The painful, confusing, often heartbreaking mess that was the Columbus Blue Jackets 2015-2016 season was finally set to come to an end Saturday night, and it's strangely fitting that the Chicago Blackhawks were there to drive that final nail into the coffin.
With Nationwide Arena uncomfortably full of red sweaters (including more than a few CBJ season ticket holders who manage to find their Toews and Kane gear awfully quickly when the Hawks come to town), the only real question left for Columbus to answer was if they'd slot into #27 or #26 in the final season standings.
Despite being locked into the playoffs, the Hawks still had a chance to clinch home ice advantage through the entire postseason if they'd won tonight, and they certainly seemed motivated for it.
With Sergei Bobrovsky in net for the home team, and Corey Crawford geared up for the visitors, the puck barely left the referree's hands when Artemi Panarin blitzed through Ryan Murray and Seth Jones, then wired a perfect pass to Patrick Kane for a one-timer that found the back of the net for the alleged human being's 45th goal of the season.
To their credit, the Jackets put a fair bit of rubber on Crawford after allowing that opening goal, but couldn't find the bounces they needed to make headway. Outshooting the Hawks 10-3 by the midpoint of the period, Columbus found themselves on the penalty kill after Nick Foligno was called for a trip...and promptly found themselves down 2-0 after Kane returned the favor by setting up Panarin on the power play, giving the rookie his 29th goal of the season.
That was enough to give a sinking "here we go again" feeling for fans who had seen the Jackets on the wrong end of a blowout far too many times this season, but the real nausea didn't set in until Panarin picked off a Seth Jones pass at the blue line and buzzed in, sending a shot trickling through Bobrovsky's legs for his 30th of the season.
At this point, the shot counter now stood at 10-4, and Bobrovsky had stopped exactly one shot on goal in just under fifteen minutes of play, but Torts didn't even breathe in Joonas Koripsalo's general direction.
Instead, he responded to the goal by stapling Jones to the bench for the remainder of the first period (and the second) and sending a message that he wanted the team to find a way out without relying on a goaltending switch to spark them.
Remarkably? This worked.
The Jackets came out a bit timid to start the second period, but it wasn't long before they started to test Crawford again, and this time it paid off.
Scott Hartnell FINALLY got #300 on the score sheet by going to the net and cleaning up a Alexander Wennberg rebound after Crawford came out to the top of the crease, leaving #43 with a wide open net.
I expected that might be the "feel good" moment for this game - the silver lining that could be used to polish the turd, if you'll forgive the tortured metaphor, but the Jackets had more in store for this game.
Matt Calvert lived up to his name and continued his scoring streak by hustling into the Chicago zone in pursuit of the puck, stealing it from Michael Rozsival behind the goal line and flipping it at the net from a sharp angle, likely hoping to create a rebound chance, but the puck bounced in off Crawford to cut the deficit to 3-2, and Alexander Wennberg would close out the period by setting Brandon Saad up for a beauty of a goal to tie the game against his former club (and take the goal scoring title for this season with 31, squeaking just past Boone Jenner.)
With a sudden shift in the fortunes, fans tried desperately not to get their hopes up as the third period began, but there was something disturbingly close to hope as the Jackets picked up where they left off, with Saad giving Wennberg a nice helper this time to give Columbus their first lead of the night.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chicago DID find an equalizer, and it was once again Kane who did it, though Panarin was nowhere to be found this time - just a good case of Brent Seabrook getting the puck in deep, and Marcus Kruger putting the puck exactly where Kane needed it to be for a blistering snipe.
That ratcheted the tension up once again, and things went from bad to worse when first Nick Foligno was called for interference with just over three minutes to play in regulation after the Captain responded to getting a nasty crosscheck from Trevor van Riemsdyk, followed by David Savard getting a whistle for a...shall we say some what suspect...slashing call.
To make matters worse, that penalty also cost the team Brandon Dubinsky, who expressed his opinion of the call to the officiating crew in no uncertain terms, and was given a game misconduct for abuse of officials as a result.
Dubi's rather furious reaction that that went about as well as you'd expect, but to his credit the forward wouldn't leave the team - instead, he stood in the dressing room tunnel where he could watch the jumbotron like everyone else as the home fans actually rooting for the home team sweated out the 5-on-3 kill.
After looking shaky most of the evening, it was Bob who came up trumps, stopping some nasty chances on the kill, including a stunning post to post move to shut down Kane at point blank range, and the Jackets rode that sudden surge of confidence through both kills and the final seconds of regulation, driving the game into OT.
After giving him a rather harsh sit down earlier in the game, Torts gave Seth Jones some room to work, putting him out for the 3 on 3 with Saad and Wennberg, and the trio put some pretty serious moves on the Hawks, nearly scoring on their first attack. The Jackets continued to turn that pressure up, and Cam Atkinson drew a hooking penalty as he powered into the Chicago zone a little over a minute and a half into the extra time.
With Teuvo Teravainen in the box, Torts called his timeout to allow the team to plan their attack, and while I can't say what was actually drawn on the whiteboard, the power play would end up cashing it in a little over a minute into the penalty, with Scott Hartnell redirecting a shot from Atkinson for his second of the night.
Final Score: Blue Jackets 5 - Blackhawks 4 (OT)
There are those who will argue that winning was the worst possible result for this game - thanks to the new draft lottery rules, it certainly put them outside the top 3, barring a lucky bounce of the lottery balls, and could lead to falling all the way to 7th in a worst case scenario, but there's no way to know for sure. As it stands right now, the Jackets will have about a 10% chance of winning the lottery, and are most likely to pick 4th, but the possibility of shenanigans is there. (Still, let's be honest, everyone is still expecting Edmonton to wind up picking #1 anyway.)
More bittersweet is the fact that this team, for one of the few times this year, played with some resilience. They dug themselves a hole, managed to find their way out, hung on in a situation where the odds were heavily stacked against them, and somewhat miraculously pulled a win out of the mess.
It's a game that makes you wonder What If, and curse the rotten luck that put them in this situation. If we'd had, say, 8 or 9 of those 40 losses go a bit more like tonight's effort...well, we'd be talking about some different things tonight.
But we live in What Is, not What If, and that means that we can (and should!) be happy for guys like Hartnell and Saad achieving career highs. We should be glad that Bob finally found a little bit of magic in his pads in that final PK, and while we need to avoid the trap of thinking this might mean good things for next season, we can at least be glad that several valuable pieces of the team's future (Jones, Bjorkstrand, Karlsson, Anderson, Korpisalo, etx) all got a chance to pick up valuable experience, and make real contributions at this level.
We'll have more to say later. We've got a whole offseason to talk.
For today? Enjoy this, and don't forget to root for the Monsters.