CHICAGO - The Columbus Blue Jackets were almost an afterthought before this game, sitting two points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Friday night's game in front of 21,708 at the United Center was supposed to be Chicago's chance to start a big push for a playoff berth as the regular season hits the stretch run. Instead, the Blue Jackets scored three goals in the second period and made a one-goal lead stand up in the third for a 4-3 win that pulled Columbus even with the Blackhawks in points with 64.
After Friday's games, four teams in the Western Conference have 68 points - with Calgary alone in ninth, one spot out of the playoff picture. The Hawks and Jackets have identical 29-23-6 records and share 11th place.
"Our eyes are on that eighth and final playoff spot or even better than that," said Columbus forward Matt Calvert, who had a goal and an assist. "Chicago's right with us in the standings. We've been doing pretty well as of late, but other teams have (also) been winning right around the eight, nine and 10 spots. We've just got to keep pushing and try to get ourselves in."
The win was the Jackets' sixth in the last eight games and their team-record sixth in a row on the road. They are 9-3-3 since dropping five in a row to start the month of January.
Also scoring for Columbus were Antoine Vermette, Derek MacKenzie and Anton Stralman - whose goal with 4:28 left in the second was his first of the season and stood up as the eventual game-winner. R.J. Umberger added a pair of assists, while goalie Steve Mason stopped 37 shots -- including all 10 he saw in the third.
"They're all big [games] down the stretch," Mason said. "The way this team is looking at every game now is they are must-wins. It's fun hockey right now because they are so meaningful. We're looking for it to continue."
Mason also weathered a late Chicago power play in the third that turned into a 6-on-4 advantage when goalie Corey Crawford headed to the bench for the extra attacker.
"You just kind of go with it," Mason said. "The penalty kill did a really good job of taking away the shooting lanes, and we had a couple of big blocks, too."
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks were again left shaking their heads after coughing up an early lead and not being able to get the game-tying goal in the third. Chicago's top line of Patrick Sharp (2 goals, 1 assist), Patrick Kane (1 goal, 2 assists) and Jonathan Toews (2 assists) had a great game, but it just wasn't enough to win.
Sharp continued his torrid scoring against the Blue Jackets this season. In five games against Columbus, Sharp has 7 goals and 10 points.
"We fought, we did what we could, [but] we just couldn't solve Mason there at the end," Sharp said. "We're still a confident team, we know the position we're in, [but] we know we need to win games - especially against a team like that."
Chicago went 0-for-3 on the power play and also allowed two power-play goals - which irritated coach Mike Haviland, the team's acting coach while Joel Quenneville recovers from a bleeding ulcer in the hospital.
"Obviously it was the penalty kill," said Haviland, who's been working specifically with that unit for several weeks. "They got two goals right off the draw. That's a key when you're killing a penalty. You want to kill 20 to 25 seconds by winning and sending it down the ice, but we didn't win a single draw on the penalty kill -- and gave up two goals."
Columbus struck first, thanks to a great individual effort by Calvert to put the Jackets up 1-0 just 5:22 into the game. After stealing the puck at the blue line in the defensive zone, he won a race down the ice while holding off rookie defenseman Nick Leddy and beat Crawford to the backhand side before crashing into the net himself.
The Hawks quickly tied it at 7:32 of the first on Sharp's first of the game and 29th of the season. Kane intercepted a pass outside the Chicago blue line and found Sharp breaking into the Columbus zone by himself. Sharp beat Mason with a deke to the forehand and the puck hit the right pad before tumbling over the goal line.
It didn't take long for Sharp to notch another one - his 30th of the season - and give Chicago a 2-1 lead. Toews carried the puck behind the Blue Jackets goal and found Sharp in the slot for an open snap shot that beat Mason glove side at 10:04.
Chicago kept the pressure on in the second, but couldn't get another goal before Vermette tied it at 9:38 on a power play created by an interference penalty on Viktor Stalberg.
Crawford made the original save on a blast by Rick Nash, but the rebound went straight to Vermette to the right of the goal. He stuffed it home to knot it 2-2 and give Columbus just its third power-play goal in the past nine games.
MacKenzie gave the Blue Jackets a 3-2 lead at 12:28 by grabbing a loose puck sitting between Crawford's pads and pushing it over the line. Stralman then scored on another power play to make it 4-2 with 4:28 left in the second before Toews set up Kane perfectly on a cross-ice feed for his 19th goal to make it 4-3 heading to the third.
Holding off the desperate Hawks in that final period was definitely sweet for the Jackets, who still have their eyes on the postseason.
"We believe in ourselves," Nash said. "That's our goal is to make the playoffs, and we're going to be doing everything we can to get there."