Throughout training camp, one of the more prominent storylines was the experimental rotation of several wingers on the Blue Jackets’ top line.
Blue Jackets head coach Scott Arniel knew he had two pieces to that trio written in ink: captain Rick Nash and newly-acquired center Jeff Carter, who would play heavy minutes together in the exhibition season in an effort to develop chemistry. Arniel slotted at least a half-dozen wingers on the left side of that line both in practice and in preseason games, but late in camp he found the “glue” he was looking for in Vinny Prospal.
It had been a trying first 18 games of the season for the team, but for those three players it was especially difficult because they had not spent much time together. Carter missed 10 games with a foot injury, forcing Prospal to the second line and Nash only recently snapped a seven-game goalless skid. The trio was noticeable together in the first few games of the season, but they’ve taken their play to a new level of late.
“Our line personally was pretty happy with how we (played) in Nashville,” Carter said. “We talked about just keeping it rolling and keep it going and it was another good one tonight.”
Carter said it is hard to overlook the impact of Prospal on his left wing.
“Vinny’s a guy that brings our line together, he’s real good one the walls, down low and in front of the net,” Carter said. “He basically made my goals happen.”
And while Prospal has certainly contributed to his line’s success, perhaps the most significant factor has been in the face-off circle. The best lines in the NHL become threats when they own the puck and have possession for long stretches, something Arniel said the Blue Jackets have worked on and are finally seeing results from.
As a team, they won 61 percent of face-offs against the Flames and 56-percent last week in Boston. Carter has fueled the puck-possession for Columbus’ No. 1 line, winning at least 56-percent of his draws in three of the last five games.
“You’re always designing in your system a way to defend and get pucks back from people,” Arniel said. “When you can start with it and put the other team on their heels, that’s such a big area. When your penalty kill can start with the puck and your power play can start with the puck, if it’s in the offensive zone you can create a chance off a won face-off, that’s big.
“Jeff sets the tone pretty good there and we’ve got some strong people (on the draw). When you can start with pucks like that, it’s a real good sign.”
Carter echoed his coach’s analysis.
“It always helps when you start with the puck,” he told BlueJackets.com after last night’s victory. “That makes the game a lot easier for us, and especially our line. We did a good job of that tonight, winning face-offs and giving ourselves a lot more opportunities to score goals.”
Arniel thinks he has found a dynamic mix with Carter, Nash and Prospal, and in doing so, has been able to assemble another scoring threat with his No. 2 line. All four lines have committed to working harder without the puck, he said, and that has allowed the Blue Jackets to take advantage of turnovers generated by their pressure.
“We talked about chemistry and having the team together out there on the same page,” Arniel said. “You’ve seen each line doing it; it’s not just one line that’s doing it.
“We’re putting a lot of pressure on teams and making them turn pucks over.”