COLUMBUS – Everything you need to know about the defensive juggernaut that is the Columbus Blue Jackets is that in the first round, defenseman Erik Cernak was the leading scorer for the Tampa Bay Lightning with three assists. And in a combined 20 playoff games, six of the most dynamic offensive players in the game – Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, along with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins – have two goals, only one of them at even strength.
The Blue Jackets aren’t only shutting down some of the best players on the planet, they’re rendering them almost useless. Sure, Marchand has been free to break peoples’ sticks and punch them in the back of the head, but that’s about the extent of the impact he’s had on this second-round series. As for Bergeron, he’s winning more than 68 percent of his faceoffs, but the Bruins have almost nothing to show for all of that puck possession. The Bruins, in fact, took Pastrnak off the top line and replaced him with Danton Heinen, essentially to get him away from Jones and Werenski. (It’s not working. Pastrnak has become a perimeter player in this series.)
Not that this has pleased Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, who spoke on the off-day Wednesday as though his team was trailing in the series instead of leading 2-1. “I still think we have a ton of things we need to improve on,” Tortorella said. “There are some major things we need to improve on for Game 4, and I mean that. We need more guys. I don’t think we have enough guys playing at the level they need to play at.”
Scoring was up in the NHL this season and the league has more exciting and dynamic players than it has ever had in its history. But the Blue Jackets are proving that if you want to have success in the playoffs, you still have to grind out your wins and find a way to wreck a masterpiece rather than create. And nobody has disrupted the opponents more than the Blue Jackets defense tandem of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Jones currently sits second in ice time behind Brent Burns with a per-game average of 28:04 in these playoffs, while Werenski is fifth at 26:36. And these are not easy minutes, either.
“Just play hard defensively, that’s all we’re doing, honestly,” Jones said of his and Werenski’s success against the league’s top shooters. “Me personally, I’m just trying to be physical. I know I’m not known as a big, bruising defenseman. I did see I had six hits last game, though. I don’t know who’s counting that. Just trying to be physical and take time and space away.”
There have never been any questions about the offensive potential that both Jones and Werenski possess. Playing a 200-foot game has been a work in progress for both and they’ve made enormous strides in that area this past season. At the age of 24 and with six seasons under his belt, Jones is starting to enter the territory where he’ll be among the serious contenders for a Norris Trophy in the next couple of seasons. From munching minutes to producing offense to shutting down top players, Jones is beginning to check off an awful lot of boxes when it comes to being Norris-worthy.
“I think this is what Seth needed in his career, was to get on this big stage like this,” said Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno. “We’ve always seen it, but now it’s getting nationally talked about. He is a big part of this team and an elite player in this league and it’s nice to see him get recognized. He doesn’t really care about it and that’s part of what makes him so good. He doesn’t need people talking about him to play like that.”
Most of the good defensive work Jones does is with his feet and his stick. Even speedy forwards have a difficult time getting past him and his speed allows him to make more risky offensive plays, knowing he can skate himself out of trouble and stop offensive drives with his stick. He’s also been a presence on the power play in the playoffs, replacing Werenski at the point alongside Artemi Panarin. So far in the post season, one of his two goals and four of his eight points have come on the power play.
“We’re going out there and just trying to dominate every game,” Jones said. “Whether it’s offensively or defensively, make a difference. That’s what we always say. Sometimes it’s not always positive, but we try to keep it that way for the most part.”
Seven games into this post-season and three games into the second round, it has been a case of mission accomplished.
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