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Thomas Vanek May Make the Difference Against the Capitals

The big Austrian has seen it all

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Columbus Blue Jackets v Washington Capitals - Game One Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Artemi Panarin rightfully drew the lion’s share of adulation after Game One. His three-point, overtime-ending performance was as good a CBJ playoff debut as you could’ve imagined in the summer of 2017.

Another recent Blue Jackets acquisition played a key role in Thursday night’s win: Thomas Vanek. Brought over from Vancouver at the trade deadline, Vanek scored a game-tying power play goal and picked up an assist to finish the night as one of three Jackets with multiple points (Panarin and Pierre-Luc Dubois). His four shots also led the team in that department.

On, about that goal? Watch how he sets it up:

Vanek lies in wait at the crease until Dubois receives the puck. He then immediately slams into Brooks Orpik, posting up like a basketball center. Dubois’s pass finds him as the hapless Orpik can only watch Vanek score a pivotal goal. Vanek has made a living in front of the net, and the way he absolutely bodied Orpik has to be a concern for the Capitals (not that they don’t have enough to worry about with Orpik).

Vanek was a godsend for Columbus after the deadline (though that would technically make Jim Benning God?). The Austrian winger scored seven goals and 15 points in 19 games down the stretch, forming one of hockey’s best lines with Alex Wennberg and Boone Jenner. As Alison Lukan pointed out in The Athletic, the trio ranked highly in goals for percent (finishing the season in fifth at 5v5 with at 100 minutes) and PDO (second!). It’s a small sample size, but Vanek posted the second-best CF% of his 15 career stints.

That line delivered on Thursday, but the absence of Alex Wennberg leaves a big question mark in the middle…or does it? After Wennberg left the game following Tom Wilson’s leap of hate, Nick Foligno slotted in to anchor the two big men. The trio actually posted a better CF% (62.5 to 53.85) than the Wennberg line but saw a dip in nearly every other advanced category. Sunday’s game will determine whether some of that chemistry can be re-captured with the captain in the middle.

Vanek hasn’t played in the playoffs since 2015 with Minnesota, when he eked out four assists in 10 games and finished a -7. Out of his seven trips to the playoffs, his best postseasons came with Buffalo in 2007 (six goals and 10 points in 16 games) and Montreal in 2014 (five goals and 10 points in 17 games). At age 34, his first game has to feel like a shot in the arm for a guy who’s missed meaningful hockey. At the same time, he’s seen more postseason games than anyone else on this roster, and not by a small amount. His veteran presence in the dressing room can prove just as valuable as his play on the ice in these playoffs.

Vanek logged 16:28 of ice time on Thursday, with 3:16 of that coming on the man advantage. His usage shot up in the third period due to the Jackets’ three power plays in the frame. If Columbus can draw penalties they did late in Game One, Vanek could help push the CBJ over the hump in Game Two.

At the very least, we’ll setting for him throwing more Capitals defensemen around.