COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Atlanta Thrashers needed a break. Instead, they got more bad news.
Kristian Huselius had a goal and an assist and the Columbus Blue Jackets weathered a late rally to hang on for a 2-1 victory Thursday night, with the Thrashers’ loss clinching the Southeast Division title for the Washington Capitals.
All three of the goals were flukey. In dire need of a tying goal in the last two minutes, almost nothing worked in the Thrashers’ favour.
“When it’s not going for you, it’s not going for you,” coach John Anderson said. “We got a little bit of a bounce on one of the goals – for us – but we’re not getting any breaks right now. It’s a difficult loss.”
The Thrashers, who lost their fourth in a row, had several good scoring chances after Johnny Oduya’s goal with 2:21 left. But Mathieu Garon made 28 saves, including several big stops in the final minute while Atlanta had two extra attackers.
“I knew it was coming in the third because they’re a team battling for a playoff spot right now,” Garon said.
The Thrashers, who came into the game four points behind Boston for the last playoff slot in the East, outshot the Blue Jackets 17-1 in the third period.
“Obviously, we are not playing well,” Atlanta forward Nik Antropov said. “It is not a good situation for us if we want to make the playoffs. I don’t think we were ready to play for the first period and a half. They were two goals up and it’s difficult for us to come back.”
The Capitals, who were idle, needed an Atlanta loss to lock up the division title.
Chris Chelios, the 48-year-old defenceman who has starred for Montreal, Chicago and Detroit, made his debut for the Thrashers after being called up on Wednesday from Chicago of the American Hockey League. He figured into the first goal of the game – in a bad way.
The Blue Jackets scored first for the 11th time in their last 12 games when R.J. Umberger picked up his 20th on the power play at 6:36 of the first. He took a pass from Huselius and, from a hard angle to the right of the goal cage, he flipped the puck toward the net. Chelios went to one knee to block it, but the puck ricocheted toward goalie Johan Hedberg and slipped between his leg pads.
“It’s like a playoff game,” said Chelios, who has played in hundreds of them. “You see how one goal can be the difference.”
Columbus’ second goal also needed a fortunate bounce. Huselius’ shot from the high slot went off the outside of Hedberg’s right skate and slowly skittered toward the goal. Antropov couldn’t pull the puck back before it crossed the line.
Huselius had missed the Blue Jackets’ last two games with an upper body injury and wasn’t cleared to play Thursday night until earlier in the day.
Oduya’s goal was also strange. Confronted by a Blue Jacket along the left wall, he pivoted and spun to fire a blind, backhanded centring pass that hit off the skate of Columbus defenceman Mike Commodore and then bounced past Garon.
“We managed the game OK – not ideal – but I was happy that we controlled the game and did what we needed to do,” interim head coach Claude Noel said. “The biggest thing was I thought that we checked and if we did that, we would win.”
The Thrashers were on the power play the last 1:25 after Jan Hejda was called for high sticking. They pulled Hedberg for an extra attacker.
Rich Peverley was wide with a one-timer from the left wing while faced with an almost vacant net. Zach Bogosian’s hard slap shot from the point resulted in a blocker save by Garon. Then Niclas Bergfors drilled a hard shot from the right wing that hit Garon high on his chest – he was able to smother the rebound – with just a few seconds remaining.
The Blue Jackets were without captain Rick Nash, who is nursing a couple of lower-body injuries. He missed his second game in a row, after missing just six games over the last two seasons.
The Thrashers now have no choice but to turn things around when they begin a season-long five-game homestand against the New York Rangers on Friday night.
“Usually we play well when our backs are against the wall,” Anderson said. “They’re there now. It’s an absolutely must win for us.”
NOTES: The Blue Jackets’ one shot in the third period tied a franchise low. … Atlanta had the first 13 shots of the third period and Columbus didn’t have a shot on goal until 1:40 remained. … D Fedor Tyutin’s assist on Umberger’s goal was the 100th of his NHL career and came in his 398th game.