The Blue Jackets are now winners in three of their past four, and travel to play a team they’ve had solid success against this season. The Jackets and Florida Panthers square off on Thursday night at BB&T Center for their final meeting of the season. The Blue Jackets have beaten Florida in 10 straight meetings.
For Florida, it’s their second game out of the All-Star break, having fallen to the Red Wings at home on Tuesday night. Raking 25th in goal-scoring this season, the Panthers were able to find a way to slip four goals past Detroit’s Petr Mrazek. It wasn’t enough though when the Red Wings were able to score four of their own in the second period, led by former Panther Stephen Weiss’ goal and two assists. All-Star Roberto Luongo was lifted from the Florida cage, but it was too late for the Panthers.
Now the Panthers find themselves in a similar desperate situation to what the Jackets are facing. The Panthers are seven points out of the wild card, chasing both the Bruins and the Capitals. The Panthers do have the benefit of games in hand on every team in the conference besides the Rangers, but they know they need to start winning those games for it to matter. The Panthers are 0-4-1 in their last five.
The Panthers would love the same contributions from some of their highly-touted players. Jonathan Huberdeau, taken third overall in 2011, had 31 points in 48 games during his lockout shortened rookie season, but hasn’t come near that pace in the two seasons since. He has eight goals this season and two scoring droughts of 10 games or more. Aleksander Barkov, taken second overall in 2013, has two goals in the last four games but only five for the entire season. The Panthers need these young players to spark the offense. Jimmy Hayes and Brad Boyes are excellent complimentary pieces on offense, but were never meant to carry the bulk of production that they’ve managed to provide so far this season.
Certainly there are other players that are having less fruitful seasons than they are used to, but these younger players were drafted to lead the turnaround in Sunrise and have the talent to do so.
The Blue Jackets defeated the Panthers twice in four days to kick off December in a home-and-home series. After a tight 2-1 affair at Nationwide Arena on December 1st, the two teams opened things up in a 4-3 shootout in Sunrise on Dec. 4.
The Jackets jumped out to a 3-0 lead on goals from Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, and Boone Jenner before the momentum of the game turned sharply. The Panthers dominated play and scored three goals in a five-minute span in the second period, two of them by Bjugstad. The Jackets won in a shootout thanks to Ryan Johansen, but there was no way the game would have ever reached a shootout without Sergei Bobrovsky. The Jackets’ goaltender made 52 saves in the game just to reach the shootout. He then stopped all four Florida shooters, including a spread-eagle lunging stop on Bjugstad for good measure.
Without question, Bjugstad has been Florida’s best offensive player and he’s done some damage against Columbus. He completely took over the game in Sunrise on Dec. 4; Bjugstad had two goals in a span of 2:27, played 3:50 on the power play, and had three hits to go along with his four shots. He’s got tremendous size at 6-foot-6 and skill that goes with it, making him difficult to handle around the net but more than capable of making plays off the rush. The Jackets’ main focus will be keeping Bjugstad under control. The line of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Boyes may have the most raw skill and has played better of late than they have all season, but the size and finishing ability of Bjugstad with Jimmy Hayes is what should draw the Jackets’ number-on defensive assignment.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Johansen stayed around a hockey rink during the All-Star break. After earning All-Star MVP honors over the weekend, as well as being named the NHL’s First Star of the Week on Monday, Johansen kept the good vibes coming with a second period goal against Braden Holtby. The slick pass from Kevin Connauton came from behind the goal line and Johansen teed it up and rifled it over Holtby’s shoulder. Johansen is showing a goal-scorer’s confidence, and why shouldn’t he? He has nine goals in his last 12 games and has points in 14 of the past 16 (9-8-17).
Each of these teams have easily identifiable “top guns.” For Columbus, it has been Johansen and Foligno, for Florida it has been Bjugstad. Both teams also have secondary players that have scoring ability and need to dig out of their funks. Huberdeau, Barkov, and Fleischmann can all factor in offensively more than they have, and Jussi Jokinen’s point totals are high but he has not been a finisher. The Jackets need Cam Atkinson to continue his strong play and build on his drought-snapping goal against Washington. He, Matt Calvert, and even Brandon Dubinsky can be important contributors for the Jackets on Thursday, and a possible return for Artem Anisimov and Ryan Murray during this trip gives Todd Richards more options. Foligno and Johansen will likely see a lot of Ekblad, and Bjugstad and Hayes likely will need to get away form Johnson and Savard.