Despite all the odds stacked against them, the Jackets kept it interesting last night in their 10th season finale, and for fourty minutes - perhaps more - they were just as strong a team as the Buffalo Sabres, whose fans couldn't stop reminding us were headed to the playoffs (where I sincerely hope they will be demolished by the Flyers).
But, as it has so often for the Jackets this season, the game turned on a heartbreaking moment.
Ryan Miller got the start for the Sabres (though he would turn over duties to Jhonas Enroth in the second period), and he was a big reason why the Sabres stayed in the game early. The Blue Jackets came out swinging and after a brief "feeling out" period, they attacked the net with vigor, outshooting Buffalo 11-8 despite the first period ending in a scoreless tie.
In the second period, the Jackets would open the scoring, and perhaps appropriately, it was a fan favorite who got them on the board when Derek Dorsett took a feed into the offensive zone from Samuel Pahlsson, rushed down the boards, slid around the net, and performed a textbook wraparound that bounced off Miller's skate and into the net.
The Sabres would get their own back, though, taking advantage of some sloppy defensive play by the top line, who could not clear the zone. Cycling between Steve Montador and Jason Pominville eventually paid off when Pominville was able to slip behind Jakub Voracek, and Montador sent the puck up to the undefended winger, who fired a slap shot through traffic for the tying goal.
The Sabres would end up taking a 3-1 lead by the 15 minute mark of the period off a broken clearing attempt that Chris Butler slammed home over a sliding Jan Hejda, and a Tyler Ennis wrister after Fedor Tyutin attempted a pass from his knees that went straight to the Buffalo rookie.
The moment was captured perfectly by one comment: "Maybe someone should tell the D that hockey is a lot easier to play on your feet."
The crowd got right back into it, however, when Derek MacKenzie sprang Matt Calvert on a rush into the Buffalo zone, and his shot set up a perfect "tap in" rebound for Jared Boll that the pugilist was able to chip right over Enroth's leg pads to bring the Jackets back within one before the end of the period.
The Jackets came out hustling again to start the third period, clearly fired up and trying to find the answer to this game for the home crowd, and it would be a reunited line of Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, and R.J. Umberger who brought the crowd to their feet early in the third period when Sami Lepisto carried the puck in deep, fed the puck to Vermette at the half boards, and he nailed a perfect cross-ice pass to Huselius, who snapped a wrister before Enroth could adjust to the threat.
For the next ten minutes, it seemed like the Jackets were outworking the Sabres, and had a few more near-miss chances, including one Umberger shot from the top of the crease that just bounced off the crossbar.
The momentum was clearly with the Jackets, and both sides had been playing a physical game when something went horribly wrong.
Engaged in a battle with Tyler Ennis, Craig Rivet had his stick slashed by the rookie, and he came up with a cross check in response that ended up clipping Ennis in the head and triggering a full-ice scrum. Everyone except the goaltenders got involved briefly, but when the dust cleared, the Jackets were in a bad position, with Rivet set off with a roughing minor, a cross-checking major, and a game misconduct that saw him ejected from what may have been his final NHL game. (Rivet, the former Buffalo captain, has been discussing retirement regularly in reports with both Buffalo and Columbus media - I'd be shocked if he returns.)
Forced to kill a 5 minute major with only eight minutes left in the period, the Jackets were behind the eight ball, and their PK got caught twice - the first from Drew Stafford cutting around Chris Clark and Fedor Tyutin to pop the puck past Steve Mason when he pushed over to attempt to get over on the winger's attempt, which he elevated over the netminder, and the second from a Paul Gaustad slapshot that went in from the top of the circles.
The Jackets didn't stop, however, and once they were back to 5 on 5 they emptied the net almost immediately, even drawing another penalty with just under a minute left in the game when Mike Weber was sent off for tripping, and Kristian Huselius would pull the Jackets back within one again, grabbing the rebound from a Grant Clitsome shot and firing it top-shelf, but time would run out even as R.J. Umberger attempted one final shot that trickled through the crease, but could not be put home before the clock ran down.
It stung, but I wasn't really upset about this game. The more I thought about it, I was proud of the fact that our team played hard, and they never gave up, as we have seen happen before all too often in their 10 year history.
They may not have won, but the Sabres sure as hell knew they were in a fight, and they gave the fans a lot to cheer for, even if the end result was not what we wanted.
There's no bottom of the barrel for this game. The team clearly gave it their all, and with all the turnover likely to run through the club this offseason, singling out goats seems it would be in rather poor taste.
The season is over, but soon enough it will be October again, and we'll have all new reasons to cheer.