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Hartnell-Dano-Wennberg unit driving the bus for Jackets

by Brian McCormack / Columbus Blue Jackets

The microwave oven, the pacemaker, the lost cities of Pompeii and Machu Picchu- some of mankind’s greatest discoveries have come to light completely by accident.

And while few hockey coaches will actually change the world as we know it with a practice experiment gone right, Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards seems to have stumbled upon a golden combination due to some line shuffling he did at the beginning of March.

“Sometimes when you make a decision, things aren’t going well and you try to shake things up," Richards said. "It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re thinking ‘these three guys would work well.’ Sometimes it’s just throwing guys together and seeing how it goes.

“When you watch what they did, it was pretty easy to say ‘we have to try these guys more.’ They’ve had success every game.”

‘These guys’ of course refers to the line of Scott Hartnell, Alexander Wennberg, and Marko Dano, which has without question been Columbus’ best forward unit since they were brought together two weeks ago.

Hartnell has been producing at a particularly torrid pace with seven goals and eight points in seven games (including three power play goals), but his rookie line mates have been a big part of that success. Dano has two goals and six points in his last five games while Wennberg has four assists in his last six.

It’s been a total transformation throughout the season for two of the organization’s prized youngsters from the 2013 draft class. Dano was sent to Springfield after breaking training camp with the big club, struggling to produce consistently in his first NHL stint but scoring 18 points in 37 games with the Falcons.

Wennberg stayed with the Jackets for the vast majority of the season (he played six games in Springfield), his role occasionally changing to accommodate both the team’s glut of injuries down the middle of the ice and his own development as a 20-year-old center.

Fast-forward to March and the two players hold clearly-defined roles. Dano’s confidence since his recall on Feb. 17 is noticeable, with four goals and eight points in his second stint that has also featured a much more physical style of play.

Dano’s poise with the puck against the Hurricanes on Sunday, weaving through the feet of defenseman Michal Jordan before setting up Hartnell for a tap-in goal, was only a snap shot of his impact on the Jackets in recent games.

Wennberg, whose defensive game has always been advanced and helped keep him in Columbus most of the season, is still honing his scoring touch at the NHL level. But the young Swede has displayed much more patience with the puck in the offensive zone and in the cycle game, a willingness to make plays that makes him a strong fit for the veteran winger Richards now dresses him beside.

“We are two young players from Europe so maybe there’s some connection where we play the same style of hockey,” said Dano. “(Hartnell) is a great player and he’s played for a long time, so he’s helping us out. It’s good for our team, but we need more players to get into the game and play hard for 60 minutes.”

Hartnell’s been one of the most consistent Blue Jackets this season in terms of effectiveness, but the first-year Jacket had his own struggles early on, with only one goal in his first 12 games before he began to hit his stride offensively.

It’s fair to say that when Hartnell is having success, it serves as an barometer for the Jackets’ team game. Before Columbus’ recent four-game winning streak, Richards was trying to coax offense from a roster that was struggling to find opportunistic scoring.

Richards challenged his team to make it harder on opposing goaltenders by creating more havoc in front of the net, in essence a slogan for Hartnell’s brand of hockey.

“I think they have a good understanding of where I’ll be," Hartnell said. "If we’re cycling I’ll be in the slot or in front of the net, if it’s at the point I’ll be heading for the net. When everyone’s on the same page, your line can create opportunities and that feeds through your whole team. It’s about energy.”

Of Hartnell’s 21 goals on the season, 17 are the product of a rebound, deflection, or set-up inside the hashmarks. If Hartnell is scoring goals, chances are the Jackets’ forecheck is doing exactly what Richards expects.

“Their ability, Alex and Marko, to beat someone one-on-one usually draws someone to them and opens somebody up," Richards said. "Scott’s been doing a good job of going to the net. He’s been scoring different ways, but a lot of his goals are from around the net. They have that ability, that skill where they can see past the checker and find someone back door. You can see the talent in those young players.

“You can’t say enough about how those three guys are playing. The wings are playing hard and they’re able to finish and the center is playing really responsible and allowing that line to play in the offensive zone.”
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