Columbus Blue Jackets\' Steve Mason, left, watches after a save as Phoenix Coyotes\' Radim Vrbata, right, of the Czech Republic, controls the puck and Antoine Vermette looks on during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A bad start and a disputed goal added up to more hardship for the sinking Phoenix Coyotes.
Jack Johnson scored his first goal for Columbus, Steve Mason made 38 saves and the Blue Jackets beat the Coyotes 3-2 on Tuesday night for their first three-game winning streak in more than a year.
The Coyotes have been outscored 14-7 during a costly four-game slide which has knocked them out of the lead in the Pacific Division. They started the night in seventh place in Western Conference standings, their margin for error reduced by their recent losses.
Just as they had in a 5-2 loss to the Blue Jackets at home on Saturday night, the Coyotes fell behind 2-0 and never recovered. But on this night, Columbus needed less than 4 minutes to go up by two goals.
"The last three or four games it's been awful," captain Shane Doan said of his team's lethargic starts. "That's gone on before but we managed ways to overcome it. The last three, four games, it's been dreadful."
Just 31 seconds in, R.J. Umberger settled a high pass by catching it and dropping it on his stick. He then skated past defenceman Michal Rozsival before floating in by himself and beating Mike Smith high on the stick side.
Johnson then took a cross-ice set-up from Vinny Prospal that found him by himself on the left wing. He skated in and netted a hard shot on Smith's glove side.
That was it for Smith, with coach Dave Tippett summoning Jason LaBarbera to replace him just 4:54 in and after facing only seven shots.
Blue Jackets interim coach Todd Richards said his team has relaxed after almost every player on the roster—up to and including captain Rick Nash—was rumoured to be on the market leading up to the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
"I had talked to you leading up to the trade deadline, and was asked, 'Is the room tense?' My response was, 'Everything's good.' But seeing the way we're playing now, I think that had a big effect on us," he said. "Guys seem more relaxed, seem to be enjoying the game, enjoying being around each other. So the morale is good."
One of those deals near the deadline brought Johnson, a 25-year-old defenceman, along with a first-round pick from Los Angeles for forward Jeff Carter, ineffective in his short time in Columbus.
Maybe the presence of Johnson has settled the blue line. Or maybe it is just a lack of tension. But Mason, who struggled all season, has suddenly strung together three strong games in a row while allowing only four goals.
He had 30 saves in the 5-2 win over the Coyotes just 72 hours earlier.
"I'm feeling really good," Mason said. "I'm treating it as a fresh start. The guys are working really hard. The games right now are becoming fun to play in. The guys are playing competitively. You can see it's just a lot more fun atmosphere."
Antoine Vermette, dealt to Phoenix in another deadline trade for two draft picks and a backup goalie, scored for Phoenix to cut the lead to 2-1 midway through the first period.
But the Blue Jackets got a back-breaker when Derek Dorsett rushed the net and ended up on top of LaBarbera in the crease early in the second period. The puck went to Derek MacKenzie on the right wing and his wrister from a hard angle found the top shelf.
Tippett protested that Dorsett had interfered with LaBarbera, but the goal was allowed to stand.
"It's just a poor call. It's unfortunate that goal ends up being the winning goal, but ultimately it's our start that doomed us," Tippett said. "It's a blatant goalie interference, but that being said we can't go down 2-0 early in games and be expecting to come back."
Doan said it was obvious that there should have been a penalty.
"Everybody on the ice, all 15 guys on the ice—except for one—saw (it)," he said. "Nobody's trying to make mistakes out there. You just wish that once it's pointed out that it's corrected."
Keith Yandle scored to narrow the gap to a goal again, but Mason and his defence were stout in the scoreless third period.
The Coyotes had 20 seconds of 5 on 3 and a lengthy 4 on 3 as the Blue Jackets killed all five penalties.
"Your goalie has to be your best penalty killer and he sure was tonight," Johnson said of Mason. "We were just trying to keep the shots to the outside and he did the rest. He made some spectacular saves to win us the game. He came up big."
Oliver Ekman-Larsson was stymied on a hard shot gloved by Mason while the Coyotes were short-handed with 7:35 left. Phoenix's Radim Vrbata's chest-high shot stunned Mason in the final seconds, but Columbus defenceman James Wisniewski cleared the puck from the crease.
Mason also made big saves on Doan and Ray Whitney early in the final period.
Nothing is going right for the Coyotes, though.
"We talked about a few things not going our way right now," Tippett said. "We have to keep our head above water. We've got to get back at it and find a way to get a win."
NOTES: Johnson's goal made him the 30th player to score for the Blue Jackets this season, adding to a franchise record and the most in the NHL this season. ... Phoenix returns home for a pivotal homestand against Minnesota, San Jose and Nashville, all of them also hungry for points. ... D Nikita Nikitin blocked a shot with his foot, played another shift or two, but then did not return for the third period. He had goals in the previous two games for Columbus.