COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s not a misprint: The once-woeful Columbus Blue Jackets occupy the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The worst team in the NHL just over a month ago, the Blue Jackets have now gone on a remarkable tear that has lifted them into the midst of the post-season race.
The latest hero was Mark Letestu, who set up the only goal in regulation and then scored the game-winner in overtime to lead the Blue Jackets to a 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. His goal finally helped out Sergei Bobrovsky, the engine of Columbus’ out-of-nowhere turnaround, who stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced.
And the Blue Jackets don’t talk as if they’re happy just to be respectable.
“The one thing we can’t change now is being satisfied,” said coach Todd Richards, whose team was 30th of the 30 NHL teams with a 5-12-2 record on Feb. 25. “We can’t have that. You’ve climbed the mountain and you get there and you (can’t) take a breath. We’re only halfway up the mountain. There’s still a lot of work in front of us.”
The victory improved the Blue Jackets to 9-0-3 in their last 12 games at Nationwide Arena and gave them points in 15 of their last 17 games (10-2-5) to creep into the No. 8 spot in the West. Other teams have more remaining games, but that doesn’t change the point totals. For at least a day, the Blue Jackets are vying to make the playoffs for only the second time in their 12 seasons as a franchise.
“It feels pretty good right now,” said Derick Brassard, who scored the Blue Jackets’ first goal off a slick assist by Letestu. “That’s our goal and we want to keep pushing over the next 12 games. We want to create that buzz. It’s our main goal to make the playoffs.”
Letestu talked like a veteran when asked about Columbus’ climb.
“We’re taking care of what we can,” he said. “Obviously, there are teams that have some games in hand so it may change by the time we get to play again (on Thursday). But we had five more home games before this one and those are 10 big points, 10 points we have to have. If we go out and do our job on the road, we’re going to be right there at the end.”
The game pitted two of the NHL’s hottest teams over the past few weeks. The Ducks came in 16-5-3 for 35 points in their last 24 games.
In the overtime, Nikita Nikitin settled a high pass from rookie Dalton Prout at the right boards, then slid a pass to Letestu at the left circle. Letestu collected the pass and then beat goalie Jonas Hiller with a forehand on his stick side for the winner with 1 minute left in overtime.
“Our defencemen found that seam eventually,” Letestu said. “It was kind of a bad angle, but I just found a way to get it through him.”
Columbus was playing its third game in four nights and Anaheim its third on a four-game road trip. It showed it, with neither team doing much on tired legs—although the Ducks outshot Columbus 17-1 in the third period. But Bobrovsky stood tall.
“You obviously don’t like the result,” Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I’m just frustrated. We play well and we keep pushing and pushing and we’re missing opportunities. I mean, they’re right in front of the net. There’s rebounds or we’re not going to the net or we’re doing some things that just are not Duck-like, for want of a better phrase.”
Emerson Etem had the only goal for the Pacific Division-leading Ducks, who had lost four in a row until winning 2-1 in Chicago on Friday night.
Down 1-0, Anaheim pulled even 5:55 into the third thanks to the largesse of the Blue Jackets. Columbus failed to clear the puck and Bryan Allen took it away from R.J. Umberger. Andrew Cogliano then fed Etem, who waded in and tucked a wrister inside the near post past Bobrovsky.
“They’re fighting for their lives and they’re playing a real simple game,” Cogliano said. “They’re tough to play against, especially in this building. They play defensively really well.”
In the second period, Letestu fired the puck wide of the cage and it bounded off the back boards to Brassard at the left doorstep. Hiller had it pinned between his right skate and the near post, but Brassard punched it into the net with two whacks.
Richards said his players know what’s at stake.
“Guys know how critical points are,” he said. “Not just one point, but two points, is what we need. The guys want it. You can see it. They sense it. They believe. There’s hope. Those are some powerful things.”
NOTES: Earlier in the day, the Blue Jackets placed LW Nick Foligno on injured reserve (upper body) and recalled C Nick Drazenovic from Springfield, Mass. (AHL). … Umberger left with a bloody nose late in the second after taking a push to the face from Anaheim D Sheldon Souray. He did return. … Ducks’ ageless RW Teemu Selanne (actually 42 years, 8 months) came in with 21 goals and 20 assists in 37 career games against Columbus.
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