Then the unthinkable happened, and I doubt anyone cared about who had scored - as Jeff said at the time, the game had become a battle for something far more important than points on a schedule.
Now, with Horton out of the lineup, he had to be feeling some sense of bemusement as he saw his name put on the box score for the opening goal of the game at 00:00 of the first period.
This game was fairly important in the standings back when they originally met, but it had become a vital one for each club - Columbus needed two points to put the Capitals and Devils to bed and clinch a playoff berth, while the Stars were scrapping to hold off the Coyotes and solidify their own position in the Western Conference wildcard race.
With that said, it was pretty clear who wanted it more in the first period, regardless of what the score was.
The Blue Jackets came out hard and fast, and it paid off early. Chasing the puck into the Dallas zone, the Anisimov / Skille combo battled along the boards against Tyler Seguin's line, with Skille forcing a turnover off Seguin's stick that bounced off the glass and into open ice. Arty grabbed the puck in a heartbeat, deked out Thomas, and had a wide open net for his 22nd goal of the season, extending the lead to 2-0 before the first two minutes of the game had elapsed.
The Stars attempted to push back, but a combination of excellent forechecking and Sergei Bobrovsky being on top of his game kept the lead secure until just past the midway point, when Shawn Horcoff whacked Jared Boll in the face with a high stick following a neutral zone faceoff draw.
Boll's face and nose got impressively can-openered, and even though he stayed on the bench for temporary repairs by trainer Mike Vogt rather than head to the dressing room, the referees made the decision to grant Columbus a double minor.
Thomas looked somewhat shaky after giving up the early goal, but had managed to bring himself together during the PK, where the Stars killed off the first minor and seemed on their way to building some momentum when, just as he did in the previous game, Ryan Johansen made something happen.
This time the goal wasn't directly off his stick, but the Johan lead a carry into the Stars zone late in the power play alongside Mark Letestu, and helped establish a cycle through the zone that eventually saw David Savard send the puck back to him at the half wall. Johansen couldn't find a shooting lane, so he popped it to Test Tube, who attempted to put the puck in the crease for a charging Boone Jenner...when the puck went into the goal off Thomas' leg.
At first the fans watching at home and away thought that Jenner had scored for the second time in two games because of his position at the top of the crease, but after video review it was confirmed that the puck never touched him - it hit Thomas' knee and went straight in through his five hole, giving Letestu HIS second goal in as many games.
Despite Dallas getting a couple of power play opportunities of their own, including a painful delay of game call with less than five seconds left in the first period, the 3-0 lead held through 40 minutes, with Columbus outshooting Dallas 24-16 through two periods and clearly trying to choke the life out of their opponents.
It would take an act of pure desperation to break the hold, and that's exactly what Lindy Ruff would call for in the final period of regulation.
With Cam Atkinson called for a (somewhat weak) hooking minor at the 6:50 mark, Ruff didn't just send out his PP unit - he called Thomas to the bench for an extra skater.
Facing a two man advantage but gifted with the ability to ice the puck, the Jackets took several attempts at the open cage, but both Derek MacKenzie and Fedor Tyutin just missed on clearing attempts that would go wide or get blocked by a backchecking Stars player. Finally, with time ticking down and a swarm of bodies around the net, Trevor Daley tipped in a loose rebound off of Bob's pads to break the shutout bid and finally bring what had been an eerily quite building back to life.
Even though Thomas returned to his net for the puck drop, the energy of their desperation move being rewarded gave Dallas new fire, and Columbus was forced into a defensive shell that had to hold up for ten more minutes.
Sergei Bobrovsky and his defense were tested - and at times pushed to the absolute limit - but held firm through the final minutes of play, when Thomas once again left the ice to allow for an extra skater.
For a heart stopping moment it looked like Brandon Dubinsky had an opportunity to put the game away with a long shot from his own blue line, but the puck hit the post and trickled to the outside. Frustrating, but the icing call did give the team a valuable 10-15 second break to catch their breath. That would become the pattern through the final thirty seconds, until Derek MacKenzie got the puck cleared out (if not deep), allowing for Columbus to push the Stars back and eat valuable seconds across the clock.
On TV, over the radio, in bars, and in homes, fans wearing Union Blue, professional commentators, and casual fans who have taken note of these scrappy little bastards from the 614 began to count.
The final horn sounded, and the players left the bench once again to celebrate with their teammates. The hard work has begun to pay off. The first step has been taken, and we're back in the postseason after a long, long wait.
The next challenge is simple: There are two more games to play, and a better seed in the playoffs remains a real possibility if either Philadelphia or the Rangers stumble. They've stepped through the door. As one of my friends put it, now it's time for them to stride. (For the next 72 hours, we may as well be temporary Montreal, Buffalo, Canes, and Pens fans. Oh, and the Lightning could give us a hand on Thursday, too.)
At the time, though, I'll be honest - I wasn't thinking about that. Not for a couple hours, at least. I was just cheering my head off along with everyone else and celebrating.
Welcome back, boys.
See you in two weeks.