Umberger's hat trick lifts Blue Jackets

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 23, 2012
R.J. Umberger had three goals for the third time in his career and Steve Mason stopped 39 shots Friday night to lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 5-1 victory over Carolina, dealing a critical loss to the Hurricanes' diminishing playoff hopes. The Hurricanes, who had won their last four games, 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. 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. Drayson Bowman scored for the Hurricanes. After the games, 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. It was a big 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. It was Umberger's first hat trick since Nov. 30, 2009, against St. Louis. The Blue Jackets, trying to play the role of spoiler after sinking to the bottom of the league standings for most of the year, were outshot in the opening period 12-6 but Mason was terrific and Columbus made the most of one of its few scoring chances. At the 6:50 mark, the Blue Jackets won a faceoff to David Savard. He slid a pass from the neutral zone to his defensive partner, Johnson, who skated to the left circle before dropping a pass to Prospal. Prospal's wrister from the dot, beating Ward on his glove side, was his 13th of the year. Early in the second, the Blue Jackets went on the power play after Savard slid on the ice to block Tuomo Ruutu's shot as he crashed the net. An instant later, Ruutu was called for goaltender interference. Columbus came in having failed on its last 35 power-play opportunities but Umberger tallied on a rising slap shot from the left point that beat Cam Ward high on the glove side for a 2-0 lead. Soon after, the Hurricanes cut the lead in half when Bowman came up with the puck in the neutral zone and swooped down the right wing on a 2 on 1. He faked the pass before tossing the puck at Mason. It slipped out of his catcher, with Bowman reaching around defenseman John Moore to push the puck into the net. 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. But there were still ominous signs. The Blue Jackets came in with the worst penalty kill in the NHL and Carolina began the third period with 1:30 of 5 on 3. Yet with Mason making one nice save on a Jeff Skinner point-blank shot, Columbus maintained its two-goal lead. The Hurricanes, desperate for points in the standings, pressed hard throughout the third period. There were long sequences when Columbus fought off the hard-charging visitors. The Blue Jackets supplied the capper with 5 minutes left. 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. Letestu sealed it on yet another odd-man rush. The Blue Jackets are playing with almost an American Hockey League blue line, since injuries have cost them defenseman Marc Methot (broken jaw), Radek Martinek (concussion), Fedor Tyutin (broken right hand) and James Wisniewski (concussion). On top of that, top goalie Curtis Sanford has a torn leg muscle and will likely not play the rest of the year. Columbus has set a franchise record with 352 man-games lost to injury. 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. ...
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