It was as if the Rangers and their fans were telling each other that nobody at Madison Square Garden was quite ready to say goodbye for the summer.
With the visiting Blue Jackets playing for their playoff lives and a charged Garden crowd pushing the Blueshirts in the late stages - "we absolutely fed off them," Marc Staal said - the Rangers were watching the clock ticking down the final seconds they would play on Garden ice in 2018-19, when Pavel Buchnevich decided to step in and make them all play a little more.
Buchnevich scored the game-tying goal with 7 seconds remaining in regulation, touching off celebrations on and off the Garden ice that struck David Quinn as a window, the head coach said afterward, into "what could be."
Video: CBJ@NYR: Buchnevich ties it up in final seconds
The goal forced overtime while also forcing an ex-Ranger coach to sweat a few bullets through five minutes of 3-on-3 hockey, and then a shootout - the 22nd overtime game of the Rangers' season, 12th at the Garden. When it got there, the Rangers were unable to solve Sergei Bobrovsky, and John Tortorella's Blue Jackets - thanks in large part to Artemi Panarin - escaped the Garden with a 3-2 victory that clinched the NHL's final playoff spot for Columbus.
And so the Rangers wrapped up their 2018-19 home slate earning a point for the 10th time in their last 13 Garden finales (8-3-2), and an 18-14-9 record on Broadway. They did so behind another superb outing from Alexandar Georgiev, who made 39 saves in regulation and overtime, as well as a desperate and thrilling rally with Georgiev on the bench for an extra skater.
"It was awesome," said Mika Zibanejad. "It was awesome to get that tying goal and just hear the whole building go absolutely crazy and nuts. I was so tired, I was just trying to take it in one last time. They were awesome."
Those warm feelings for the Garden crowd, of course, were mutual: Just two days after Zibanejad received what he called the "huge honor" of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, the Rangers' leading scorer this season was announced before the game to have won the team's 2018-19 Most Valuable Player Award, while the Players' Player Award went to Jesper Fast, for the fourth straight season.
Video: CBJ@NYR: Zibanejad fakes shot, sets up Kreider
Zibanejad then went out in the game and tacked on two assists while centering a dynamic top line for the Rangers, adding to his team-leading totals of 44 assists and 74 points. The center - who can complete a full 82-game schedule when the Rangers visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night in their 2018-19 finale - set up Chris Kreider for this one, a goal that broke a scoreless tie in the second period and was Kreider's 28th of the season - five of them in four games this season against Columbus - matching his career high from two years ago.
Georgiev, meanwhile, held the Rangers in it early on and by the third period was making people wonder when, or whether, anyone would score on him again this season. Ryan Dzingel's goal 2:25 into the third broke up Georgiev's shutout streak at 147 minutes 23 seconds, a run that went back to last Friday's first period against St. Louis and spanned nine periods of play. Over that time, Georgiev made saves on 94 consecutive shots on goal.
Dzingel, one of Columbus' trade-deadline acquisitions, beat him off a 3-on-1 rush to match Kreider's tally, before Panarin scored late in the third period to give the visitors their first lead, then scored the only goal of the shootout to book the Blue Jackets a place in the playoffs for just the fifth time in franchise history.
But on this night, for the people who filled this building, the signature moment belonged to Buchnevich, who scored for the 21st time this season to extend what was already a career-high mark. Collecting the puck near the left-wing wall with the clock winding under 10 seconds, he fired one toward goal that was blocked by a kneeling Scott Harrington. Buchnevich dug out the puck and fired again from a sharper angle; this one banged off the right leg of Bobrovsky and settled in the back of the net, sparking pandemonium at the Garden.
"It was nice to have that final moment before the season ends," Quinn said, noting that his Rangers hadn't scored a 6-on-5 goal on home ice until then. "Pretty cool when you tie the game up with seven seconds to go. Obviously would have been nice to win in overtime or the shootout, but it's nice for our guys to have that feeling at least, that one feeling in that last home game.
"Feel the emotion of our crowd, and what could be, if we have the success that we certainly strive to have and what we think we're capable of moving forward."
"The crowd deserved it tonight, they were great," said Staal. "We go down a goal, and there were some loud 'Let's Go Rangers' chants going, trying to get us back into it. And we absolutely fed off them."
With the Blue Jackets needed just two points out of their last two games to wrap up a playoff berth at the expense of the Montreal Canadiens, Quinn had said the day before the game that "we need to bring a playoff mindset to our game."
"We wanted to ruin it for them," Zibanejad said, "and at the same time we wanted to win our last home game of the season."
Zibanejad set up the play to open the scoring, carrying the puck deep on a 2-on-1 and then curling a back pass to Kreider drifting toward the middle, a play that had Columbus defenseman Seth Jones spinning like a confused top in front of Bobrovsky (25 saves), whom Kreider beat with wrister. Georgiev, who had stopped 67 straight shots entering the game, turned out the first 27 of this one before the Blue Jackets finally got to him 2:25 into the third, Nick Foligno finding the middle man on the 3-on-1 for Dzingel's finish.
Panarin snapped the tie with a terrific one-man effort, splitting a pair of defenders as he cut from the left wing into the middle and ripping one against the grain over Georgiev's shoulder. It was the 28th goal and 85th point of the season for the Blue Jackets' leading scorer.
"Pretty unreal shooter," Georgiev called his Russian countryman.
That goal seemed destined to send the Blue Jackets on to the postseason, until another Russian made everybody play a little longer.
"It's too bad we couldn't get the win for them, because it was awesome," Zibanejad said of the Garden crowd, whom the Rangers saluted with the Blueshirts Off Their Backs after the game. The Rangers' MVP, in fact, was already looking forward to seeing that crowd again next season, he said - "and we can have that more often."