COLUMBUS, Ohio - Everywhere there were players laughing and smiling.
Along the back wall of the dressing room, Steve Mason was wearing a goofy-looking hard hat, a symbol that maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets were ready to finally laugh away their troubles and get down to the work of turning their season around.
Mason had 22 saves, R.J. Umberger scored an empty-netter while sliding on his gut and the Blue Jackets beat the Dallas Stars 2-1 on Thursday night in Claude Noel's coaching debut.
"It's a good way to add some humour into this," Mason said, grinning while sporting the all-white construction hat with a Blue Jackets sticker slapped on the front. "Obviously, it's a very sought-after item. I'm quite happy to have it right now. It's the first one. I have to say I look pretty good."
Noel was coaching his first NHL game after taking over for Ken Hitchcock, fired Wednesday after the Blue Jackets sagged to a 22-27-9 record a season after making their first trip to the playoffs.
"He was (doing) 'play-by-play' the whole game," Umberger said of Noel, shaking his head. "I thought he was a commentator. It was good. He was positive, he was upbeat."
With the Blue Jackets leading 1-0 on Anton Stralman's first-period goal, Umberger wedged between two Dallas players and then fell to the ice, sliding on his stomach while corralling the puck and scoring into the empty net with 1:08 remaining.
That goal loomed large when Dallas' Brad Richards scored on slap shot through heavy traffic with 43 seconds left.
"(They) fell and I fell in front, so it worked out," Umberger said of his highlight-reel goal. "The big thing is that it was a big goal for the team at that point because they came back and scored. It took some pressure off and then it ends up being the game-winner."
The Stars' goal was allowed after a lengthy review. It first appeared that Steve Ott batted the puck into the net with a chopping motion while it was chest high. But Richards was credited with his 17th of the season, his shot from the point first hitting the skate of Columbus' Jake Voracek and then bouncing off Mason's backside.
The Blue Jackets where able to hang on by icing the puck in the final seconds.
The first brilliant move for Noel, a former American Hockey League coach who was elevated from Blue Jackets assistant, might have been dusting off the old hard hat, something the trainers had bought but had never been used.
"Teams do it and we brought it (here)," Noel said. "Ken (Hitchcock) recommended that we buy it a while back on the road, so we bought it. I had the hard hat in the (pregame) meeting and said that we need to play for this game. When you win games, someone awards the hard hat to the hardest-working guy and it becomes a symbol of success."
Marty Turco, who lost all three times as Columbus won the season series 3-1, had 25 saves for the Stars, who are just 1-10-2 on the road since Dec. 11.
Dallas failed to score on three power plays.
"We did a lot of good things to get the power play opportunities," Dallas coach Marc Crawford said. "We didn't convert on them. We'd like to have the will of all to be able to handle the moment in that situation. It seemed like we had four guys going and maybe one guy not going on the power plays. But overall, we played a real solid game. We had the better of the chances. Their goalie played great."
After the Blue Jackets killed the last power play with under 1:30 remaining, the Stars' Matt Niskanen skated into the high slot and fired a wrister that Mason was able to smother in his chest pads.
Columbus captain Rick Nash - playing in his 500th career game - assisted on Umberger's memorable goal. He later lamented Hitchcock's firing while marvelling at the change in his teammates.
"We looked like a different team," he said. "(It was) a totally different vibe out there tonight. It was nice."
NOTES: Columbus didn't have a man advantage all night - the first time that has happened since April 10, 2009, at St. Louis, a 3-1 loss. ... Nash has 218 goals, 190 assists and 408 points in his 500 games. ... Tom Hicks, the financially strapped owner of the Stars, announced earlier in the day that he is exploring a possible sale of the team. ... Stralman snapped a string of 30 games without a goal.
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