The Blue Jackets had a hat trick in the first period against the Nashville Predators, but Martin Erat would have the last laugh in a wild night down in the Music City.
Meetings between Blue Jackets and Predators over the last several years the teams have often brought bad blood and dramatic finishes, but this matchup may have set an all-time record for cardiac arrests among the fans of both teams.
The Predators opened the scoring on the power play eight minutes into the period when Mike Fisher cleaned up a loose puck behind Jackets' defenseman Fedor Tyutin, sweeping the puck into the net past Curtis Sanford.
The Jackets would get an uncharacteristically quick response, however, when Vinny Prospal drove the puck deep into the Nashville zone, circled the net, and sent a quick pass to Jeff Carter, who scored on a hard wrist shot from the slot.
The game appeared to turn further towards Columbus' favor when Brian McGrattan crushed Jared Boll with a hard hit along the boards that left the welterweight fighter crumpled along the boards. McGrattan was assessed a 5 minute major and game misconduct for the hit, and Columbus' power play went to work almost immediately.
Jeff Carter scored his second goal of the game after Pekka Rinne was unable to secure a loose puck at the edge of the crease. The former Flyer elevated the puck over Rinne's pads and into the net for the first goal of the major, but it would not be the last.
Rookie Ryan Johansen was the next to collect a goal during the McGrattan major after being left wide open by the Nashville defense. Loitering at the faceoff dot, he waited for R.J. Umberger to control the puck behind the net, then took a clean pass from the veteran forward and sniped a shot off the post and in.
Columbus' power play converted one more time before the penalty expired, with Jeff Carter collecting an almost identical rebound off Rinne and backhanding it home for his third career hat trick and the three fastest goals in Blue Jackets' franchise history.
Despite being in a 4-1 hole after 20 minutes Nashville head coach Barry Trotz stood by Rinne, sending him back out in the second, and his offense rewarded his faith early in the period when Patrick Hornqvist scored on a delayed penalty. The Blue Jackets restored a brief three-goal lead when Ryan Johansen scored for the second time on the power play just under 8 minutes into the period, but the Predators steadily chipped away throughout the middle frame.
With the Predators pulling Rinne on another delayed penalty, Nick Spaling collected the puck from Colin Wilson along the end boards and quickly tipped a shot past Curtis Sanford to bring the Predators back within two goals. The lead was cut to one late in the period by Roman Josi on a blistering shot from the point.
The Blue Jackets had an opportunity to restore a two-goal lead on the power play early in the third period, but their luck with the extra attacker finally dried up, and the Predators continued a relentless assault on the Columbus defense.
Jordin Tootoo collided with Curtis Sanford midway through the period, and the goaltender signaled to referee Wes McCauley that he was experiencing problems with his back after the hit. Sanford had missed the previous game in St. Louis due to back spasms, but he decided he was OK to continue play, a move that Jackets head coach Scott Arniel decided not to overrule.
The decision would be costly, as Sanford was visibly laboring after several more saves. The injury appeared to be a factor when David Legwand tied the game on the power play with less than four minutes to go, as Sanford had dropped to the ice to stop a Shea Weber shot but could not rise back into position when the puck slipped behind the net. Colin Wilson poked the puck away from the Jackets' penalty kill, which Legwand collected and fired into the open net.
With their home crowd erupting in cheers, the Predators rode the emotional wave to complete the comeback in the dying seconds of regulation when Ryan Suter sent a long stretch pass from his own blue line to Martin Erat in the neutral zone, and the veteran winger split his way through the Columbus defense before walking in on Sanford and backhanding a shot into the net with less than 8 seconds left in the period.
For Predators fans, it was a gutsy comeback performance that is likely to go down as one of the greatest regular season games in franchise history, while Blue Jackets fans were forced to swallow another painful loss in a season that has been one emotional uppercut after another.