For the Columbus Blue Jackets, it was a remarkable comeback both for one game and for the season.
It came up just short in the standings.
Jack Johnson scored the go-ahead goal with 4:48 left and the Blue Jackets capped a stunning turnaround to their season with a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
But it still wasn’t good enough to get them into the playoffs.
”It’s a disappointing, sinking feeling right now,” coach Todd Richards said.
The Blue Jackets needed either Detroit or Minnesota to lose on the road on Saturday, but both won. Columbus tied the Wild for eighth place in the West, but were bumped out by a tiebreaker.
A few thousand Blue Jackets fans stuck around after the game to watch the finish of the Wild game. They quietly headed for the exits when Minnesota’s 3-1 victory at Colorado was assured.
In a game billed as the biggest regular-season game in franchise history, the Blue Jackets were shut out by Chris Mason before scoring three times in the third period to go 8-1-0 in their final nine — all with the specter of a playoff spot hanging over them.
”It’s a small success,” center Mark Letestu said. ”Everybody is disappointed in here. The playoffs have always been the goal.”
Brandon Dubinsky tied it early in the third and Cam Atkinson added an empty-netter.
Sergei Bobrovsky, a top contender for the Vezina Trophy given to the NHL’s top goaltender, made 19 stops.
”I hope Bob finds a way to get the Vezina because he deserves it,” Dubinsky said. ”He was our rock back there and kept us in each and every game.”
Atkinson helped set up the decisive goal by playing keep-away with the puck before feeding Johnson at the left goal line. Johnson skated in and backhanded a centering pass that appeared to go in off the stick of Mason, who had been brilliant all night.
It set off a wild celebration before a capacity crowd, which stood and cheered for most of the final period.
Atkinson credited a clip from the football film ”Any Given Sunday” that was played early in the third period. It features a stirring and inspirational locker room speech by the character played by Al Pacino.
”That Al Pacino thing got the bench going,” he said with a laugh. ”I don’t know if that was the turning point, but we’ll take it.”
Columbus pulled even on Dubinsky’s goal midway through the period. Vinny Prospal skated with the puck toward the net from the left corner and slid a pass to Marian Gaborik, who fed Dubinsky. He made a nice move before netting a backhand for his second of the season with 9:51 left in the period.
Shea Weber had the goal for the Predators, who threw a scare into the Blue Jackets but finished 1-9-1 in their last 11. Mason, making just his sixth start of the season because of an injury to starter Pekka Rinne, stopped 44 shots.
Hundreds of fans were in line three hours before the game, sitting in the sunshine on a warm day, laughing and talking. Another few thousand people milled around the main entrance to Nationwide Arena just soaking up the atmosphere.
The Blue Jackets finished the season riding the hottest streak in franchise history — one that transformed a team used to playing meaningless games after the All-Star break into a club that has continually defied the odds to win big games over the past two months.
”They never give up and they scrap and claw,” Mason said of the Blue Jackets. ”That’s what they’ve been doing all year.”
The Blue Jackets were 5-12-2 — the worst record in the NHL — in late February. Then came a record 12-game points streak (8-0-4) that turned things around as Bobrovsky began to put up stellar numbers. They battled to get into the conversation for a playoff spot, but most thought their undoing would be a grueling six-game road trip that preceded the game with Nashville.
On that trip over four time zones and 12 days they went 5-1-0 to set themselves up for the drama of the final game, running their record to 19-5-5 over the past two months.
Asked if what his team went through will help it next season, Richards struggled for a response.
”It’s really tough for me to answer that question right now,” he said. ”There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of disappointment — not with what we did, or how we played but how we finished.”
Notes: It was the final meeting between the two teams as Central Division rivals. They’ve had a history of chippy games over the years. … Nashville coach Barry Trotz was selected as an assistant for Team Canada at the World Championships. … The Blue Jackets were 12-1-3 in their last 15 home games. … Columbus C Artem Anisimov, who missed the past five games with a head/neck injury, returned to the lineup.