COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Jack Johnson scored the go-ahead goal with 4:48 left and the Columbus Blue Jackets capped a remarkable turnaround with a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
Coming into the night, the Blue Jackets were tied for eighth in the West with Minnesota, each with 53 points.
The Wild, coming off a 6-1 loss at home to Edmonton on Friday, were in action at Colorado. The Wild would clinch a playoff spot with a win.
Detroit beat Dallas on Saturday and clinched the No. 7 seed.
The Blue Jackets were on the short end of tiebreakers against both the Wild and Red Wings.
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.
Brandon Dubinsky tied it early in the period and Cam Atkinson added an empty-netter.
Sergei Bobrovsky, a contender for the Vezina Trophy given to the NHL’s top goaltender, made 19 stops. 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.
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. The Blue Jackets finally pulled even midway through the third.
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. Mason, making just his sixth start of the season, stopped 45 shots.
It was a solid outing for the Predators. First-string goalie Pekka Rinne was held out for the second game in a row with an undisclosed injury — one of several players hurting for Nashville.
The goaltenders dominated the opening period, with Mason making several sterling saves early and Bobrovsky standing tall during one particular flurry.
Mason stopped Gaborik on three shots — any of which could easily have ended up in the net. Bobrovsky had three saves in one charge from close range. The Predators had a goal disallowed at the eight-minute mark when Craig Smith scored.
Upon review it was determined he kicked the puck in.
But Nashville broke through in the second period. David Legwand controlled the puck and left a drop pass for Weber who carried it unobstructed to the right dot before firing a hard wrister that slipped between Bobrovsky’s leg pads. It was Weber’s ninth of the season.
That set the stage for the wild third period.
Three hours before the game, hundreds of fans were lined up for tickets.
They’d been there for most of the day, sitting in the sunshine on a warm day, laughing and talking.
Several thousand people milled around the main entrance to Nationwide Arena on a sunny and warm spring day, soaking up the atmosphere.
The Blue Jackets are riding the hottest streak in franchise history — one that has 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 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.
But on that sojourn 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.
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 past 15 home games. … Columbus C Artem Anisimov, who missed the past five games with a head/neck injury, returned to the lineup.