Four times this season, Cam Atkinson has scored what looks to be the easiest goal in hockey.
The former Boston College forward is the backdoor man on Columbus’s No. 1 power-play unit. In this position, Atkinson is usually positioned at or below the left circle, stick lifted and ready to fire. When everything goes right and Atkinson launches from this spot, it’s approximately a 10-foot strike into an open net, vacated because the goalie cannot push over to get in front of the puck.
Tuukka Rask learned this the hard way in the season opener. By the time Rask recognized that Nick Foligno was sending a cross-crease dish to Atkinson, it was too late. Rask would have needed to be The Flash to get over in time to prevent Aktinson from burying the first of his four one-up backdoor goals.
Atkinson’s most recent backdoor slam dunk took place Dec. 22 against Pittsburgh. When Foligno settled the puck on the goal line, Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin made the critical mistake of closing instead of occupying the net-front area. As Dumoulin approached, Foligno connected with his wide-open teammate. Atkinson made no mistake.
As easy as Atkinson and the Blue Jackets make this play look, a lot of good, precise, and rapid work has to take place for it to happen.
“We have a bunch of plays that we run. That’s one of them,” Atkinson said of the down-low set. “We’ve had success at it. Any time you have success at it, they’re going to take away what you’re good at. But we have other plays.”
Through 34 games, Columbus has scored on a league-high 28 percent of its power plays. In comparison, Detroit, the league’s worst power play, has converted only 12 percent of its opportunities. The Bruins have the third-worst man-advantage (13.8 percent). According to www.corsica.hockey, Columbus’s average five-on-four shot distance is 27.3 feet, the NHL’s closest mark. The Bruins’ average shot distance on the power play is 36.2 feet, third worst in the NHL.
While the Blue Jackets will not approach Pittsburgh’s record of 119 power-play goals, set in the arcade days of 1988-89, it’s possible they could rival the 31.9 percent efficiency standard set by Montreal in 1977-78. Columbus’s power play is that good.
“Confidence. Lot of confidence,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Columbus’s man-up work. “They’ve got different options. I think the wealth is spread around pretty good when you look at who’s scoring on the power play. It’s not just one guy. It’s three or four guys. There’s a lot of confidence. They make a lot of good plays. First of all, you’ve got to stay out of the penalty box as much as you can. Second of all, your kill’s got to be at its best.”
Atkinson leads Columbus with seven power-play goals. But as Julien noted, it is not a one-strike operation. Foligno also has seven. The resurrected Sam Gagner has six. Zach Werenski, the most critical piece, has three. Alexander Wennberg has just two, but he fills the position of right half-wall disher. If penalty kills train their sights on shadowing Atkinson, it gives other players more opportunities — Foligno being the primary beneficiary.
In Columbus’s formation, Foligno has two primary jobs: net-front man and right-side goal-line guy. Foligno plays the part that Loui Eriksson occupied last season on the Bruins’ first unit. When Columbus’s backdoor setup is humming, Foligno is feeding Atkinson cross-crease passes. When teams overload on Atkinson, it gives Foligno more opportunities to shoot.
It’s partly why Foligno scored the winning power-play goal against the Bruins last Tuesday to stretch Columbus’s winning streak to 13 games. Foligno was standing on the goal line when he received Wennberg’s pass. Had Adam McQuaid, the right-side defenseman, closed on Foligno, the Blue Jackets captain might have found Atkinson open at the left circle. Instead, McQuaid held his ground and tried to disrupt Foligno with his stick instead of leaving his position to play the puck carrier. Foligno turned and took two swipes at the puck, the second leading to the game-winner.
“Some teams will have one specific thing that’s a real strength that they go to,” McQuaid said. “You try and take that away and go from there. But they seem to have multiple strengths.”
Foligno can tip pucks and look for jam plays. Gagner is available as the middle-of-the-ice bumper, ready to take shots as well as distribute the puck.
None of it works, however, if Werenski isn’t quarterbacking the entire operation.
Toronto has three sparkling rookies in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Patrik Laine has quickly become one of the most dangerous shooters in the league in Winnipeg. Brandon Carlo is not a point producer, but the 20-year-old Bruins defenseman leads all rookies in ice time per game.
The 19-year-old Werenski, however, could be the best of the bunch.
Werenski has scored 14 of his 24 points on the power play. He doesn’t hammer the puck Dustin Byfuglien-style from the point. He doesn’t push the puck up the ice with the dynamic skating of Erik Karlsson. But Werenski executes important plays — holding the blue line, threading pucks through traffic, making plays under pressure, reading when to switch sides — with the poise of a 30-year-old.
