The Blue Jackets began this season with the idea that their top line would not have to shoulder all of the offensive responsibility.
If only for one game, it appears there may finally be answer to the search for secondary scoring line, one that can serve as an additional weapon in head coach Scott Arniel’s game-planning arsenal. While Vinny Prospal and Rick Nash remain at the top of the club’s scoring chart, the emergence of one player and the addition of another have buoyed the Columbus attack.
Arniel decided to make center Derick Brassard a healthy scratch, and in doing so, got a good look at a new trio that did not disappoint.
Mark Letestu, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, moved to center on Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets between Prospal and rookie Ryan Johansen. Columbus’ new-look second line showed instant chemistry, producing both goals in a 2-1 win over the Jets.
“With Mark, the first game we put him on right wing just because he was coming to the system and coming to the team (for the first time),” Arniel said. “We had a chance to practice and I got him back in the middle of the ice. You can see he’s smart in there and he’s good at both ends of the rink.
“Ryan got back to being a big power forward, that’s half the reason he wasn’t in the lineup because he got away from that. He was good on the walls in our end of the rink; those guys did a good job on the forecheck, getting the puck back.”
There was no magic solution, Prospal said, other than ensuring that he and his new line mates elevated their game against Winnipeg. They were a +6 combined and showed creativity at even strength and on the power play.
“It’s tough to say (what was working),” Prospal said. “Maybe we were smarter with the puck. We didn’t give it away, and we had a chance, we managed to make something out of our time on the ice – especially in the offensive zone.
“We have to enjoy the game tonight, enjoy the feeling and make sure we recreate the same hunger and same attitude toward Tuesday night’s game.”
One key to their success was Letestu’s presence in the face-off circle, which directly lead to the 2-0 goal – the eventual game-winning tally. Off the draw, Prospal chased the puck down in the neutral zone and out-waited the Jets defender, sending a perfect feed to Johansen camped on the doorstep. The Blue Jackets’ second line often started with possession of the puck, and got more offensive-zone time as a result.
Letestu won 12-of-18 face-offs against the Jets, and currently ranks 10th in the NHL in that category.
“It was nice to get rewarded tonight, and a lot of credit to Letestu and Prospal – they played a great game,” Johansen said. “It was a lot of fun playing with those two. Our whole line did (what we were supposed to); you’re going to have a good game doing those things and what you do best.
“Hopefully I keep scoring and we can keep winning. For what our record is, we need as much confidence as possible on the ice.”
The new line might as well be called the “opportunity line” given each player’s situation this season. The 36-year-old Prospal is coming off knee surgery and a season in which he missed significant time, and Letestu was the odd-man out in a deep Pittsburgh lineup. Prospal is the Blue Jackets leading scorer with 14 points in 16 games and Johansen is tied for the club’s goal-scoring lead with five.
Johansen fought his way through training camp determined to earn a spot on the Blue Jackets’ roster, and made the most of each chance given to him in order to stay beyond the 10-game threshold. With three-game winning goals this season, Johansen trails only Tampa’s Vincent Lecavalier and Johan Franzen of Detroit (four apiece).
The Blue Jackets could certainly benefit from the newly-formed line elevating the benchmark set in its debut.
“That was line very good and scored some big goals,” Arniel said. “They had three or four shifts when they spent extended periods of time in the opposition’s end and held on to pucks and made plays. They got rewarded with two big goals.”