Blue Jackets riding the roller coaster of the playoff race

Carolina Hurricanes' Brett Bellemore, left, and Columbus Blue Jackets' Matt Calvert work for the puck in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, March 18, 2014.

Paul Vernon

Running into a hot goalie on a team that is, for all intents and purposes out of the playoff race, put a crimp in the Blue Jackets bid to make only their second playoff appearance. With the other teams surrounding them in the ultra-tight Metro division winning, salt was added to the wound of a 3-1 loss to Carolina.

With just fourteen games remaining in the regular season, the sprint to the finish has become an all-out drag race. A mere three points separate the second place Philadelphia Flyers from the fifth place Washington Capitals. The rollercoaster ride that is the divisional standings took another turn last night.

The loss drops Columbus (76 points) back to eighth place in the conference (second wild card spot), ahead of both the Washington Capitals (76 points) and the Detroit Red Wings (75 points).

"In the first period, we had some good chances," said R.J. Umberger. "We outshot them pretty bad in the first period (11-5). We just couldn’t find a way to get one in. I think there are still a lot of good things to take away from tonight. But the big picture is, this time of the year, what really matters is points at the end of the game. We didn’t get any."

The Blue Jackets held Carolina without a shot on goal in the third period, marking only the third time in franchise history that an opponent was held shot-less in a period. Columbus racked up a shot tally of 79, with 47 on goal to the Hurricanes 20 shots on goal.

"We were doing some things to create offense," said Columbus head coach Todd Richards. "We just weren’t able to finish. I thought our guys were doing the right things as far as trying to score. We just couldn’t get one past him (Carolina goalie Anton Khudobin)."

In a perfect world, Columbus would win every game down the stretch and cruise into the playoffs. The reality is that there will be losses along the way. In last year’s stretch run, for example, with 10 games to go, Columbus laid an egg against Minnesota to the tune of a 0-3 shutout. The 3-1 loss last night stings, but is not fatal.

"When you get to this stage of the season," said Richards, "you have to be able to let go of games pretty quickly. I think there’s some good things we can take out of this, (and) some things we’ve got to learn from. Giving up the goals, giving up a two-on-one early in the game, scoring the first goal is critical."

"When you go back at look at it, I think there are things we can take out of it and address, because mistakes were made. We talked about shooting the puck, creating traffic. We did all those things. The only thing is that the players weren’t rewarded for it."

Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled for the third period, not because he was having a bad game, according to Todd Richards. "It wasn’t ‘Bob.’ That wasn’t the reason. Some of it was to try to motivate the team a little bit. Some of it is understanding the amount of games coming up."

With 14 games in the next 24 days, including five back-to-back games, there is no time to dwell on the loss.

Right winger Cam Atkinson, a healthy scratch again last night (including three scratches last week), would still seem to be in Todd Richards doghouse. With Blake Comeau returning to the lineup after serving his two game suspension and Corey Tropp playing well, Richards is happy with the makeup of the team.

When asked post-game if Atkinson merits drawing back into the lineup, Richards said, "I liked the way that we played tonight, from an offensive standpoint. You look at Tropp had 9 hits. Every time he got on the ice, something was happening. And Comeau was a physical force, too."

"We’ll have to look at it and possibly address it, but I’m coming out of the game right now, we had 47 shots on goal and scoring chances. It wasn’t from a lack of effort or poor play from most of the guys."

The first of five back-to back games takes place Thursday, as Columbus travels to Montreal to play the Canadiens before returning to the friendly confines to play a divisional tilt against the New York Rangers. Points are critical at this stage. In the ten games played since the break, Columbus is 6-3-1. They are still on the pace of winning two of every three games, which should see them make the postseason.

The next 24 days will see the divisional standings change on a daily basis, as the rollercoaster ride continues. It’s time to buckle up and enjoy the ride of being in the hunt late in the season.