Video: Werenski power play goal vs. Jets
“He obviously has a lot of patience up top,” Atkinson said. “He slows down the game and makes the right play. It’s crazy how young he is and how mature he is back there.”
Some coaches would give rookies like Werenski more help up top to hold the point. But Werenski has gained so much of John Tortorella’s trust that the Columbus coach deploys the rookie as the lone point presence. The Blue Jackets are one of two teams (Buffalo is the other) that have yet to allow a shorthanded goal. In comparison, Philadelphia has allowed a league-high seven shorties.
With a flick of his blade, Werenski contains pucks that seem sure to squirt out of the zone. When penalty killers attack, the left-shot defenseman coolly shuttles pucks out of danger. If opponents swarm one end of the zone, Werenski knows when to move the puck to the other side, forcing penalty killers to scramble. Because of the rookie’s touch, his four teammates become even more dangerous.
“They have skilled guys who have a lot of options and can run a lot of plays,” McQuaid said. “Every guy’s a threat. You take one thing away, it’s a pick-your-poison thing.”
Panarin latest to earn payday
Last year, Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen became the latest ex-Blackhawks, partly because Brent Seabrook’s average annual value climbed to $6.875 million from $5.8 million. During the next offseason, another big-name player — perhaps do-it-all center Marcus Kruger, due just over $3 million annually through 2019 — might have to leave Chicago.
The list of ex-Blackhawks grows longer each season because of how general manager Stan Bowman continues to lock up his star players.
The latest to score a generous payday was Artemi Panarin, who became the owner of a two-year, $12 million extension on Wednesday. The Bread Man became Chicago’s fifth player due $6 million or more next season, alongside Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Seabrook, and Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks would have two more such players on their payroll if not for the pre-lockout backdiving contracts signed by Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith.
A lot of talent has departed Chicago because of its perpetual cap crunch: Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Bryan Bickell, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy, Dave Bolland. The Blackhawks have survived these departures because of the game-breaking talent of Kane, Toews, Crawford, Keith, and Hossa. The same thing will happen again because of Panarin’s skill and how well his high hockey IQ complements that of Kane.
Although nobody should cry over $6 million, Panarin deserved a bigger score. The 25-year-old has proven himself to be an elite NHLer. But Panarin recognized he’s part of a good thing and will be in line for an even bigger raise when his two-year bridge deal expires.
“My suggestion will be to try and enjoy the fact that we’ve got a great player who is a big part of our team and wants to be here in Chicago,” Bowman told Chicago reporters. “He loves playing with his teammates. He’s having a lot of fun and scoring a lot of goals. That’s really the thing that we’re excited about. The other stuff, we’ll make it work.”
McQuaid clearly was outnumbered
At this rate, the NHL should simply ban fighting and get it over with. Otherwise, the mandate to the linesmen to bust up scraps is resulting in a half-pregnant mishmash of nonsense.
Consider the punches Adam McQuaid had to eat from the Sabres’ William Carrier on Thursday while linesmen Mark Shewchyk and Greg Devorski tried to break up a fight that, in the old league, had to happen. Carrier had belted an unsuspecting David Backes with a check from the side, knocking the right wing from the game. After letting a puck fly, McQuaid went after Carrier, who dropped his gloves in response. But it was McQuaid who ended up on the wrong end while Shewchyk and Devorski tag-teamed the Bruins defenseman.
Two nights earlier, Shewchyk pulled the same trick on McQuaid. In Columbus, McQuaid and Josh Anderson shed their mitts and were ready to square up when Shewchyk and David Brisebois stepped in. Willing combatants, gloves off. But no dice, just valentines. What’s the point?
The league believes people will still buy tickets and watch on TV if fighting goes away. We’ll see. But at this point it makes no sense to let some fights happen and break up others.
Do away with it entirely, please, so those of us who are looking for entertainment can find it elsewhere.
Columbus still carrying bad deals
Even if Columbus’s hot streak cools off, the Blue Jackets should have tucked away enough points to secure a playoff spot. They’re doing so even while carrying several bad contracts. They are paying Scott Hartnell $4.75 million annually to be their fourth-line left wing. Brandon Dubinsky is their No. 2 center, but the ex-Ranger, due $5.85 million per year through 2021, does not look like a good long-term bet. David Clarkson is on long-term injured reserve because of a bad back, but his $5.25 million annual payday, good through 2020, is just about impossible to scrub from their books. GM Jarmo Kekalainen will likely have to move a player to give Alexander Wennberg the raise he requires when he reaches restricted status in July.
