The Blue Jackets return to Nationwide Arena Monday for the first of a home-and-home set against the Florida Panthers. The Panthers sit sixth in the competitive Atlantic Division, but they’ve won two straight games and have points in seven of their last 10.
The Panthers have quietly had a solid start to their season, with some of their recent draft picks paying dividends and their veteran additions doing exactly what they were brought in to do. Goaltender Roberto Luongo counts for one of those major acquisitions, coming over from the Vancouver Canucks for a second stint with the Panthers. Luongo has seven wins this season and the Panthers have earned points in 12 of his starts. Backup Al Montoya has also been strong in net, sporting a goals-against average of 1.99 in seven appearances. Luongo missed the Panthers' last game against Ottawa with an upper-body injury, but did make the trip to Columbus.
Goaltending has been key for a team with the second-fewest goals in the NHL, but tied for the scoring lead on this goals-by-committee roster is another newcomer, Jussi Jokinen. Jokinen has 12 points this season and 10 of those are assists. The go-to goal scorer has been Nick Bjugstad, who looks to be taking another big step in his development in his second full NHL season. Only he and Jimmy Hayes have more than five goals for the Panthers.
The Blue Jackets and Panthers met in Sunrise, Florida for last season’s finale, a 3-2 win for the Jackets in their final tune-up before the playoffs. The Blue Jackets took an early 1-0 lead when Cam Atkinson beat Luongo just 47 seconds into the game. Despite the quick start, the Jackets found themselves behind late in the second period after surrendering a shorthanded goal to Vincent Trochek and a second-period tally to Hayes. That’s when the Jackets power play got back to work, with Mark Letestu scoring with the man advantage at 10:14 of the second. Ryan Johansen also scored a power play goal at 5:58 of the third, which would hold up as the game-winner.
Aaron Ekblad was taken first overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, and entered to rave reviews. Ekblad’s talent on the ice was no secret, but what scouts and general managers loved about Ekblad was his maturity and low-maintenance style. That kind of savvy can be hard to find, but perhaps should be expected from a player with Ekblad’s pedigree. Ekblad is one of only four players to ever be granted “exceptional players status” by the OHL, allowing them to be drafted into the league at just 15 years old. The others on that list include Islanders captain John Tavares, consensus 2015 top-pick Connor McDavid, and current Mississauga Steelheads defenseman Sean Day.
Bjugstad got off to a slow start with only one assist in his first 10 games, but he’s certainly found his scoring touch since then. Bjugstad has eight goals in his last 11 games, including a pair of two-goal efforts against the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks. At 22 years of age, Bjugstad is still growing into his 6-foot-6 frame but he’s learning to use that frame and is becoming a very solid young player for Florida. Bjugstad has spent time this season centering another high-profile first rounder in Florida, Jonathan Huberdeau. If he can get his offense going, with his play-making ability, Bjugstad becomes an even more dangerous threat.
Jackets' struggling offense vs. Luongo/Montoya
It’s not a secret. The Blue Jackets have given up more goals than any team in the NHL except for the Dallas Stars. The Panthers have scored fewer goals than every team but the Buffalo Sabres. Seven of the Panthers’ nine wins have come in one-goal games, and 14 of their games in total have been decided by a goal. The Blue Jackets have gotten the vast majority of their offense this season from top-liners Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, and Scott Hartnell and their best offensive players will need to be just that to snap a six-game skid. The Panthers will need another solid outing from either one of the game’s best goaltenders in Luongo, or one of the league’s better back-ups in Al Montoya.