COLUMBUS -- There was a plenty of buzz surrounding Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen following a 3-2 victory March 20 against the Montreal Canadiens.
Most people wanted to talk about the third-year player's first NHL fight when he squared off against Max Pacioretty early in the game and how Johansen would respond after wading into unknown territory.
The answer came with 3:01 left in regulation when he showed the skill and savvy that made him the No. 4 pick by the Blue Jackets in the 2010 NHL Draft.
Johansen took the puck off the stick of defenseman Jarred Tinordi a stride outside the blue line and streaked into the zone. With two Canadiens in pursuit, he made a sharp stop low in the right faceoff circle. He pulled the puck back to freeze the goaltender then fired past Carey Price to give the Blue Jackets a 3-2 victory.
"He's a unique combination of great high-end skills and soft hands," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.
Though the goal might be considered the defining moment in the defining game of a breakout season for the 21-year-old Johansen, Columbus coach Todd Richards remembers something else about him that night in the Bell Centre.
"There was a play Jo made earlier in the game, first period, where he picked the puck up right in front of our bench, and chipped it off the boards and did a spin, then picked it up on the other side of the player," Richards said. "Then he went in, did a delay and hit David Savard for a great scoring chance.
"When you're able to watch a guy that size do that at that speed; not only mobility and agility, but there's also vision and strength and power, well, it was impressive."
Ryan Johansen's maturity mentally and physically has turned him from benchwarmer to team scoring leader. (Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI)
But there was even more to Johansen's game that helped the Blue Jackets rebound from a home loss to the Carolina Hurricanes two days earlier. He won 18 of 22 faceoffs against the Canadiens, including six of nine in the defensive zone, and took seven shots in 17:49 of ice time.
"He dominated the circle," Richards said. "These are the things as a coach or a fan of the Blue Jackets that gets you really excited."
It's been a long time coming for a franchise known for first-round picks not panning out (see Gilbert Brule, Nikita Filatov, Alexandre Picard and Nikolai Zherdev) or traded before reaching their prime (Derick Brassard, John Moore, Rick Nash and Jakub Voracek).
The Blue Jackets have been patient but stern in developing Johansen. He debuted in the NHL on Oct. 7, 2011 against the Nashville Predators and scored his first goal two weeks later against the Detroit Red Wings. He had 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) in 67 games his rookie season and was expected to be a major contributor for the 2012-13 season.
However, because of the lockout the Blue Jackets sent him to the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League to aid his development. When the NHL season resumed Johansen was recalled, but it wasn't long before he was sent down again, missing eight Blue Jackets games.
Johansen regained form and was recalled for the Blue Jackets' Stanley Cup Playoffs push that ended a point shy of the second postseason appearance in team history. He had five goals and seven assists and a minus-7 rating in 40 games. He was then returned to Springfield, but endured the embarrassment of being benched in the second round of the playoffs because of his uninspired play.
When asked this week if that was the low moment of his professional career, Johansen gave a wry grin and said, "Oh yeah."
Richards at that point considered if Johansen was headed toward being another Blue Jackets bust.
"You're waiting and wondering when is it going to sink in?" the coach said. "Is it going to click and would it ever happen, because I'm seen talented kids come through and it's never clicked for them. … There was some doubt."
Kekalainen prefers to think of Johansen's time in Springfield as a learning experience for a young player trying to find his way.
"When you go down to that level when you've played in the NHL, of course everybody's going to be playing hard against you," he said. "That's what he's got to expect now in the NHL every night."
Fast forward to the end of March, and Springfield is in the rear view mirror and fading fast from sight. On Tuesday, in what Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson called the most important game of the season, Johansen scored twice in a 4-2 win against Detroit to end a two-game losing streak.
Johansen's first goal was the first in 37 power-play tries for the Blue Jackets and put his abilities on display. He showed patience looking for a shooting lane. His hard shot resulted in a juicy rebound, and his quickness and deft touch enabled him to get to the puck and poke it past goalie Jimmy Howard.
The second goal into an empty net was Johansen's 29th of the season and puts him in position to become the third Columbus player to reach the 30-goal mark. Nash did it seven times with a high of 41 in 2003-04. Geoff Sanderson had 34 goals in 2002-03 and 30 in the Blue Jackets' inaugural 2000-01 season.
So what's the difference between Johansen the benchwarmer in Springfield and the one leading the Blue Jackets in scoring? He's matured mentally and physically.
"I try not to think too much about [Springfield] but it happened," Johansen said. "I wasn't playing to the best of my abilities. At the same time over the course of the summer and at the start of this season I kept telling myself, 'I can do it. I can be can that elite player and dominate games or be effective each and every night.'
"I'm still young. I just needed to learn how to be a pro. I've worked hard, but I wasn't doing those extra things to become a great player. This year I've been taking those strides and I'm becoming a good player in this League."
Johansen has grown in other ways. The Port Moody, British Columbia native carried 194 pounds on his wiry 6-foot-3 frame when he was drafted, but he's now listed at 223 and using the added weight and muscle to his advantage.
"He's strong on the puck, no doubt," Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "It comes with experience too, how to put yourself in different situations and how you position your body, but the biggest thing is confidence and how he plays out there.
"It's amazing to watch his growth. It's pretty fun to watch these young guys come up and do so well. He's really taken his game to another level."
Johansen also has 25 assists and is plus-1. Kekalainen likes those numbers, but said his center's potential is untapped.
"With added quickness and strength he can get to another level," Kekalainen said. "With work off the ice and in the offseason he can get the physical part of the equation into place where now it's going to be easier for him to play 82 games at a consistent level that we expect."
Detroit center David Legwand knows all about expectations, having been the first pick of the expansion Nashville Predators in 1998. He sees a bright future for Johansen.
"He's big, skilled and can skate," Legwand. "He's going to play in this League for a long time. I know he had his ups and downs for a year or two. He's a guy who, when he has the puck, you know something's going to happen.
"As an opposing player playing against him, he's got a big, strong body. He can move and hold onto it down low. He's fun to watch."
Johansen is also becoming the go-to guy for the Blue Jackets. He's scored dazzling shootout goals to decide the outcome against the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild this season, and is showing leadership qualities as well.
That's not surprising to St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who was fired by the Blue Jackets four months before Johansen was drafted, but was still on the payroll at the time.
"He was a player that was well coached in junior and he's been well coached [in Columbus] and you can see that age is not relevant," he said. "He's had probably year five or six of good coaching and he's been very receptive to it. Now you're seeing the evolution of a good player.
"You can trust him anywhere you put him so you can put him against top players. You can put him in scoring positions."
The Blue Jackets' marketing department has been looking for a "face" of the franchise since Nash was traded to the Rangers in July 2012, although Kekalainen doesn't believe in that strategy.
Center - CBJ
GOALS: 29 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 54
SOG: 201 | +/-: 1
"The guys who lead us into winning territory will be the faces of the franchise," he said.
Yet on March 21, Johansen showed there was a changing of the guard when Nash returned to Nationwide Arena for the first time with the Rangers and received a mixed reception at the onset.
Early in the game, Nash tried a rush out of his own end and was promptly put on his rear by Johansen to the delight of the sellout crowd.
"He was trying to make some moves," Johansen said. "Obviously he was a target. Coming back to Columbus we wanted to make sure he didn't put on a show. I saw the chance to hit him. The crowd gave a good reaction. It got our team going a little bit too."
Then he flashed a smile that offset the tough guy image he was trying to project.
"He's still got the baby face a little bit," teammate Jared Boll said. "But it doesn't matter what his face looks like as long as he can put the puck in the net."