Big assists key for Blue Jackets in tying series

The Columbus Blue Jackets sent Nationwide Arena into a frenzy with dramatic goals late in the third period and overtime Wednesday, but those would not have been possible without some nifty passing.

As this amazing roller-coaster of a series between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins moves back to the Steel City for tonight’s Game 5, the epic come-from-behind victory by Columbus in Game 4 is surely still resonating.

Every Columbus Blue Jackets fan will remember the two goals Wednesday night, the first forcing overtime at Nationwide Arena, the second bringing the franchise its first-ever home playoff win.

Brandon Dubinsky tied the game with less than half a minute left in regulation, threading a shot through traffic as Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury scrambled to get back to his net after misplaying the puck behind it. Then, of course, Nick Foligno blasted a rolling puck from the high left wing side early in the first OT. It dipped on its way to the goal, and the rest is franchise history.

But what about the passes that led to both of those goals? We’re talking about no-look, backhand passes that somehow landed tape-to-tape on the sticks of Dubinsky and Foligno, respectively. The first pass came from Ryan Johansen, who laughed when asked if he saw Dubinsky before taking the puck off the end boards and whipping it up the slot.

"Did you think I knew he was there?" Johansen asked, chuckling. "I had no idea. We had the extra man, there was an empty net, and we’re told to get to the net when there’s less than a minute left in the game. So when it just came to my stick I said, ‘Somebody better be going to the net,’ and I threw it and there was Dubi right there, and he put it home."

It was a terrific job of hustling on the forecheck by Johansen, but the pass was even better. It gave Dubinsky time to collect the puck and pick a shooting lane as defenders gathered in front of the Pittsburgh net. It was one of those first assists that deserves an asterisk, for the quality of the pass and the magnitude of the ensuing goal.

So, too, does the assist by R.J. Umberger. Rewind to much earlier in the game, when the Blue Jackets big winger took a deflected puck to the face. It definitely did some damage, as the black eye the next day attested, but it could have been worse. Umberger stayed in the game, and there he was, laying out about 15 feet inside his blue line as Penguins defensemen Olli Maatta wound up for a slapshot early in overtime.

Blue Jackets tie series at 2 games apiece

Luckily, Umberger used his arm to protect the face that had already been hit by the earlier puck. Maatta’s shot hit him in the arm, and this is really when it gets kind of mind-boggling. The puck ricocheted back to Umberger, who had scrambled to his feet and was about to head off the ice. Somehow, he had the presence of mind to flip a pass in the general direction of a teammate streaking down the left wing. That teammate was Nick Foligno.

"I happened just to see him out of the corner of my eye," Umberger explained. "I didn’t know who it was; I just saw the jersey moving up the side with speed. It was one of those plays where you don’t even think consciously, you just do it. It got to him, and he made a good shot."

What Umberger didn’t say is the no-look, backhand pass was perfect. It led Foligno — in full stride — into the Penguins zone, and he unleashed the knuckle puck that dropped and found its way past Fleury. At that magical moment, the biggest victory in Columbus Blue Jackets franchise history was secured.

As you, Blue Jackets fan, look back on this Game 4 victory, the one that made franchise history, remember the Dubinsky shot that threaded the needle and sent the game into overtime. And remember, too, the Foligno blast that sent Nationwide into a frenzy of unprecedented proportions.

But don’t overlook those sublime, no-look, backhand passes by Johansen and Umberger, both placed perfectly under high-stress conditions.

They, too, were unforgettable.