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Second Round

Duchene savors trip to second round of playoffs with Blue Jackets

Upset of Lightning ends years of frustration for center

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

COLUMBUS -- Matt Duchene is closer to the Stanley Cup than he has ever been in his NHL career. 

The center led the Columbus Blue Jackets with seven points (three goals, four assists) in their historic sweep of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round. It was the first playoff series win for Columbus and the first time a team swept the regular-season points leader in the first round. 

The Blue Jackets will play either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Boston Bruins in the second round; Toronto leads the best-of-7 series 3-2.

 

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

 

"This is exactly what I've been looking for for a long time," Duchene said. "It's unbelievable. I'm so happy to be a part of this team." 

Duchene played in eight Stanley Cup Playoff games in his first nine NHL seasons, all with the Colorado Avalanche. He didn't score. He didn't advance. An injury forced him to miss five other playoff games. It was everything he heard it would be, nothing he wanted it to be.

"Rome wasn't built in a day, but at the same time you want to have at least a sniff at it," Duchene said. "You want to have at least some experience."

Duchene thought he was going to get to feel that way last season, when he was traded from the Avalanche to the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 5, 2017. 

The Senators were coming off a playoff run in the previous season that ended in overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Avalanche were coming off one of the worst seasons in NHL history. 

"They've got a team that can win a Stanley Cup," Duchene said immediately after the trade was announced. 

The Senators never came close with Duchene, finishing 30th in the NHL last season. They were 31st this season and when they couldn't convince the pending unrestricted free agent to sign a long-term contract, he was traded to the Blue Jackets on Feb. 22.

When he landed in Columbus Duchene felt the same way as he did when he was traded to Ottawa.  

Video: TBL@CBJ, Gm3: Duchene roofs backhander on rebound

"You can just tell by the way guys interact with each other, the auras, the vibes, all that stuff," Duchene said.

He said the leadership group, led by captain Nick Foligno, stuck out for doing things the right way and saying the right things. 

Duchene fit right in.

"Pretty quickly too," Foligno said. "He's a very cerebral hockey player, very intuitive to how the game is, to how guys are so if anything, I think he was trying to figure everyone out at such a fast rate."

The problem was shortly after Duchene got to Columbus, he and the Blue Jackets slumped. 

They went 3-1-0 in his first four games, Duchene scoring three points (one goal, two assists). But Columbus lost seven of its next 11 games (4-6-1), a stretch in which Duchene scored three points (two goals, one assist). 

The Blue Jackets fell out of a playoff spot on March 21, when they lost 4-1 to the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place. 

"That was tough," Duchene said. "After that game [in Edmonton] we were all trying to figure out what's going on. The frustrating part was for me and I know the guys in here felt the same way, I knew this was the level we could get to and it was frustrating that we just weren't. 

"Nick talked in front of the team one day and he said, 'We've got to be the hunters, not the hunted. That's what we've always been.' That was something that took a little while to get, but once it really boiled down to it and it was like, 'OK, we've got to go now,' we did."

Columbus finished the regular season with seven wins in its last eight games, clinching a playoff berth in its 81st game. 

Video: Foligno on Lightning, advancing to Second Round

Duchene had six points (one goal, five assists) in the eight games, including five assists in a three-game stretch from March 26-30, wins against the New York Islanders (4-0), Montreal Canadiens (6-2) and Nashville Predators (5-2).

"I don't think we as a group were playing very well so he wasn't seeing the guys at their best, which is unfair to him," Foligno said. "But I think he was just trying to figure out how our group was going to work. Once he saw the real bones of who we were his game really took off too."

Not just his offensive game. Duchene's all-around game was on display in the first round, when he won 57.4 percent of his face-offs and was as big of a part of the Blue Jackets' defensive success in limiting the Lightning to eight goals, five after the first period of Game 1.

"I think he's put a tremendous amount of effort into what he's doing in our end zone and trying to play away from the puck," Columbus coach John Tortorella said. "I think he's feeling it. He's got a couple goals now in the playoffs. I didn't realize he had none when we started. I think he feels good about it and I think his whole game has consistently gotten better."

Duchene, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, doesn't know where it all will go from here, nor does he have a sense yet of what he is going to do after the run is over. 

"That's the farthest thing from my mind," Duchene said.

He's invested in the Blue Jackets' success. 

"I've wanted a really good playoff experience for a while because it's the one thing I'm missing in my career and it's the biggest thing," Duchene said. "It's why you play the game. You play to win the Stanley Cup." 

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