For just the fourth time in their history, the Columbus Blue Jackets are in the playoffs. But there’s something different about the Jackets this time around, namely the presence of a legitimate game-breaker in the Columbus lineup.
In Thursday night’s opening game of their first-round playoff series against the Capitals, the Jackets’ game-breaker was the difference maker. Artemi Panarin set up two Columbus goals on the power play in the third period, and he scored a dazzling game-winner at 6:02 of overtime, giving the Jackets a 4-3 win and a 1-0 series lead.
Panarin scooted up the ice from his own end, carrying the puck on his backhand, with speed along the left wing wall. As he reached the bottom of the left circle, Panarin deftly went to his forehand and seemed to shoot all in the same motion, beating Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer high to the far side.
“Great shot,” says Grubauer. “Pulled it back, hit the bar, it went in. It’s a tough one to swallow. Not ideal, but we’ve got to get back to work.”
Panarin’s first playoff goal as a member of the Blue Jackets gives Columbus the first playoff series lead of its NHL existence.
As for the Capitals, they waited 11 months to get to this point, to have another opportunity for a deep playoff run. Although they got off to a strong start, they faded and got in their own way late in the game, leaving the door ajar for the Jackets to kick it in.
Special teams played a big part in Thursday’s series opener. Washington had a pair of early power plays, but was unable to jump out in front. Columbus also had the man advantage in the first, and also was unable to light the lamp. But late in the first frame, a major penalty on the Jackets put the Caps on the power play once again, and changed the complexion of the contest.
Jackets winger Josh Anderson drilled Caps defenseman Michal Kempny into the glass in the offensive zone, the latter going down for a bit and bleeding when he got up. Anderson was assessed a boarding major and a game misconduct at 17:23 of the first, taking the Jackets down to 11 forwards and the Caps down to five defensemen.
The Caps kicked it into gear on the ensuing all-you-can-eat power play, scoring twice in a span of 29 seconds before the first period concluded. Both power play goals came off the stick of Evgeny Kuznetsov, and both came almost immediately after entry into the attack zone.
On the first one, T.J. Oshie drove the net and initially appeared to have tipped the puck through the five-hole of Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. The Jackets issued a challenge, alleging that Oshie interfered with Bobrovsky on the play, but video review upheld the call on the ice and Washington took a 1-0 lead at 17:52 of the first.
Seconds later, Kuznetsov again gained the zone, and this time he snapped a shot past Bobrovsky on the far side, making it 2-0 at the 18:21 mark.
Washington started the second period with 2:23 worth of power play time, but was unable to add to its lead. And minutes after the Jackets finished killing the remainder of the Anderson major, they cut into the Caps’ lead.
Boone Jenner did good work to skate the puck through neutral ice and into the Washington zone after it knocked Thomas Vanek’s stick from his hands. Jenner skidded to stop at the right dot, and he laid a perfect back door pass for Alexander Wennberg, who tapped it home to halve the Caps’ lead to 2-1 at 4:48 of the middle frame.
Most of the second period was played at five-on-five, and both teams were able to generate a few chances. Jackets captain Nick Foligno foiled arguably the best of them, knocking Alex Chiasson’s shot out of mid-air just as it was about to cross the goal line.
In the second minute of the third, Tom Wilson was boxed for charging Wennberg in the offensive zone, and the latter did not return to the game after the hit. Columbus needed only 13 seconds worth of that power play with which to tie the game, Vanek scoring from the top of the paint, redirecting a Pierre-Luc Dubois pass to make it a 2-2 game at 1:31 of the third.
“I’m just trying to finish my check there,” says Wilson, “I’m obviously not trying to take a penalty. Potentially, that cost us the game. That’s a critical moment. I’ve got to be better and maybe pass up on that hit. We’ve got the lead there, so maybe a big hit is not needed.
“It’s playoffs. You’re trying to finish your checks. Unfortunately, I took a penalty and they capitalized on a couple of their opportunities there in the third period.”
Ten seconds after Vanek’s goal, Foligno left for repairs after blocking a Jakub Jerabek shot with his face. That left the Jackets down three forwards for a short span, but Foligno was able to return to the ice.
Washington didn’t generate much offense after its power play late in the second, but it did manage to retake the lead with probably its best scoring chance in the final 26 minutes of the game.
John Carlson sprung Jakub Vrana into the Jackets’ zone with speed, and the Washington winger gave the impression that he might cut to the cage before abruptly halting and turning just above the goal line on the right side. Vrana then fired a cross-ice feed to Devante Smith-Pelly, who snuck a shot past Bobrovsky on the short side to give the Caps a 3-2 lead with 14:48 left.
The Caps did well in occupying the puck in the offensive zone and getting pucks deep, but they didn’t threaten to add to their lead, and they weren’t finished taking unwise penalties, either. Kuznetsov was sent off for slashing Panarin away from the play, an absolutely unnecessary penalty that the Caps managed to kill off.
But the Caps weren’t able to kill off Andre Burakovsky’s tripping minor in the attack zone late in the third, and Columbus got the tying tally on the power play from Seth Jones, who beat Grubauer on the short side after the Caps missed out on a handful of clearing attempts. Jones’ goal tied the game with 4:26 left.
Jones’ goal set the stage for Panarin’s overtime heroics. It was all Columbus late in this game; Washington’s only shot on net in the final 17-plus minutes was a Nicklas Backstrom shot from neutral ice.
“It was almost three different games,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “The first period, we were very disciplined, we carried the play and obviously got our power-play goals. Second period, you know [the Blue Jackets] are going to have a push. They had a push, and they got it [to 2-1]. I thought the first part of that period they were a little bit better, they were a little stronger on the puck than us in that period; I thought we got it back towards the end of that period. And then obviously in the third period they get it tied up and we get the lead [back]. We took three penalties in the third period and they end up putting us in a position where we’re going to overtime.”
That’s when the game-breaker did what game-breakers do.
“We’ve talked about that all year long,” says Columbus coach John Tortorella. “We traded away a really good player in [Brandon Saad] to get him. [Panarin is] a different type of player, a guy that makes something out of nothing. He makes a great play on the tying goal, and scores a goal that a lot of people can’t score in this league.
“That’s sometimes the difference in winning and losing. As I said last year, we grinded with scoring chances and had a tough time scoring some goals. Big game players, that’s important if you want to find your way at this time of year in the high-stake games.”