To some, it might have been a puzzle not worth solving.
With the Blue Jackets winning game after game of late -- and using the same lineup in the past five games to do it -- was it worth upsetting the apple cart to get Cam Atkinson back into action Thursday night vs. Carolina?
To John Tortorella, though, that was a question that bordered on the absurd.
"A lot of people have asked me, 'Do you stay with the lineup?'" Tortorella said after the game vs. the Hurricanes. "I am not keeping Cam Atkinson out of the lineup. He's just too valuable for a team that is starving for goals. He gave us some juice tonight."
Forget juice. How about a goal and an assist, which each proved crucial in the 3-2 victory in Nationwide Arena that propelled the Blue Jackets back on the right side of the playoff line, at least for the time being?
Video: Cam Atkinson on his return to the lineup
There was no dipping a toe into the water for Atkinson, who had been out nearly a month with a high ankle sprain. After saying in the morning skate that he'd be happy to just get the first few shifts under his belt before things felt like normal, Atkinson had a phenomenal assist on his first shift, nearly scored a goal on his second and later broke a 1-all tie in the third period with his 10th tally of the season.
"Once you get the first shift out of the way, and I was fortunate to get a point (where) your linemate scores, you feel good about yourself," he said after the game. "And then your legs, you're just playing and not thinking. I had some opportunities, and it felt good to get back out there with the boys."
It didn't take long for Blue Jackets fans to be reminded of the Atkinson that is second all-time in Blue Jackets annals in goals and points. On his first shift, he had the puck near his blue line but saw Emil Bemstrom breaking into space. Atkinson quickly shifted the puck onto his backhand and flipped a pass that Bemstrom knocked down expertly to create a 2-on-1, then the Swedish rookie blew a shot past Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek to make it a 1-0 game just 1:07 into the proceedings.
Video: CAR@CBJ: Bemstrom scores top shelf in transition
Atkinson's goal was similarly well put together. After a solid defensive play by Nathan Gerbe, Markus Nutivaara chipped a pass ahead off the glass that Alexander Wennberg skated onto as he entered the zone on the right side. Quickly, Wennberg sent a silky backhand feed to Atkinson cutting across the goalmouth, and Atkinson fired a shot that went between the arm and body of Mrazek far side.
"I was calling for it on the boards from Wenny," Atkinson said of his goal. "We had been talking even before that period when we got put together, I said, 'I'm going to talk a lot.' The soft chips, it seemed like we weren't doing that as a group, and those five-foot plays really go a long way. He's skilled enough to make that play, and I just tried to get it off as fast as I could."
Now, Atkinson's slow start -- at least in the goal-scoring department -- seems like a thing of the distant past. The man who tied the Blue Jackets record with 41 goals a season ago -- and now has 196 tallies in union blue -- had five goals in eight games before injuring his ankle Dec. 19 vs. Los Angeles, and Thursday night's two-point outing gives him nine points in the last 10 games.
For a team that has started winning games but is still searching for consistent offense, the return of Atkinson is just what the doctor ordered.
"When Cam comes back, it's just his energy, the way he plays the game," Foligno said. "He darts into spaces and he creates, and he's offensive-minded but he plays in all situations. He's a steady player for us and a leader for us. He showed that again tonight. It was a big play on the first goal, a great pass, and then a great goal on the second one. It's great to have him back because we need his offense."
Tortorella described the injury to Atkinson as frustrating because it happened just when he appeared to be heating up. Thursday night's game showed that 12 games on the shelf might not have done anything to slow Atkinson down.
"It felt good, obviously," he said of his prolific return. "I think just getting your feet underneath you, it was obviously nice to get that first assist first shift. It settles your nerves a little bit, then it was just a feeling out process as far as battling, 50-50 battles, knowing when I could take a chance in the corner or not. But I thought overall I played pretty consistently considering."