WASHINGTON, D.C. - Back in December, Cam Atkinson had six goals through 32 games.
He also had a bunch of pent-up frustration, which got even worse Dec. 23 against the Philadelphia Flyers, when teammate Seth Jones' slapper struck Atkinson's right skate and fractured a bone in his foot. Things weren't exactly going well for him, to say the least.
Atkinson had surgery Dec. 27 to insert screws into the fractured bone, sat out nearly a month (11 games) and returned Jan. 25 against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. He scored the game-winning goal with 3:03 left in the third period and has played like himself ever since, helping the Blue Jackets qualify for the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So, what happened?
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A couple things happened, starting with a rededication to getting closer to the net for shots, which comes with a high physical toll.
"Where I score most of my goals is in the blue [crease], in the mix and I think at the beginning of the season I was more of a perimeter player," said Atkinson, who had 18 goals in the Blue Jackets' final 33 games. "It's just getting your nose dirty, getting your nose over the puck and getting to those greasy areas to score those goals."
It's also about small details, which can have profound effects in hockey, positive or negative. Atkinson worked on one of those while injured, and it was a key part of turning his season around.
"When the boys were on the road, I couldn't really do anything," said Atkinson, who had 33 points in the final 33 games of the regular season. "I couldn't even ride the bike. So, one thing I could do was shoot pucks. I shot probably 100 to 200 pucks a day at the rink in our little off-ice [room], in that little shooting area."
That room is where his resurgence began, just down the hall from the Blue Jackets' locker room at Nationwide Arena. During the Jackets' first three road trips in January, Atkinson came to the arena. He grabbed his stick, some pucks and hobbled down the hall.
He then fired off shots, working on something Blue Jackets assistant Brad Larsen had pointed out prior to the injury - that he was shooting too much from his "off" foot. Atkinson's off foot, being a right-handed shot, is his right foot, the one that was in the walking boot.
"That sort of made me shoot more off my left foot," he said. "It's amazing how [working off-ice] can kind of transform into a game, because sometimes in practice, you don't get enough touches or enough shots."
How much did that time help his shot?
"It's night and day," Atkinson said. "I can show you clips where, at the beginning of the season, I was shooting off my off foot. I'm a righty, so it's more like … it's just an easy shot. That's the easy way out. When you plant and you're on your left foot, not only do you have more accuracy, but your shot's harder and it's more deceptive for a goalie to read where you're trying to shoot."
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Several things have stood out about Atkinson since his return from that injury.
He plays faster, winning more races to pucks and darting into open spaces to free himself for shots. He plays around the net more, in the "hard areas," and pays the price to get there. He also shoots with more velocity and hits the net more often, based solely on his goal surge.
Prior to the foot injury, it took six page clicks in the NHL.com stats section to locate Atkinson, who was listed 272nd in the league. He had six goals, seven assists, 13 points and one all-around frustrating start to the season, which included signing a seven-year contract extension Nov. 17 worth $41.125 million.
Since his return, the Blue Jackets have gotten a big scoring jolt from Atkinson, who not only scored 18 goals to rank seventh in the NHL during that span (NHL.com stats page one), but also added 15 assists and earned a spot playing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Artemi Panarin.
"Cam has gone through a great process, where he has a career year last year, really struggles this year, injured, but I think he's playing even at a higher level now in the past couple of months," coach John Tortorella said. "I think he's at a higher level now than he was even last year, and it's at a perfect time."
Atkinson finished the regular season with a nine-game point streak, which tied his career-high from last season. His production continued Thursday, in Game 1 of the Blue Jackets' first-round series against the Washington Capitals, a 4-3 win in overtime.
Atkinson's secondary assist helped set up Jones' game-tying goal with 4:26 left in the third period, paving the way for Panarin to win it in OT.
"He's allowing himself to play," Tortorella said. "He's doing things with the puck that sometimes seem dangerous, but he's very confident doing it. So, get out of his way. It's an important series. He's a very important guy to us because you do need to get some balance as far as scoring. If they're going to try to shut down the guy on the other side (Panarin), someone else has to step up."
That "someone" could be Atkinson, whose busted shot was partially mended by a busted foot.
"[The left foot] is always where I've shot from, but for some reason I wasn't doing that," he said. "I don't know if I just expected it to be an easy game or expected things to just go my way, but I've had people tell me that on the coaching staff. It's amazing. I'm sure if you watch me shoot in practice, you'll see me trying to shoot to score every single time and I'm always on my left foot."