike in Saturday night's game, however, the Jackets did not manage to trip over their own blue lines and took advantage of the empty net in the final "first" of the night. Veteran grinder Derek MacKenzie was rewarded for the fourth line's hard work by breaking through the Wings' overstacked offense and breaking a check to awkwardly scoop the puck off the boards and into the open cage. The Jackets' first regulation win since last March.
With contributions from the two rookies, Umberger, and MacKenzie, this game also marked the first time the Jackets scored this season without Rick Nash or his linemates registering a point.
"I don't think anyone in that dressing room has been through anything like the three weeks of hell that we just went through", said head coach Scott Arniel in the postgame press conference, "but tonight, everybody stepped up and played a part."
At 1-7-1, it's still a long climb for the Blue Jackets to make their way back to 10th place, let alone think of challenging for playoff position, but wins against Detroit have been springboards for major winning streaks before, and it is a first step that the franchise, as a whole, is very pleased to take.