The Blue Jackets aren’t home-free yet and there aren't going to be any celebrations in Columbus at this juncture, but a streak of nine straight victories most certainly has coach John Tortorella’s club in line for a return trip to the post-season. It’s been a brilliant stretch for Columbus, the league’s hottest team in March, and the Blue Jackets have run through all comers, be it bubble teams, potential playoff opponents or true-blue Stanley Cup contenders. And the result, as of Tuesday’s victory over the New York Rangers, is that Columbus has moved all the way into third spot in the Metropolitan Division, a spot in the standings that seemed a pipe dream at best when the month began.
The catalysts for the run have been plenty, too. Of course, the threat of missing out on the playoffs after last season’s trip to the dance has been a rallying point for the entire organization, and the play of Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner and Pierre-Luc Dubois has helped. Defenseman Zach Werenski has stepped up in the absence of partner Seth Jones, as well, and he’s gotten help on the back end from David Savard and Jack Johnson. As has come to be expected, Sergei Bobrovsky has been brilliant in goal, turning in a .930 save percentage across six starts during this streak. But above all else, the driving force behind the Blue Jackets’ nine-game streak has been Artemi Panarin, who seems to have found another gear for Columbus at exactly the right time.
It’s easy to say as much when Panarin is coming off of a hat trick against the Rangers, sure, but his performance Tuesday was far from a one-off. Rather, Panarin has nearly lapped the rest of the offense across the current winning streak, scoring seven goals and 15 points in nine games, not to mention a pair of game-winners. Don’t go thinking he’s been making all his noise on the power play, either. Only one of his points has come on the man advantage during this streak. The other 14 have come at even strength and all but two are primary points, meaning he’s played the part of triggerman or set-up specialist on 12 of Columbus’ 34 goals during their current streak. That’s more than one-third of the offense across a nine-game span. His play throughout March, however, is only a microcosm of the second half Panarin has had.
While he hasn’t drawn even the slightest bit of attention in the Hart Trophy conversation or even flirted with entering the Art Ross Trophy race, Panarin has been nothing short of excellent since the calendar turned. Since Jan. 1, the Blue Jackets winger has scored 15 goals and 34 points in 34 games. That may not be a jaw-dropping rate of production akin to that of an Evgeni Malkin or Nathan MacKinnon, but it does put Panarin into a tie for 25th in league scoring in the new year and puts him well ahead of his teammates. Jones, despite his injury, has been the next-best Blue Jackets scorer over the same span with 26 points, while the second-highest scoring forward, Cam Atkinson, is a dozen points back of Panarin.
What’s more, though, is that Panarin’s success in recent weeks, not to mention in the back half of the slate, is further vindication for a player who some believed to be a product of his environment. When he landed in Columbus, there were those who were of the mind that his rookie and sophomore campaigns with Chicago — over which he scored 61 goals and 151 points in 162 games — were driven by his pairing with Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane, thus a repeat performance with the Blue Jackets seemed unlikely to some. Panarin’s case wasn’t helped in the first half of the schedule, either, when he was on pace for the lowest-scoring season of his young career. But over the back half of the season, and thanks in part to his play of late, Panarin is potentially heading for his best performance yet.
With eight games remaining in the campaign, he’s on pace to hit 28 goals and 76 points. That said, hitting 30 goals for a third consecutive season isn’t out of the question and there’s a chance Panarin reaches the 80-point plateau for the first time in his career. And, wouldn’t you know it, neither Kane nor any of Panarin’s former Blackhawks teammates are anywhere to be found.
Truth be told, even if Panarin doesn’t exceed his previous career bests, it could be argued this has been the best season of his career, and he has more than acquitted himself as an all-star talent who can lead the offensive charge with or without a league-leading offensive star by his side. His numbers certainly support that statement. This season has seen Panarin drive play better than ever before and do so while playing a much more balanced game; after two years of 75 percent-plus offensive zone start rates, he’s floating around 65 percent this season. Panarin has also matched last season’s total of 48 primary points at 5-on-5 in eight fewer games, all the while creating more opportunities offensively. At five-a-side, Panarin’s shot attempt generation is at its career-best rate — the 70.4 attempts per 60 minutes are nearly 10 better than his previous best set last season — and his shots on goal, scoring chance and high-danger chance rates have risen by rates of roughly nine, five and two per 60 minutes, respectively.
And Panarin has done all of this in an effort to propel the Blue Jackets to the playoffs, a place neither Kane or the Blackhawks have any hope of heading this season.
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