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Johnson front and center in Blue Jackets' revival

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- Defenseman Jack Johnson joined the Columbus Blue Jackets at one of the rock-bottom moments for the franchise, but instead of shying from the challenge of being part of the turnaround, he embraced it.

Monday night, before a frenzied crowd in Nationwide Arena for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was rewarded for his perseverance with the Blue Jackets' first home Stanley Cup Playoff game since 2009.

Although Pittsburgh rallied for a 4-3 win to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series, Johnson said the fans did their part with 60 minutes of non-stop energy.

"That's what we envisioned it could be every night," he said Tuesday. "We know just like any other city you've got to have a perennial winner to create a buzz around your team every night.

"We're well on our way, and it was pretty gratifying to see the building like it was [Monday] night."

Johnson, 27, came to the Blue Jackets on Feb. 23, 2012, in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for forward Jeff Carter.

Although the Kings won the Stanley Cup four months later while the Blue Jackets finished as the worst team in the NHL by nine points, Johnson has never regretted the move.

Immediately upon being acquired he set out to change the culture in the locker room, and the former University of Michigan standout won over people in a city known for its fanatical support of Ohio State University sports while despising the Wolverines.

The fans have been cheering Johnson even more during the playoffs because he leads NHL defensemen with three goals and is tied for second in points with four.

Johnson has a goal in each game, including a power-play goal with 6:01 left in the third period of Game 2 at Pittsburgh to tie the score 3-3. Teammate Matt Calvert scored in the second overtime to give the Blue Jackets their first postseason win in franchise history.

"I've been in the right place at the right time," Johnson said.

Actually, he's taken advantage of what's given to him. Johnson has been able to skate deep and be in position for close shots or even the occasional rebound try.

"I like jumping in," he said. "Usually I don't get left that wide open. I haven't had a Pittsburgh player around me. I've been open coming in the past couple of games. It's been pretty nice.

"Usually the other teams are pretty aware of where the other team's D is so they can't jump in."

The first three-game goal streak of his professional career has played out in front of Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who did not select him for the 2014 Sochi Olympics despite Johnson having helped the U.S. to a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Johnson declined to comment on that.

Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards was Bylsma's Olympic assistant and part of the selection process. Richards praises Johnson's work in getting the Blue Jackets to the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.

Johnson has logged heavy minutes and been instrumental in holding Penguins top guns Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a goal in the series.

"Jack has been very good down the stretch and these first three games," Richards said. "He plays like a man on the ice. He can log the big minutes. He played close to 40 minutes in the OT game in Game 2. And they're big, tough minutes. It's the opposition. He's playing against Crosby or Malkin most of the night. Penalty kill, he's one of the first guys over the boards and he plays power play."

Johnson is averaging 29:05 of ice time in the postseason, but his contributions are greater than that. The Blue Jackets do not have a captain, but Johnson is one of the unquestioned leaders in the locker room.

"He's a real important piece for our team, not only what he brings out on the ice and how he plays and being able to handle big, strong guys, guys who can skate," Richards said. "But I think he's got a lot of respect in the room from his peers in just how he plays out on the ice. He's a guy that takes care of himself. He's in the weight room He's doing the right things. He's been a real key, key guy for us down the stretch."

Johnson's veteran presence on a young team will be tested in Game 4 on Wednesday at Nationwide Arena (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS, FS-O, ROOT).

The Blue Jackets, as they did in the first game, lost Game 3 after leading 3-1, this time by giving up three goals in 2:13 of the third period.

"We probably played well the majority of the game, almost all of it," Johnson said. "They got a couple of point shots deflected in, that's playoff hockey."

It beats sitting at home this time of the year like the past two seasons.

"It's the most fun time of the year," Johnson said.

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