COLUMBUS -- Making his long-anticipated return to Columbus, Artemi Panarin went out for his first game against his former team and scored the game-winning goal for the Rangers.
Knowing this, the fact that Panarin was named the Second Star of the game pretty much says it all about the kind of night Alexandar Georgiev had.
And if it doesn't, consider how David Quinn summed up this game just minutes after the final horn had sounded:
"Thank God for Georgie."
Right on the heels of his first shutout of the season, Georgiev one-upped himself on Thursday night at Nationwide Arena, making 45 saves to carry the Rangers to a 3-2 victory over the Blue Jackets and their fifth win in seven games (5-1-1). His 45 stops were a season high and the second-highest total of his career, next to his 55-save exhibition back in February against the Maple Leafs.
Panarin's second-period score was the last of three straight goals from the Rangers, staking them to a two-goal lead that Georgiev see through with 17 saves in the final frame. Brendan Lemieux - off a superb through-the-legs pass from Mika Zibanejad eight seconds before the end of the first - and Jacob Trouba also scored for the Blueshirts, who were opening their third back-to-back set in the last two weeks. It was well understood in their dressing room afterward that they would need to raise their game in the second leg, on Friday night when the Montreal Canadiens come to Madison Square Garden.
"We don't play great today, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure that out," Zibanejad said. "We gutted it out, we got big saves from our goalie, and if you're going to look back at this game in a couple weeks, you're going to see the two points we got out of this. We'll take it and move on."
Perhaps in a couple weeks Oliver Bjorkstrand's nightmares about this game will have faded, too, because Bjorkstrand had 10 shots on goal in the match - tying a Blue Jackets franchise record - and was bested all 10 times by Georgiev. Save No. 9 came with the Rangers shorthanded and under two minutes to play, and was ticketed for an open side of the net until Georgiev swooped in to steal the tying goal from him.
It was the last and most tense of five penalty kills that the Rangers - down to five defensemen after losing Libor Hajek in the first period to a sprained knee -- completed in the game, and they needed every one. And whereas Georgiev saw only seven pucks on eight Devils power plays during Saturday's shutout, on this night he stopped all 16 of Columbus' man-advantage shots.
Beginning with his and the Rangers' turnaround two Saturdays ago in Montreal, Georgiev has now stopped 100 of the last 103 shots he has seen.
"If you want to be a playoff team, your goalie's got to steal some games, and we've had a couple," Trouba said. "There's at least two I can think of off the top of my head, and tonight is one of them."
At least a slice of this night, though, still belonged to Panarin, whose two seasons in Columbus were the two highest-scoring seasons in Blue Jackets history, and who was the center of attention from the start, including when the hosts played a tribute video welcoming him back during a TV timeout in the first period. His teammates, though, noticed nothing out of the ordinary.
"I mean, he scored," Zibanejad said with a kind of shrug. "He usually does."
Zibanejad has a similar habit, and the play he made to spot Lemieux over his shoulder and, facing the back glass, flick a backhand pass through his own skates and through Seth Jones, was as big as any in the game. There was 8.0 on the first-period clock when Lemieux scored his second goal in as many games, answering Cam Atkinson's marker at 12:43 and knotting the score at 1 apiece into first intermission.
"To come back in here with just a 1-nothing lead for them would have been pretty good considering how that period was going," Zibanejad said. "Then to come in here at 1-1, we got to reset -- it's a tie game, 40 minutes to play, and we went out and got two big goals."
Trouba scored the first of them on a power play 5:46 into the second, beating Joonas Korpisalo after Adam Fox had dealt him a pass to the left circle. It extended Trouba's points streak to four games on a night where he led all skaters with 27:49 on ice.
Ten minutes later it was No. 10's turn. Brett Howden hunted down a puck in the right corner and made a slick spinning pass into the slot for Tony DeAngelo, who froze everybody as he slid a pass over to Panarin for a one-timer from the left.
"He's a big-game player, and regardless of what's going on he usually delivers statistically. He delivered a big one," Quinn said. "It was heck of a play by a couple guys on that goal: Great pass by Howden, great pass by Tony. And obviously Bread finishes."
Jones got one back 3:33 into the third - off a faceoff brought on by an icing call the Ranger bench could not believe - setting up the tooth-and-nail finish that culminated in Columbus heading to a power play with 2:10 to go. At that point, Zibanejad said the mindset simply was "Kill this one and win the game. And again Georgie comes up with big saves, and that's exactly what we needed."
The goaltender's robbery of Bjorkstrand during that man-advantage was actually the second time he had come across to snatch a goal from the Columbus winger - both on rebounds and both from almost identical spots in the right circle, once early with the left pad and again late with the catching glove.
"The first one, that was desperation," Georgiev said afterward. "But the other one, I trusted my speed that I could get there, and I did."
Quinn admitted that as he saw the play develop from the bench, he thought the game was tied. "It was an incredible save and I'm sure that's not the last we'll see of it," the Head Coach said.
This victory was the Rangers' sixth in a row against Metropolitan Division opponents, and it moved their record following a loss to 8-1 over the last six weeks. They know they took a different path to get there this time. "There's a lot of games where we felt we played well and we didn't get the two points," Zibanejad said, "so you know what? We'll take these two points. Take them and run home."