The Blue Jackets were locked in a neck-and-neck battle with the Rangers on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, searching for the overtime winner that would push their franchise-record winning streak to ten games.
As Nick Foligno crossed the Rangers blue line just 50 seconds into the extra session, Jack Johnson was streaking to the net with an opportunity to send 18,200 blue-clad fans out into the New York City streets disappointed.
Foligno slid a no-look pass against the grain to Johnson, who wired a one-timer only to see Henrik Lundqvist lunge across the crease and block it away.
“I think I fired it right at him. I didn’t get it high enough,” said Johnson. “It was a great play by Nick and I tried to get it on net as quick as I could, but I kind of hurried my own shot and I didn’t get it where I wanted it to be.”
It was the second prime scoring chance Johnson had in a period and a half down around Lundqvist’s crease. And though neither of those attempts were where Johnson ‘wanted them to be,’ he was exactly where the Jackets want him to be, where he’s been having success during this Jackets’ 11-game points streak.
Johnson has been arguably the best defenseman for Columbus over the course of the past month, his scoring touch on display with goals in three straight games last week. Johnson is creating offense off his standard point presence as expected, but he also hasn’t been afraid to drive the net and join the rush.
Against the Devils, Johnson joined the rush with Ryan Johansen in overtime, and when he didn’t get the puck he stayed low in the corner and waited for the puck to come back down to him. Johnson then cut to the middle on the backhand to net the winner.
Two days later, with the Jackets pressing to get back in the game against the Islanders, it was Johnson lurking down from his point and waiting outside a scrum of bodies for the loose puck to leak out. Johnson was thinking offense, and he was in the right place at the right time once again.
“I think, as of late with the team playing better, you’re going to get more offensive chances,” said Johnson. “When the team’s not playing well, you’re on your heels and you’re playing defense the whole game and you don’t get a lot of chances to jump. With team success comes individual success and I’ve had a lot of chances to jump because the team is playing better.”
While Johnson attributes a lot of his success to the team’s play as a whole, Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards gives more credit to Johnson’s particular skill set. For months, Richards has lauded Johnson’s defensive zone play, as well as that of partner David Savard, for helping make the Jackets hard to play against again.
While the Jackets were downing Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, and the Islanders in the span of a few weeks, Richards felt the battle level of his top pair was helping to turn the tide in games. Now Johnson is adding more at the other end.
“We’ve talked about it before with Jack that one of the best attributes he has is his skating ability," Richards said. "He’s a great skater and he can get up the ice, and he has endurance, too. He can just outlast guys. It might be the end of a 45-second shift and he has that extra push to beat his opponent up the ice, and now he’s created some separation and scoring chances.”
That skating ability not only allows Johnson to create space and win races to the net, but also to recover defensively when the play doesn’t materialize.
“Jack has done a good job and he’s picked the right moments to do it," Richards said. "He’s not forcing the issue. Plays are coming to him and he’s making the right choices.”
Johnson’s play has dramatically improved over the course of the regular season after struggling in the season’s first two months, along with the rest of his team. Johnson had one goal and 10 points in his first 22 games, but his minus-17 rating and 42.7 SAT at even strength only partially demonstrated Johnson’s slow start.
Johnson’s season reached a turning point in the Jackets’ first game of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 13, a crashing game in which Johnson physically dominated and added a goal late in the third period. Since Dec. 4, Johnson has seven goals and 27 points in 55 games. In that span, Johnson is a much improved plus-1 for a team that struggled over much of the season. His possession stats improved as well, with his even-strength SAT measuring 47.87 over 55 games weighed against some difficult defensive assignments.
It’s a trend for Johnson to get stronger as the year progresses, something evident in his three-goal playoff performance last spring. It’s also a trend for the Jackets as a whole, who have been troubled by slow starts each of the last three seasons but have responded by going a combined 46-16-7 in March and April over the last three regular seasons.
“I don’t have an answer for (why), but it’s a good thing because spring time is usually playoff time. That’s a great trend to have,” said Johnson.
“The bad trend is not getting off to great starts. This year was a little bit of a different reason as to why we didn’t get off to a good start when we didn’t even make it out of training camp with our full team. It was a difficult start, but it’s a great trend when the weather gets warm and your team plays its best hockey.”