It doesn’t take an expert to look at the Pittsburgh Penguins roster and deduce that they possess more offensive firepower than the Blue Jackets.
They were the NHL’s second-highest scoring team in the regular season, sparked by a power play that was bested by only one team and also by the best player in the game. Sidney Crosby, with 104 points on the season, won another Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring leader and there’s no denying that the Penguins go as their captain goes.
But the old adage states that games are played for a reason, and the Blue Jackets are not daunted or intimidated by the high-octane Penguins primarily because of their own depth; coach Todd Richards and his staff have worked hard to find four line combinations that provide not only time on ice balance, but scoring balance.
The result has been an amplified forechecking game and a structured style that produced the NHL’s 12th-best offense and 11th-best scoring differential at even strength. Balance is the buzz word for Columbus, and it’s a big reason why the Jackets are confident in their chances.
“We have seven guys with 15 goals this season, and we got nine goals this year from a guy like Derek MacKenzie, which is just huge for us,” defenseman James Wisniewski told BlueJackets.com. “We get offense and production from all four lines. We can be dangerously offensively, but we all play the same way, too: we chip pucks in deep, we forecheck hard, and that’s what you need to be successful.”
Among those seven 15-goal scorers for the Blue Jackets is rookie forward Boone Jenner, who's found a home on Johansen's left wing and has become a spark plug whenever he's on the ice. Columbus also got 50 points from Brandon Dubinsky in the regular season (with 16 goals, up from just two a year ago) and had four defensemen - including rookie Ryan Murray - chip in at least 20 points.
Wisniewski led the way on the back end with a career year, registering 51 points (44 assists) while anchoring the Jackets' top power play unit.
And while the Blue Jackets set multiple franchise records in 2013-14 including wins (43) and points (93), the groundwork for their turnaround was laid a couple of years ago. There was a regime change with John Davidson coming aboard and then Jarmo Kekalainen joining as general manager a few months later, and late in the lockout-shortened season, the Blue Jackets started to find their game and discover their identity.
They found a recipe for success, one that best utilized their makeup and put players in positions to be successful. Ryan Johansen, who leads the Blue Jackets in goal-scoring this season as a 21-year-old, said the players and coaches worked together to achieve complete buy-in on their systems and structure.
With defined roles and accountability, Johansen said, they built confidence with each win and went into this season feeling like they were a team that could make some noise.
“We wanted to turn this around and make sure everyone’s on the same page, and also make sure that everyone’s held accountable,” Johansen told BlueJackets.com. “That’s what’s so great about our team and the way we play — everybody is pulling on the same rope. We have four lines, six defensemen and two goaltenders that can get the job done every night.
“Depth is something you have to have, and all the good teams in this league have it. You look at Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Chicago…all of the elite teams have four lines that can roll and I think we’re the same in many ways. We want to bring relentless pressure and force you to play in your end, and when we’re all doing that, we’re a tough out…and who knows what we can do when we get going?”