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Round 1

Panarin 'game-breaker' in playoffs for Blue Jackets against Capitals

Forward gives offense new dimension in first season with Columbus

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Columbus Blue Jackets knew they needed a dynamic forward like Artemi Panarin even before the Chicago Blackhawks made him available on the trade market last offseason.

After seeing what Panarin did for them during the regular season, the Blue Jackets say he can be a difference maker for them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, beginning with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS3, NBCSWA, FS-O).

"He's a game-breaker. It's no secret," linemate Cam Atkinson said Wednesday. "That's what everyone talks about. He can change a game any given shift."

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

Acquired from Chicago on June 23, Panarin led Columbus with 27 goals, 55 assists and 82 points this season, setting Blue Jackets records and NHL career highs in the latter two categories.  

The 26-year-old has added another dimension to an offense that used to rely heavily on crashing the net to create goals. That approach worked well for Columbus during the regular season in 2016-17 but not in the playoffs. 

Watching the Blue Jackets struggle to score at times while losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round reinforced general manager Jarmo Kekalainen's belief that they lacked diversity offensively.

"We had four lines of the same," Kekalainen said.

That is no longer the case. The most notable difference is the creativity and patience Panarin brings to Columbus' top line with rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois and Atkinson.

Video: DET@CBJ: Panarin ties game, sets franchise record

"He adds a different element of high-end skill and he's not always in a race," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "Sometimes he's trying to wait you out. And the guy can score from 40 feet."

Panarin's impact wasn't evident in the Blue Jackets' season goal total; after scoring 247 last season (3.01 per game), they dropped to 236 (2.88 per game). 

It took Columbus some time to find its scoring groove and Panarin some time to fit in. Through 54 games, they averaged 2.5 goals per game, but they took off after that, averaging 3.61 in their final 28. 

In the 20 games following the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26, Columbus scored a League-high 79 goals (3.95 per game) and went 14-4-2, clinching the first wild card into the playoffs from the conference. Panarin drove the offense during that stretch drive with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 19 games.

"He's a guy that just individually can open games up for you, which is something we just haven't had," Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. "We've done it collectively as a group, but haven't had a guy who can have the talent first of all to see things, and also the arrogance in a sense too that the big-pressure moments don't faze him."

The Blue Jackets didn't have that kind of arrogance last season, when they lost to the Penguins 4-1 in the best-of-7 series believing they deserved a better fate. 

Video: Previewing the Jackets vs. Caps first-round series

They controlled play for stretches and outshot Pittsburgh in four of the five games, but had trouble finishing their scoring chances while the Penguins made the most of theirs. Columbus was outscored 21-13.

"I think the difference in that series is we had to work so hard and create so many scoring chances to score a goal, where it takes them one or two shots and it's a goal," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. "And they did it to all the teams in the playoffs last year. That's called being dynamic, and we have that guy. He's done it for us all year long, making something out of nothing and the next thing you know it's in the back of the net."

To get Panarin, the Blue Jackets gave the Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, goaltender Anton Forsberg and a fifth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. They also received forward Tyler Motte and a sixth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

After playing so well with Patrick Kane in his two seasons with Chicago, scoring at least 30 goals and 74 points in each season, Panarin said he was among those who wondered whether he'd be as productive with Columbus. 

"When they first traded me, of course for a couple days, I worried," he said through a translator. "But then I calmed down and understood that this is all good for me. I understood that here I would progress as a player first and foremost. What's most important to me isn't money, but the whole game."

Eventually, he viewed the trade as an opportunity. 

"In Chicago, I played with Kane and got a lot of assists from him," Panarin said "But I always wanted something more, to put more of the game on myself and be more accountable for the result. Here, I got that, what I wanted."

The Blue Jackets did, too. 

Kekalainen noted that Panarin had more points this season than in either he played with Kane, and that Kane dropped from 89 points (34 goals, 55 assists) last season to 76 (27 goals, 49 assists).

"Patrick Kane is a great player, don't get me wrong," Kekalainen said. "But I'm sure Patrick Kane missed Artemi Panarin just as much as Artemi Panarin missed Patrick Kane, and Artemi had the best year of his career."

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