COLUMBUS, Ohio – In the biggest game in franchise history, the Columbus Blue Jackets relied on their lucky charm.
Raffi Torres, small in stature but very big in heart and grit, scored early in the third period and Steve Mason made it stand up as the Blue Jackets beat the Nashville Predators 2-1 Tuesday night in a key Western Conference showdown.
Columbus, which solidified its hold on sixth place, is 11-0 when Torres has a goal.
“To be honest with you, I think it’s a fluke,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t even know about it. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully we’ll keep going.”
Michael Peca and Torres came in on a 2-on-1 against defenceman Shea Weber, and Peca’s shot resulted in a short rebound. Torres jammed the puck past goalie Pekka Rinne with a backhander at 4:05 for his fourth goal in six games.
“He scores big goals all the time,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He’s had a huge impact on a lot of games in the last month.”
R.J. Umberger also scored for the Blue Jackets, who have 88 points, four ahead of Nashville and five in front of eighth-place St. Louis.
“We approached this as the biggest game of the year,” Umberger said. “We set ourselves up the first two periods. The third period, we said, ‘This is the biggest period right here. We’ve got to find a way to win this.’ We outplayed them. And we can’t let it slip.”
The Blue Jackets had lost two in a row, both to St. Louis, watching several pursuers draw closer in what had seemed a somewhat comfortable lead in the playoff race. They’re trying to make the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s eight seasons.
“This was a huge two points to kind of create a little breathing room,” said Mason, who had 21 saves.
Cal O’Reilly gave the Predators a lead midway through the first period.
“We’ve just got to fight for points,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “I wish we would have been able to get a point. It’s not necessarily about winning or losing, it’s about getting points. Because you never know what point may get you in or may keep you out.”
The Predators played their first game without second-leading scorer Martin Erat, out a month after breaking a leg on Sunday in a victory at Detroit.
Rinne, who had 31 saves in a matchup of two premier rookie goalies, was swarmed for most of the first period as the Blue Jackets outshot the Predators 17-6.
Late in the period, Antoine Vermette fed Umberger in the right corner. He skated along the goal line unimpeded and his shot deflected off Rinne’s chest. Umberger then pounced on the short rebound for his 26th goal.
It stayed 1-1 through two periods, with both goalies making occasional spectacular saves.
Then it was time for the pesky Torres to strike again.
“I saw Peca coming to pick it up, 2 on 1,” he said. “I knew he wasn’t going to be able to pass it; their defenceman did a good job of taking the pass away. I just went to the net with my stick on the ice. It worked out perfect.”
Mason and the Blue Jackets, without a penalty for 2 1/2 periods, had to survive 28 seconds of 5-on-3 and another full two-minute kill down the stretch.
Mason made a nifty glove save on Michael Santorelli just before the two-man advantage started, then smothered one shot during the power play. Late in the second penalty, Mason had a kick save on Joel Ward’s quick, spinning backhander from the high slot.
With seven minutes left, a dump into Nashville’s offensive end took an odd bounce off the boards and ended up on the stick of the Predators’ Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist shed a defender and had a clear path to Mason but the goalie deflected the shot.
Each team has five games left, with Nashville hosting the Blue Jackets on Saturday night.
“We’re going into their building for the next game,” Mason said. “We have to be prepared. We can’t sit tight with this one.”
Notes: Nashville D Dan Hamhuis played in his 400th NHL game and C Vernon Fiddler skated in his 300th. Columbus D Christian Backman also played in his 300th. … Predators RW J.P. Dumont was sandwiched into the boards by two Blue Jackets at the Columbus bench door. He stayed face down on the ice for several minutes before being assisted to the dressing room. He did return. … The Blue Jackets lead the season series 3-2, with the home team winning each game.