If you had any doubts the NHL schedule had unofficially shifted into playoff mode, Friday's game between the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets laid them to rest. The stakes between the division rivals hardly could be higher as the teams squared off in Ohio: both teams had the same number of points when the day began and were fighting it out for one of the lower post-season berths in the Eastern Conference. And the chippy, emotional game that followed – and ended with the Blueshirts winning 3-1 for a huge two points – demonstrated only the strong are going to survive from this point on.
To their credit, the Rangers weren't caught up in any hype over Rick Nash's first return to Columbus as a player since being dealt from the Blue Jackets to New York in the summer of 2012. Nor were they distracted when the game was still scoreless and Nash got into a second period cuffle with goalie Sergei Bobrovsky:
Instead, the Rangers leaned on star goalie Henrik Lundqvist (who made 25 saves for his 27th win of the season) and held their own against Columbus' physical approach to vault into third place in the Metropolitan Division and push the Jackets into the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. After two scoreless periods, former Blue Jacket Derick Brassard broke a 1-1 tie with the game-winner 11:31 into the third and Carl Hagelin added an empty-netter with 39 seconds left to seal the win.
With 11 games left to play, the Rangers are now only a single point behind Philadelphia for second place in the Metro, although the Flyers have two games in hand. The Blue Jackets have one game in hand on the Rangers, but this loss stings and makes their March 25 game against Detroit central to their post-season hopes. After winning five of their first six games in March, they've dropped three of five and now have the Red Wings (who have played one fewer game than Columbus and sit just a point behind them) and Capitals breathing down their neck.
Let all teams be on notice: every error you make is magnified for the rest of the year. You can play a strong game for two periods as did the Blue Jackets, and have it get away from you thanks to only a handful of mistakes. And one of those mistakes could be the difference between appearing in the playoffs and early-onset excuse-making.