COLUMBUS -- In a game played with playoff implications and playoff-like intensity Friday night in Columbus, the Rangers rallied past the Blue Jackets 3-1, scoring all three of their goals in the third period. The win lifted New York past Columbus into third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers have 80 points, while the Blue Jackets remain stuck on 78.
Though Rick Nash was a constant force for the Rangers in his return to Columbus--leading the team with seven shots on goal and totaling seven penalty minutes--where he starred for ten seasons before being traded to New York in the summer of 2012, it was another former Blue Jacket--Derick Brassard--who scored the game-winning goal for the visitors.
Brassard provided the Rangers their first lead of the game when his backhand shot from the side of the net banked off Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and into the cage at the 11:31 mark of the third period. The goal was his third in two games, and 16th of the season. Upon scoring it Brassard hurled himself into the glass behind the Blue Jackets net in joyful celebration.
"This is why we play hockey, for these types of games," explained Brassard in the postgame dressing room. "Everything was great tonight. I really enjoyed it. When I scored that goal I didn't know what to do. I was just really excited, especially with the game on the line."
Anton Stralman picked up the primary assist on Brassard's goal, his second helper of the night against his former team.
Carl Hagelin scored his 17th goal into an empty-net with 38.7 seconds to play in the third period to ice the road victory.
Henrik Lundqvist out-dualed Bobrovsky between the pipes in a battle pitting the last two Vezina Trophy winners. Lundqvist, who was forced to be at his best in the third period, finished with 25 saves; while Bobrovsky--who kept his team in the game, especially during the first two periods as the Rangers moved to a 22-11 shots advantage at one point in the contest--stopped 29 of 32 shots in defeat.
"Everybody knew what these two points meant to both teams," defenseman Ryan McDonagh offered after the game. "We did a really good job of maintaining our focus, playing to our strengths, and didn't get sidetracked.Obviously it got physical and we responded well. This was a huge two points."
After more than 41 minutes of scoreless play, the Blue Jackets drew first blood on the scoreboard when Nick Foligno intercepted an errant Benoit Pouliot pass and proceeded to beat Lundqvist high over the blocker just 1:12 into the third period. However as the Columbus crowd continued to celebrate, Derek Stepan answered right back 44 seconds later to tie the game, 1-1.
McDonagh circled behind the Columbus net and fed into the slot where Stepan snapped his 14th goal through Bobrovsky's pads at 1:56. Considering the circumstances and the importance of this game, Stepan's goal was one of the most clutch goals scored by the Rangers all of this season.
As he was often during his ten-year tenure in Columbus, Nash was the focal point of much of what happened at Nationwide Arena Friday. Nash was booed lustily when he was announced as part of the Rangers starting lineup and even more so when he carried the puck up ice and fired a shot on Bobrovsky during his second shift of the game. He then received a standing ovation when a classy video celebrating his time in Columbus was shown on the videoboard during the first television timeout. And when he very nearly scored a goal late in the second period and followed by starting an on-ice melee, Nash was booed louder than ever, and with more venom this time.
"This had a big-time playoff atmosphere," Nash said afterwards. "Give credit to them, but we showed up and got the job done. The two points were huge, really huge."
The wild sequence began with Nash powering up right wing with three minutes to play in the second, charging hard to the net, colliding with Bobrovsky as the puck slid over the goal line for what appeared to be the first goal of the game. However the referee immediately waved off the apparent goal, claiming incidental contact from Nash forced the puck out of Bobrovsky's clutches and into the net.
As the referee waved his arms, Bobrovsky pointed his stick at Nash and the former Blue Jackets captain responded by shoving the Columbus goalie in the chest, setting off a wild melee in which all ten skaters and Bobrovsky grappled on the ice. When it was all said and done, with seemingly everyone inside the sold-out arena on their feet, New York's Nash and Chris Kreider were sent to the box for roughing minors while only Artem Anisimov was penalized for the Blue Jackets.
The Rangers killed off the Columbus power play, with Nash flying out of the penalty box and recording two shots on goal immediately afterwards.
The spotlight remained on Nash when the third period started as he got tied up with Matt Calvert at the opening faceoff, and then the two finally dropped the gloves and fought at center ice with Nash popping Calvert's helmet off with a stiff right hand 12 seconds into the period.
"Rick, he showed great leadership tonight," said Brassard. "He showed emotion, character, and when he fought in the third period our whole bench was standing up and he gave us such a boost. I think Rick really competed hard tonight and gave us a big lift."
The Nash-Calvert fight was just part of what was an extremely emotional and physical night for both teams. Pouliot and Derek Mackenzie dropped the gloves 11:42 into the first period, moments after John Moore had his head hammered into the boards on an unpenalized hit thrown by the Blue Jackets' Blake Comeau. Moore briefly tried to return to the game, but after a couple of shifts he was shut down for the rest of the night with an unspecified injury.
The Rangers can not rest on their laurels after this big win as they are right back in action Saturday night when they skate against the Devils in Newark