It would be fair to rename Bay Street, the address of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, Commonwealth Avenue North. The rink has played host to six Boston University Terriers during preliminary play of the World Junior Championship: Kiefer Bellows, Jordan Greenway, Patrick Harper, Clayton Keller, Charlie McAvoy, and Jake Oettinger, all playing for Team USA. Meanwhile, BU freshman Dante Fabbro has been manning the blue line for Team Canada. The Terriers have seven representatives in the annual under-20 tournament, a record for one North American college or junior team. Chad Krys would have made it eight, but the first-year defenseman was Team USA’s final cut.
Grinding All-Star travel
As of last count, Patrice Bergeron was fourth among Atlantic Division vote-getters for the All-Star Game, trailing Carey Price, Jaromir Jagr, and Shea Weber. The leader will earn an automatic invitation to Los Angeles. The Bruins will be thrilled if Bergeron remains behind his division rivals. If Bergeron were to get the nod, he’d have to travel from Boston to LA on Friday, Jan. 27, for media obligations to start the weekend. The day after the All-Star Game, Bergeron would have to travel to Tampa from LA. These are matches the 31-year-old should not be burning. Better to leave the cross-country slog to 20-year-old David Pastrnak, who is more deserving anyway.
Fleury’s ace turn
Most teams would be in trouble if their No. 1 goalie is out week to week, the status Mike Sullivan bestowed on Matt Murray because of a lower-body injury. But in Pittsburgh, this means ex-ace Marc-Andre Fleury will carry the load into the new year in what might be his final stretch as his team’s starter. The Penguins are committed to Murray long term, per the $3.75 million he’ll earn annually for the next three seasons. It will be the end of the line for Fleury. But the two-time champion could make a case for his next destination based on his play when Murray is unavailable. Fleury’s numbers are down (.908 save percentage, 3.13 goals-against average this year; .921 save percentage, 2.29 GAA last season). But it’s not easy for any goalie, especially a former ace, to be a backup. The 32-year-old can still stop pucks. Just not full time in Pittsburgh.
Downswing in Detroit
The Red Wings, counting down their final days at Joe Louis Arena, paid tribute to their 1997 championship team. What a roster, including Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Tomas Holmstrom, Igor Larionov, Darren McCarty, Vladimir Konstantinov, Chris Osgood. In comparison, the current Detroit roster does not look like it will be chasing the Cup for a while. The Red Wings are committed long term to some dreadful deals: Henrik Zetterberg (just over $6 million annually through 2021), Danny DeKeyser ($5 million, 2022), and Niklas Kronwall ($4.75 million, 2019). At the same time, aside from Dylan Larkin, Detroit does not have many young players looking like sure things. The Wings’ 25-year playoff streak is likely to end this season. Given the state of their roster, it’s unknown when the next streak will begin.
The Lightning are squarely in the Bruins’ rearview mirror for third place in the Atlantic Division. But Tampa Bay’s fight for postseason qualification was not good enough for the bosses to absolve Valtteri Filppula for missing a team meeting. Filppula was told not to play in Tampa’s 3-2 overtime loss to Toronto on Thursday for his mistake . . . Ottawa retired Daniel Alfredsson’s No. 11 on Thursday. At his best, the former Senators captain was one of the league’s near-perfect players — reliable on defense, dynamic on offense, irreplaceable in the room. There weren’t many lines better than Alfredsson riding with Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza on Ottawa’s first unit . . . The last-place Sabres suffered what might be the injury that sinks them for good when Ryan O’Reilly had to undergo an appendectomy. O’Reilly is one of the league’s best all-around centers . . . The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, one of the world’s premier dance companies, welcomed an unlikely member to its “Nutcracker” corps. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg’s No. 1 center, participated in the company’s performance on Friday . . . Scott Darling and Carter Hutton will wear baseball-themed masks for the Winter Classic between Chicago and St. Louis at Busch Stadium. No truth to the rumor that both goalies also planned to spit out tobacco juice between saves.
Scott Darling's second Winter Classic has the same theme as his first one⚾️❄️. A tribute to the baseball team in Scott's heart, the team which won the Championship🏆😊. I loved Scott's idea to pay tribute to the Cubs on his Winter Classic masks and I couldn't wait to get started🚀. The design is created in a total different way than the first one. The design has focus on Scott's favorite player, Anthony Rizzo⚾️. It is all created in a sketchy style with a sketch pen✏️, to give the design that retro look. O man I just love to draw❤✍🏻, been doing it all my life. The design is in full sync with the Blackhawks Winter Classic jersey and logo. And when you come closer you will enter a new world of detail work. I just love to go crazy with the details as the detail nerd I am🔍🤓. Thanks Scott! It is an honor to be your mask creator🎨🤗 @sdarling_33 @nhlblackhawks #winterclassic2017 #DaveArt #nhl #DaveArtCreativity @nhl #DaveArtTheGameChangerPosted by DAVEART.com on Friday, December 30, 2016
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.