COLUMBUS - The Chicago Blackhawks had been creating traffic in front of Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky all night long, so when defenseman Duncan Keith unleashed a drive from the left point in the final seconds of regulation, his teammates knew where to go.
Ben Smith went right to the blue paint and slapped in a rebound off a scramble with 3.7 seconds left to give the Blackhawks a 4-3 victory at Nationwide Arena on Friday night.
"Very timely but we had a lot of people at the net tonight and we got rewarded," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "We created a lot of action off the point shots."
Chicago (44-19-5) moved within one point of the second-place Colorado Avalanche in the Central Division by beating the Blue Jackets for the 13th consecutive time.
Columbus (39-31-7) remained in the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup Playoffs; the Blue Jackets lead the Toronto Maple Leafs by one point and the New Jersey Devils by three.
The Blue Jackets had tried to clear the zone but Columbus coach Todd Richards said the play was whistled dead because the puck hit either a glove on the Blue Jackets' bench or an open door. Smith then won a draw against Ryan Johansen with 21.6 seconds left. The Blackhawks (44-19-15) kept possession and Brent Seabrook was able to get the puck to Keith.
"Our D made a nice play board-to-board; Seabrook to Duncs," Smith said.
Keith, who had three assists, fired from the left point. Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (34 saves) stopped the shot with his arm but the puck fell to the ice in front of him. A swarm converged and Smith was able to slap the puck across the line for his 12th goal.
"That first shot almost went in," Smith said. "I think [Bobrovsky] didn't see it. Then there was a mad scramble with [Chicago forward Peter] Regin going to the net and somehow it found its way in."
Columbus defenseman Dalton Prout was right there but didn't have a good look at what happened.
"My feet got taken out from me. I landed on [Bobrovsky's feet] then I heard the crowd go crazy," he said. "They called it a goal, so it's a goal."
Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert was helpless to stop the winning goal.
"I lost my skates then it was in the back of the net," he said. "It's one of the bounces and we ended up on the other side of it."
Chicago backup goalie Antti Raanta had 24 saves, one on a breakaway by Calvert with 8:40 remaining to keep the game tied.
"I was just trying to find a hole," Calvert said. "I didn't find the right spot. He made the save on me. That's one you'd like to have back."
Derek MacKenzie, Johansen and Artem Anisimov scored for Columbus. Jeremy Morin, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa had the other goals for Chicago, which played without injured forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The Blackhawks have won two straight and Quenneville credited Chicago's system for the success.
"You play the right way, you give yourself a chance," he said. "Keeping it simple is something we stress a lot."
There were four goals and two lead changes in the second period and the score was tied at 3-3 through 40 minutes.
"I just wanted to take the win from here," Raanta said. "There were a couple of times I didn't even know where the puck was."
Johansen made it 2-1 when he scored 36 seconds into the period on a wrist shot from the right circle that went under the crossbar for his 31st of the season.
But the Blackhawks responded with two goals. Sharp scored on the power play at 4:14 with a drive from the blue line for his 32nd. Hossa gave Chicago its first lead at 10:42 when he took a feed from Kris Versteeg between the circles, deked and beat Bobrovsky with a forehand for his 28th of the season.
Anisimov tied the game at 12:47 during a power play when his centering pass went off the stick of Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and past Raanta for his 21st goal.
Columbus opened the scoring 92 seconds into the game when MacKenzie followed an RJ Umberger shot and beat Keith to the rebound in the slot. Morin tied at 17:10 with his second of the season when he skated down right wing and beat Bobrovsky, playing for a second straight night, from the top of the circle.
Each team is home Sunday; the Blackhawks host the St. Louis Blues and Columbus hosts the New York Islanders.
Columbus, in a fight to make the playoffs for the second time in history, has to forget about losing at least a point by not taking the game to overtime as well as squandering a two-goal lead at home Tuesday to the Colorado Avalanche and losing in a shootout. In between was a 2-0 road victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.
"I told the players it's a hard loss but we have to move past it," Richards said. "We have to. This group has been pretty resilient all year."
Prout was resolute.
"There's still points to be had, a lot of hockey to be played," he said. "There's a spot in the playoffs for us now, and we're going to earn it."