Then came a stretch in the third period when the Hurricanes willed themselves to a win.
"Sometimes in this building you feel it coming," Eric Staal said. "It was a big couple goals and a good win."
Carolina (24-19-9) has won four in a row. With 57 points, the Hurricanes jumped over both Columbus and the Philadelphia Flyers into third place in the Metropolitan Division.
"I think it was great because we keep talking about staying the course and keeping that structure," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "We knew we were losing during the game, but these are teams that we need to learn to beat, teams that are big and strong on the boards and grind you down. The guys stayed with it and found a way."
Columbus seized the lead early in the first period. Corey Tropp left a drop pass for Fedor Tyutin, whose shot rang of the post, leaving Derek MacKenzie to clean up the rebound at 2:25. For MacKenzie, it was his third straight game with a goal.
Seventeen seconds later, RJ Umberger started and finished a play to push the lead to 2-0. After forcing Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk into a turnover, Umberger went to the net and followed Ryan Johansen's centering pass for his 14th of the season. Nick Foligno also earned an assist.
"At the start of the second period our legs started getting better, and our puck battles were stronger," Eric Staal said. "We talked in the first intermission about raising our level a little bit -- not a ton -- just a little bit more out of each guy."
The teams were held scoreless in the second period, with the Blue Jackets content to limit the quality of Carolina's shots. The Hurricanes held a decisive 17-8 advantage, but Columbus kept most of them near the perimeter.
Then in the third, Carolina rode a wave of momentum. Eric Staal narrowed the gap to 2-1 at 11:18, taking a pass from Alexander Semin for his 13th goal. Moments later, Jiri Tlusty shoveled a pass from behind the net to Staal, who banged it home in front of Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
Jordan Staal then went to work. After Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm moved the puck along the boards through the neutral zone, Staal made a nifty drag move in the slot and slipped a backhand shot inside the far post.
"I had some speed coming low and just went for it from there," Staal said. "I saw the [defenseman] and I tried to get my reach out there and pull him as far over as I could, then pulled to the other side and tried to get it on net."
Not known for his crafty stick handling, Staal wasn't sure if he had the move in his bag of tricks.
"You hope it's in there," he said with a smile. "But at that point, you're not thinking a whole lot. You're just reacting. I was fortunate enough to get a nice little bounce. It felt good."
The Blue Jackets recovered to get some quality chances on Anton Khudobin in the final minutes, but the Hurricanes goaltender calmly fended off the late shots.
"You expect that," said Khudobin, who made 22 saves. "They're losing by one goal with a couple minutes left. They tried to shoot everything at the net and [hope] something would go by me."
There was no frustration in the voice of Columbus coach Todd Richards afterwards, but his words conveyed the magnitude of the late loss.
"It leaves you with a bad feeling," Richards said. "You're up 2-0 in the third with under nine minutes to go. Then in the span of three minutes, everything you've done up to that point is all gone. Erased."
And what the Blue Jackets had done until then was significant. Although their offense waned as the game progressed, they put in a good night's work defensively; Brandon Dubinsky slid in front of Ruutu to snuff out a scoring chance from the slot. Matt Calvert went to his knees to block a close-in shot in the third period. The penalty killing unit fended off two Carolina power plays.
But it the end, it was the 2:47 in the third period that ruined the night for Columbus.
"I don't know if we were trying to hold on or playing the game to win," Richards said. "We gave up three goals in less than three minutes. For 57 minutes, I thought we managed it fairly well. But three minutes, that's the game. We gave them opportunities and they cashed in. A couple lost battles along the walls turned into turnovers and they capitalized."
Neither team will have much time to linger over the game. The Hurricanes will look for their fifth straight win when they play the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday. Columbus heads home to face the Ottawa Senators.
"It's a big opportunity to rebound," Richards said. "It's a disappointing loss, but this team has [responded] time and time again after tough, deflating losses. I'm expecting that tomorrow night."