COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Blackhawks moved a step closer to securing home ice in the first round of the playoffs, while the Blue Jackets are still fighting and inching toward their first post-season berth.
Nikolai Khabibulin made 20 saves for his second shutout of the season and the 40th of his career, and rookie Kris Versteeg scored his 22nd of the season with 1:50 remaining in overtime to give Chicago a 1-0 win over Columbus on Sunday night.
Versteeg skated alone from beyond centre ice to beat Steve Mason, the fellow rookie star who finished with 24 saves for Columbus, with a low shot that bounced off the goalie’s stick and into the net.
“You can’t really see much going in on that goalie,” Versteeg said. “I was going five-hole and I guess I got lucky and it bounced in. Coming down against a guy like Mason I guess all you can do is shoot and pray to God it goes into the net.”
Moments earlier, Khabibulin stymied Kris Russell, who also had a lengthy breakaway. Before Russell’s breakaway, he kicked Versteeg’s overtime shot off the Columbus goal-line.
The Blackhawks have won three straight and six of eight, and snapped a season-high five-game road losing streak.
“What a hockey game,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “Both teams played hard, the pace was incredible. I don’t know how many times we had five or six minutes of play without faceoffs or stoppages.”
A day after clinching a playoff spot for the first time in seven years, the Blackhawks ran their winning streak to three and snapped a season-high five-game road losing streak. Chicago also moved three points ahead of Vancouver – a 4-1 loser Sunday night against Colorado – for the fourth seed and home ice in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Columbus has lost five of seven, but only one of those losses was in regulation. They are 8-2-4 in their last 14 and gained a valuable point in defeat.
The Blue Jackets have 90 points, with Anaheim (88 points), Nashville (86) and St. Louis (86) in close pursuit as the four teams fight for the final three spots. Anaheim had a chance to catch Columbus later Sunday, but lost to San Jose.
“This is what it takes for non-established teams to establish a territory in the league,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “This is what it takes to get in (to the playoffs). There is a hell of a price to pay to get in.”
Columbus, which entered the league in 2000, is the only active team that has not qualified for the playoffs.
Both teams had prime chances to score in the third period.
Near the midway mark, the Blackhawks hemmed Columbus in its own zone for nearly two minutes, with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews narrowly missing on close-range shots.
The Blue Jackets finally cleared on a quick rush and created a scoring chance but Khabibulin stopped Jiri Novotny’s redirection.
“We had that shift in the third where we were all over them and they come down and Khabby made a toe save,” Quenneville said. “He kept us in the game at critical times.”
With under two minutes left in regulation, Mason gloved but couldn’t control Martin Havlat’s low-left circle shot. The puck bounced around a crowded crease before R.J. Umberger cleared it out of danger.
Duncan Keith almost made a statement early for Chicago, clanging a shot off the post the first minute of the game. The best chance of the opening frame, however, came late when Russell knocked the puck into the slot to Colin Fraser. All alone, Fraser stepped into a wrist shot that was gloved aside by Mason.
The best action of the second period happened in the final minute.
Voracek threw a spin-around shot from the right corner that Khabibulin stopped, but he batted the puck into the slot. Jan Hejda jumped onto the loose puck but Khabibulin was able to recover and toss the shot aside with another stick save.
Not long after, with a flurry of plays around Mason, Toews pushed the puck wide left, misfiring with an open net.
“We want to clinch this as soon as possible,” Columbus’ Mike Commodore said. “I don’t like waking up every morning checking the standings.”
Notes: The Blue Jackets played without second-leading scorer (21-35-56) Kristian Huselius. The LW suffered a head injury off the opening faceoff Saturday in Nashville. … Chicago RW Patrick Sharp, second on the team with 26 goals, missed the game with a knee injury suffered Friday against the Predators. … The clubs close of their regular-season series Wednesday in Chicago. … The Blue Jackets’ Jason Williams’ six-game points streak ended.