Heading into last year’s playoffs, the book on the Columbus Blue Jackets was that the team was led by their stellar first line of Artemi Panarin, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Cam Atkinson. After winning the first two games of their series against the Washington Capitals, the Caps made a concerted effort to shut down the top line, and Artemi Panarin in particular, to force the rest of the lineup to beat them. The rest of the lineup was not up to the task, and the Jackets fell to the Capitals in six games in their first round series, the latest in the ongoing playoff-futility saga for the only Big Four sports franchise to never advance in the playoffs.
This season, however, the script is ready for a different direction. For the first time in franchise history, the lineup is deep and talented, boasting a host of secondary scoring that is capable of taking over at any moment.
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen added to the top six at the trade deadline with two massive trades. First, he brought in another top center, Matt Duchene, to shore up the weakest part of the forward group. Second, he added another scoring threat in Ryan Dzingel, who played on Duchene’s wing for the Ottawa Senators. These two players took time to mesh in the Columbus lineup, but each has found their rhythm of late, posting multi-point games within the last week.
Josh Anderson has exploded the last three weeks, carrying the Jackets offense at times as he posted 11 points (5-6-11) in the last three weeks of March as he firmly cemented himself on the second line and earned power play time with his play. Josh Anderson, in the midst of a career season, is finally harnessing his speed and size and has become a force to be reckoned with for opponents.
The top six features six 25 goals scorers this season, something no Jackets team has been able to boast before. Surprisingly, however, the Jackets have yet another 20 goal scorer in the bottom six - Oliver Bjorkstrand, he of the late March hot streak. In the last five games of the month, Bjorkstrand scored six goals as the Jackets went 5-0-0 to give themselves breathing room for a playoff spot. Playing on a line with Boone Jenner has allowed Bjorkstrand to flourish down the stretch, as Jenner has comfortably centered the third line while chipping in 16 goals and 38 points of his own. After struggling for much of the season, even Alexander Wennberg has found a home on Jenner’s wing, setting up Bjorkstrand and Jenner.
Finally, the fourth line boasts Nick Foligno (himself potting 17 goals and 33 points this season, despite several familial issues that kept him away from the team for extended stretches) and Riley Nash (who has discovered his game of late after a tough first year in Columbus). Finally, Brandon Dubinsky has accepted a lesser role as a fourth line player and face-off specialist this season, but even Dubinsky got on the score sheet during the winning streak to close March.
Finally, the defense has found its scoring touch. After a 30 game goal drought, Zach Werenski is playing his best hockey of the season as the playoff approach. Seth Jones remains an All Star defenseman, contributing 45 points this season in nearly 26 minutes of ice time per night. Markus Nutivaara, like Zach Werenski, has discovered his game late in the season. David Savard, a goal scoring threat seemingly out of nowhere, has two goals in the last five games and eight on the season.
This is the deepest team the Columbus Blue Jackets have ever put on the ice, with scoring threats up and down the lineup. Opponents in the playoffs will not be able to take away one line to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets this spring - they will have to account for four lines, each of which is capable of finding the back of the net on any given night. In the 4-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night, for example, the first line did not register a single point and yet the game was over in less than 15 minutes.
With the deep scoring threats and Sergei Bobrovsky finding his game, the Columbus Blue Jackets have emerged as a bonafide threat as the playoffs approach this spring.