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Patience paying off for top line

Panarin, Wennberg and Atkinson steadily gelling and taking over games

by Brian Hedger JacketsInsider /

Patience isn't always listed in the "strengths" column of NHL coaches.

Hockey at this level is a fast game, and this league is fastest of them all. Those who wait around too long, being indecisive, often get left behind. That's why there's a decent chance, if you ever meet an NHL coach, there might be a cocktail napkin in his pocket with a bunch of line combinations written all over it.

The search for chemistry never ends.

"It's just a natural thing for players to go through ups and downs throughout their season," said Jackets coach John Tortorella, who's been known to shuffle the deck with his lineup a time or two. "It's such a long year, and I think a big part of our job is trying to piece those guys together, when they're all going together. Sometimes, it goes stale. Lines go stale, and you're trying to jump start it, and you throw some different things [together] and maybe something sticks to the wall."

Patience, however, still has its merits. It's a delicate balancing act for a coach, and five games into the season Tortorella is walking that tightrope with his top line of Artemi Panarin, Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson.

Video: Foligno on continuing to progress

After starting out the first two games together, they got a new center last Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes. Captain Nick Foligno moved up to center Panarin and Atkinson, and Wennberg took Foligno's spot on the second line.

It didn't even last the entire game, which the Jackets won 2-1 in overtime to start their current three-game winning streak. Foligno and Wennberg went back to their former spots late in the second period, and it has stayed that way the past two games.

"I think I kind of jumped the gun a little bit in putting Nick there, and I went right back to [Wennberg] in Carolina," Tortorella said. "I just felt in my stomach, 'What are you doing? Give it a chance, and let them try to get their game in order.'"

That appears to be happening, based on the past two games.

Despite a slow start in the Jackets' 3-1 win against the Rangers on Friday night at Nationwide Arena, the top trio gradually began to take over that game. They started to dominate the puck whenever they went over the boards, and Panarin scored the game-winning goal with a dazzling play in the third period.

The shifty Russian got a head of steam, danced through the neutral zone, carried into the Rangers' zone and cut quickly to the slot for a shot that beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

Video: NYR@CBJ: Panarin scores first goal as a Blue Jacket

It was his first goal as a Blue Jacket. It was also the kind of play that showed exactly why the Blue Jackets traded Brandon Saad back to the Chicago Blackhawks to get Panarin.

Columbus needed a guy with Panarin's skill set, and now that he's here, the challenge for Tortorella is finding the right combination of linemates for him. Thus far, Wennberg and Atkinson are the best options.

Neither is Patrick Kane, whom Panarin bonded closely with in Chicago, but there's only one Patrick Kane on the planet. Wennberg and Atkinson play similar styles, though, and each has a high skill level.

"You can see there's some chemistry, especially with [Atkinson]," Tortorella said. "There's some there already. The couple guys he's playing with aren't bad players. Kaner's Kaner, but these guys are pretty good players, too, that he's playing with. Wennberg is one of the top distributors that you can find, so we'll just let it play out."

Statistical measures indicate that's a good idea.

Through five games, Panarin has seven points (one goal, six assists), Wennberg has five points (one goal, four assists) and Atkinson has scored twice - including a key goal Saturday in the third period of the Jackets' 5-4 overtime win against the Minnesota Wild.

Video: CBJ@MIN: Atkinson flips home rebound in front

"You're not always going to play your perfect game, or be on the same wavelength out there, but I thought as the game went on [against the Rangers], we started gaining more chemistry and getting into those areas to get the puck back and shoot pucks," Atkinson said. "We had a lot of chances. We just have to bury them."

Panarin and Wennberg did the past two games.

Each of their goals were game-winners that decided both ends of the back-to-back the Jackets just swept, and their line dominated puck possession. All three players finished with individual shot-attempts percentages (Corsi 5v5) at or near a whopping 70 percent in both games.

"It will take some time to read off each other, but right now we know that we have it in us," said Wennberg, whose game-winner was created off Panarin's shot in overtime. "We've just got to bring it to the game, pretty much."

It also depends on Tortorella, and his tolerance level for ineffective stretches.

"I think at the beginning of the year, and that's where I think I kind of jumped the gun, I think you need to let it manifest itself a little bit longer," he said. "I think I like the lines. If they have a tough couple periods, I think I jump the gun. You need to allow it to work a little bit."

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