In the hours before Columbus' critical home game Saturday vs. Pittsburgh, it felt like the Blue Jackets were in trouble.
The team had won just one of its last four games, and even the win -- a 2-1 victory against New Jersey -- was less than a banner performance. Coming off a shutout loss at Pittsburgh, Columbus needed a spark and needed it quickly.
And when head coach John Tortorella was talking pregame, he seemed to have the man in mind who could provide it.
"We're waiting for someone to lead the way, and (Josh Anderson) certainly has the ability, the speed, and the seasoning to do that and say, 'Follow me.'
"I think he tried to do that the other night. He needs to come back and even put another level to it tonight," Tortorella said.
Anderson wasn't in the room, but he seemed to receive the message. After getting the starting nod, he spotted Pittsburgh's Dominik Simon with the puck along the wall, and Anderson closed in and flattened the Penguins forward as Nationwide Arena roared just 16 seconds into the game.
About two minutes later, the cannon blasted and the building was at a fever pitch. It all started when Anderson skated onto the puck as it landed after Nick Foligno shoveled it out of the defensive zone. Anderson quickly slipped a pass between two Penguins to feed Boone Jenner in alone, and Jenner scored past Matt Murray to start the scoring in what would become a cathartic 4-1 victory.
Video: PIT@CBJ: Jenner scores off feed from Anderson
"As soon as you stepped onto the ice for the start of the game, you could feel that vibe," Anderson said. "It was going to be a playoff atmosphere, sold-out crowd. With us playing against Pittsburgh and us owing them one, it felt like a playoff game, and we knew that the first couple of shifts were going to be important to set the pace of the game."
By the end of that game, Anderson had seven shots on goal and seven hits while helping set the tone for the Jackets' win. He also needed a massage and some time in the cold tub and hot tub the next day.
It's not an easy role the Blue Jackets are asking Anderson to fill, but it's a role he's born for. With 23 goals, Anderson is a big-bodied scorer who with speed who can create on the rush and wear teams down in the offensive zone. And as a physical presence with a team-high 185 hits, Anderson is also someone opposing teams simply do not want to play against.
The latest example of that came Tuesday night as Anderson turned in another tour de force on the way to his first-ever four-point game. He set the tone early again, tying the game in the first period on a phenomenal play in which he used his strength and speed to come in alone then beat Tuukka Rask with a deft backhanded finish.
Video: BOS@CBJ: Anderson speeds past defender and scores
He'd later add three assists, including one on a shorthanded momentum-establishing goal by Boone Jenner, while pairing with Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene on a line that appears to be building the chemistry Tortorella has been looking for since the trade deadline.
"He's north-south and he's always skating," Dzingel said Tuesday night after his own one-goal, two-assist showing. "It makes it easy for us. Him on the forecheck, nobody wants to go back and get pucks. It feels good so far."
In short, Anderson is becoming the type of leader Tortorella suggested he could be. The head coach has spoken glowingly of Anderson's improvement this year, which includes career highs in goals, assists, plus-minus and hits. Earlier this season, Tortorella said the 24-year-old winger approached him and asked the coach to stay on him about his game after his previous seasons were marked by great successes but equally deep valleys.
This year, things have been more consistent, and Anderson has been nearly a point-per-game player (8-10-18 in 22 games) since the team returned from winter break. Most importantly, he's been playing better as the games have become bigger.
For someone who arrived as a fourth-round pick whose minutes were sometimes hard to come by in his early seasons, Anderson now is in his fifth year in the dressing room. His numbers and physical play speak for themselves. The Ontario native is far past tiptoeing around the room, and teammates have reminded him what he means to the team and what more he could be.
"And I want to be that guy, too," Anderson said. "I want to lead by example. I have to continue to do that with my play. If I'm getting scoring chances and I'm being physical, that's a big part of my game. I know it's going to help the team win."
Reminding Anderson that he has it in him is also one of the roles of Tortorella. The longtime NHL coach has watched countless players grow from fresh-faced rookies into veterans and leaders, and few have had the physical skills of the 6-3, 221-locomotive that is Anderson.
"It's the next step," Tortorella said of Anderson's maturation as a leader. "It's them feeling comfortable to do that. Couple of years ago we were kicking Josh to play. He's in the minors learning how to play the game.
"But it's always the toughest step to step into a locker room each and every night knowing you are one of those guys that can lead. I think Josh is understanding that. I don't think he's ever going to be a guy that voices it. It's gonna have to be with his play. He's had a very consistent year this year."