The Blue Jackets faced their fourth game in six days on the road tonight, and it didn't start well at all.
With the team arriving from Montreal well after 2am last night, and the MSG staff needing to convert the arena floor from basketball parquet to hockey ice, the club announced that there would be no pre-game skate.
Instead, the club held a brief media availability later in the afternoon, where head coach Todd Richards surprised basically everyone by saying that James Wisniewski would be a healthy scratch, while Jordan Leopold rotated in. With speculation on the decision buzzing around the interwebs (a trade? A wake up call? An undisclosed injury or illness? All of the above?), the team took the ice to face a rested and ready Rangers team.
At first, the Jackets were able to keep pace with the Rangers, even drawing an early power play thanks to Nick Foligno's hustle...but the lack of their normal PP quarterback became a clear weakness early in the man advantage, with the Rangers constantly exploiting the lack of familiarity along the blue line to ice the puck or take shorthanded attacks up on Curtis McElhinney.
Riding the momentum from the kill, the Rangers pushed the Blue Jackets back into their own zone, and it wasn't long before they got the opportunity they needed when Carl Hagelin prevented a clearing attempt by swatting the puck out of the air and passing it back to Kevin Hayes, who walked straight up the middle before firing a shot right past McElhinney for the opening goal.
1-0 Rangers: Kevin Hayes (11) from Hagelin (14) @ 05:57
That goal fired up the Rangers bench, and suddenly it was very clear which team had been resting up on Saturday night, and which team was playing on drained batteries. The Blue Jackets found themselves constantly chasing the puck, and it wasn't long before the onslaught paid off once again.
Martin St. Louis did most of the work on this one, starting the initial entry into the zone before getting it deep to Derek Stepan, then curling around the back of the net to wait like an ambush spider at the side of the crease. Stepan fired a pass across the blue paint, and St. Louis was popping it into the net before the defense even realized he was there.
2-0 Rangers: Martin St. Louis (17) from Stepan (31) and Staal (12) @ 08:06
The Rangers had all the momentum, and despite Columbus drawing another (powerless) man advantage during the frame, the only reason they got out of the period was Curtis McElhinney standing on his head for the rest of the frame.
The second period initially seemed like it was going to be more of the same - particularly when Martin St. Louis capped off an odd man rush by himself, Stepan, and Ryan McDonagh by once again shaking his defenders and getting to the side of the net for a wide open shot.
3-0 Rangers: St. Louis (18) from McDonagh (16) and Stepan (32) @ 01:24
Just as hands reached for the remote all over the Columbus Metropolitan Area....something happened.
The line of Nick Foligno, Marko Dano, and Artem Anisimov went over the boards, and they started moving the puck. They held possession in the offensive zone. They pushed their way to the net...and after a nice keep in from Fedor Tyutin, Foligno was able to wire the puck to Dano, who beat Cam Talbot for his second NHL goal. (And if you're keeping track, he happened to score goal #1 against...the New York Rangers! Symmetry!)
3-1 Rangers: Marko Dano (2) from Foligno (31) and Tyutin (9) @ 02:47
Things were a bit of a seesaw from there, but there was a clear sense that the Blue Jackets were finally engaged and in the game. Passes started hitting. Shots started coming. Admittedly, penalties also started to be taken, but the PK stood up (with more than a little help from their goaltender), and there was a sense that the ice might just be starting to tilt their way.
Late in the period, the Anisimov - Foligno - Dano line was back out and driving to the net, and from a massive scrum in front of Talbot came the sight of Anisimov dropping his stick and celebrating as the red light behind the net suddenly popped on.
3-2 Rangers: Artem Anisimov (4) from Dano (3) @ 18:11
That goal was massive - and it gave the team a clear beacon of hope.
It wasn't long before the team hit the ice for the third period, and they came out with intent. The Rangers did a good job of trying to keep the Jackets away from Talbot as much as possible, but they were still working hard to attack. New York had opportunities at the other end of the ice, but they didn't amount to much...except for one, which amounted to Rick Nash trying to skate through C-Mac, earning himself a goalie interference penalty for his trouble.
That power play did not bear fruit, but even as the clock ticked down the Blue Jackets didn't give up. Instead, they just found ways to keep attacking, until once again the Foligno line came up trumps.
Keeping possession going for a long shift in the Rangers end, Foligno and Anisimov worked the puck around to the far wall before Arty sent the puck over to David Savard at the point, who slid away from the covering winger before blasting a shot into traffic...and into the back of the net.
3-3 TIE: David Savard (9) from Anisimov (9) and Foligno (32) @ 15:41
Having roared all the way back, the Jackets did their damnedest to end it in regulation, including an excellent attack from Cam Atkinson and Brandon Dubinsky in the waning moments of the frame, but this game was headed to extra time.
With both teams getting a point, it looked dicey when Fedor Tyutin was called for a...shall we say "Oscar Worthy?" hooking call on St. Louis, but the PK was spectacular despite the 4 on 3 deficit, with Anisimov and Foligno both taking short handed chances that nearly ended the game in OT, and rode that momentum through the final minutes of extra time, including a insanely beautiful spin move by Arty that went heartbreakingly wide of the net - a shame, as it would have been a fitting ending for the guy who had worked so hard to put the game on his back.
No, instead of more dramatic and frankly excellent 4 on 4 OT play, we headed to the skills competition...and it wasn't a fun day at the office.
St. Louis would shoot first for the Rangers and score on a fluky shot that he didn't seem to quite hit right, but managed to knuckle past C-Mac anyway.
Letestu answered with a brutally direct attack to keep things even, and McElhinney would get a little lucky when J.T. Miller put his shot off the post.
Ryan Johansen used his trademarked "Slow knife" shootout move, and appeared to beat Talbot with his shot, but the puck bounced off the crossbar and went out rather than tucking into the net, so it meant that things were still tied up going into the third round.
Rick Nash (of course!) powered in and put the Rangers ahead, leaving Cam Atkinson with the Blue Jackets' lives on his stick.
He made a good move to cut in on Talbot for a similar shot as Letestu, but Talbot was a little more on the ball, and made a stretching poke-check to knock it away, securing the victory for the Rangers.
FINAL - 4-3 Rangers (SO)
On the one hand, just digging out of the 3-0 hole was damned impressive, and the point earned means that the club took five points out of 10 for the road trip - pretty decent considering their situation.
On the other, it's ridiculous that they were in that 3-0 hole to begin with, and having managed to get themselves back to life, it's frustrating that they couldn't finish the deal - particularly with the kind of game that Dano and Anisimov had tonight. That was one hell of an effort, and they deserved more success.
Coach Richards confirmed in his post game presser that Wisniewski's scratch was "peformance related." You're going to get a lot of arguments from people who point to his stats and say that's a bad decision, and people who say his play hasn't been "passing the eye test" for the last few games, and agree with the call.
I'm OK with saying that Wiz had a couple of bad games on this trip. But I cannot help but wonder if he might have made a difference in this one - particularly on special teams.
Still, this game is in the books, and all the "what ifs" won't change that.
Instead, let's hope that when the team hits the ice against Buffalo on Tuesday they've got an effort that matches what we saw in the third period and OT, and that the flat starts we saw against Montreal and New York will be a thing of the past.