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Sunday Feature: An exciting first look at the No. 1 line, but work remains

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Ryan Johansen, after a three-point performance in the Blue Jackets’ most complete preseason performance to date, respected the question. But at the same time, he wasn’t interested in superlatives.

“What’s worked for your line so far?” he was asked.

Johansen nodded and exhaled.

“Listen,” he said. “It’s one preseason game, only one. We did some good things and played pretty well, but there’s a long, long way to go.”

Point taken, but there was no denying the almost instantaneous chemistry pulsating among he, Brandon Saad, and captain Nick Foligno on Saturday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center.

The recently-assembled trio, which has only a few practices under its belt due to Saad’s mouth injury last week, is charged with leading a Blue Jackets offense that scored 227 goals a season ago – more than the Blackhawks, Sharks, Penguins and Kings, just to name a few.

Make no mistake: the Blue Jackets didn’t bulk up and acquire Saad, a Pittsburgh kid, to keep expectations (both internal and external) at the status quo. This is the time of year to build, tinker and grow, and Johansen thinks there’s plenty of room for growth despite an impressive outing on Saturday.

“When I sit on the bus or on the plane with Saader, I’m sure we’ll nod at each other and say ‘well done,’” Johansen said. “But you know what? That was just our first game. We can be better. Me, him and Foligno made some plays (on Saturday), but there’s a lot for us to improve on, too.

“On a couple of plays, our timing was a little off. Who knows how many more chances or grade-A opportunities we could have created if it was there? Those are the things we’ll talk about and try to get better at, and I know we will.”

Also rolled out on Saturday was a four-forward power play alignment, and all three members of the No. 1 line were part of it. They scored a pair of power play goals with Johansen having a hand in each (scoring the 3-0 goal), but the even strength play pleased them most.

Saad was flying in his preseason debut, playing a 200-foot game that disrupted chances at one end and created them at the other. One of the highlights was a great read by Saad high in the offensive zone, peeling back to wait in the perfect spot for a Penguins outlet pass.

Saad intercepted the pass, spun around and hit Johansen in the low left circle – and Johansen roofed it over Pittsburgh goaltender Jeff Zatkoff and into the net with 6.9 ticks left in the first period.

“Those two guys are fun to play with,” Saad told “For the majority of it, we felt pretty good. Obviously the power play clicked, but even 5-on-5, I think we created some chances.”

“They did a lot of good things,” Richards added. “I was really impressed with Brandon Saad and how he plays the game. (He’s) a good two-way guy who works hard. There was chemistry there and you could see it already. As I said before, you take some elite players and put them together, sometimes the chemistry might not be there (right away), but to me, they think the same way.

“When players think the same way and their vision is the same, a lot of times, you’ll have chemistry.”

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