COLUMBUS, Ohio – The crowd roared both before and after the game for Rick Nash.
Will it be the last time he hears those cheers in Columbus?
Cam Atkinson scored two goals—giving him five in five periods—to lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 7-3 victory on Saturday over the New York Islanders in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Nash opened the scoring in what could be his final game for the Blue Jackets. He has asked for a trade and management has said it will try to deal him this summer. But the fans held up signs of support for him and clearly said thanks to him for his nine years as the face of the team.
“This was pretty special. They stuck with us all year,” he said of the fans. “It was a disappointing year for us as a team. And it’s not where we want to be right now. But they stuck with us and they were great tonight.”
Even before the game started, there was an outpouring of affection from fans pleading with Nash to not leave.
One sign during pregame warmups said, “Oh captain, my captain.” Another hand-printed design, referring to general manager Scott Howson, said, “Fire Howson, Keep Nash.” A third said, “Pleeeeease don’t go, Rick.”
Nash will meet this week with Howson. Whether the team’s leading career scorer and captain will change his mind or remain on the trading block will certainly be discussed then.
Nash was asked if he thought that this might be his final game in a Blue Jackets sweater.
“It’s tough. It’s a fun building to play in and I love Columbus,” he said. “Next week will be fun hanging out with all the guys and finishing off (the post-season meetings). But it hasn’t really crossed my mind too much.”
One thing that might lure Nash to remain is how the Blue Jackets played down the finish. Out of the playoffs almost before they began after a 0-7-1 start, they won five of their last six and went 16-14-1 over their last 31. That might also be enough to retain interim coach Todd Richards. He took over a team on Jan. 9 that was 11-25-5 before Scott Arniel was fired; the Blue Jackets went 18-21-2 from then on, despite a franchise record for injuries and games lost.
The last game was a wide-open one in which the Blue Jackets seemed to score on every possible opportunity while goalie Steve Mason, who had 35 saves, kept them ahead by making several big stops against the Islanders.
James Wisniewski and Vinny Prospal each added a goal and two assists and R.J. Umberger and Jack Johnson also scored. Atkinson also had an assist.
“The fans were excited. The players had fun. I might have been the only guy in the building probably who didn’t have that much fun,” Richards said. “It was just the way the game went. It was a loosey-goosey game, You get that in game 82 and the position that both teams were in. Our goaltender was great. To me, he was the difference in the game.”
Nash got the night off to a rip-roaring start. It wasn’t known if he would even dress after sustaining a back injury in Thursday night’s win in Colorado. But he did more than just dress.
Late in the first period, Mark Letestu’s shot ended up underneath goalie Al Montoya. Nash muscled his way past defenceman Mark Streit to jam the puck in with 35.6 seconds left.
It was his 30th goal of the season, marking the fifth season in a row and seventh time in his career he had hit that figure. It was his 289th goal, all in a Columbus sweater, in his 674th game. Those are franchise records, along with his 547 points, 83 power-play goals, 14 short-handed goals and 45 game-winning goals.
Nash said hitting the 30 mark was not a major goal.
“I never set personal goals, but it’s a good landmark to hit,” he said. “I couldn’t do it without playing with (Derick) Brassard and Umberger and Vinny and Mark. I owe them for setting me up.”
Atkinson, coming off a three-goal game on Thursday night in a 5-2 win at Colorado, then scored twice in the second period.
The turning point came late in the second period when the Blue Jackets ended up with 1:11 of a 5-on-3 advantage after penalties to defencemen Andrew MacDonald and Steve Staios.
With a two-man advantage, Wisniewski was set up on the left wing for a one-timer from Prospal. Less than a minute later, with the Blue Jackets still up a man, Atkinson cleaned up a rebound off of another Wisniewski shot.
The late, two-game goal flurry by Atkinson followed a 12-game goal drought.
“I feel like I’ve been playing pretty solid for the last 25 games I’ve been up here,” Atkinson said. “Obviously I wasn’t scoring or getting any assists or anything but I felt like I was playing pretty good defensively. It’s nice to end the last stretch of games with some points.”
Milan Jurcina and Michael Grabner each had a goal and an assist and Kyle Okposo also scored for the Islanders, who remain the only NHL team to have not won in regulation in Nationwide Arena. The Blue Jackets are 6-0-2 against them at home.
“The first and second periods we had close to 18 chances and close to 40 shots and we couldn’t score,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “We were right there and then their two power-play goals killed us.”
Notes: Blue Jackets RW Derek Dorsett was involved in two fights, giving him the NHL lead this season in penalty minutes with 235. … Okposo has scored 22 of his 24 goals since the start of December. … The Blue Jackets finished with 65 points, their third fewest total in their 11 seasons. … The Islanders finished with 79 points.