The Blue Jackets took on a tough test last night against a very good Vegas Golden Knights team. After two quick strikes by the Knights in the first period, the Jackets battled back and eventually forced overtime; before bowing out in a shootout. The team was led into the battle by its top line, which has been improving in play over the last couple of weeks.
With injuries building up throughout the roster, the team has yet to find any real consistency within its lines. Johnny Gaudreau and Boone Jenner have held down two places on the top line, but with Patrik Laine in and out of the lineup, several other players have been slotted onto the other wing.
After giving call-up Emil Bemstrom a go during Laine’s latest absence, head coach Brad Larsen eventually shuffled Gustav Nyquist onto the wing alongside Jenner and Gaudreau, and the team hasn’t looked back.
It wasn’t easy at first. In fact, it took a few games for this trio to get into a rhythm; but slowly they started to figure things out, and their chemistry is standing out in a big way right now. Over the last 4 games, the team has scored just10 goals; with Gaudreau factoring into 7 of them.
While some of these points are coming on the suddenly red-hot power play, the top line has dictated play more and more at 5-on-5. On both of their goals last night, this line kept the Knights pinned into their own zone for a long shift, before striking and scoring a goal. This looks like a power play, but it isn’t:
Why is this line working so well?
I think they’re having success for a few reasons. They’re all veteran guys who have experience and understand how to feed off of each other. Nyquist signed here three years ago to bring offense, and he’s done that pretty consistently. He’s never been a true play driving winger in his career, but he’s a consistent threat to set up plays or score goals, and he’s rounded out his game to become a complete two-way scoring winger.
Jenner has never exceeded 30 goals or 49 points in his career, but suddenly he’s on pace to eclipse both of those totals, should he remain healthy. He’s always been a no-nonsense, straight lines player who plays hard on both sides of the puck and can chip in some offense. What’s changed this year? He’s playing with Johnny Gaudreau.
Gaudreau is one of the game’s most elite playmakers, who seems to have found his footing with the Jackets. While he doesn’t have Laine to feed pucks to, he does have two predictable, consistent all-around players, who can both finish – but more importantly, their two-way play frees him up to do the things he does best. And, their reliability means he’s quickly learned where they are on the ice at all times.
They’re feeding off of each other and working to win pucks. They move around and fill gaps for each other, and all three are capable of generating offense. Chemistry is a huge factor in sports, and this trio has found it. I have little doubt that they can continue to be productive if they stay healthy and are kept together (though admittedly, maybe not to this recent extreme).
What do they do with Laine when he returns?
Patrik Laine, one of the game’s premier goal scorers, seems an obvious fit alongside Gaudreau. He’s back on the ice and should be returning soon, which is great news for the team. But the top line has yet to find anywhere near the same level of success with Laine, that it has found with Nyquist involved. Through 8 games played, Laine has just 2 goals and 4 points, though he has taken plenty of shots (29).
There are options here. They could throw him right back onto the wing with Gaudreau and Jenner, and let them simmer for a few games to see if the chemistry picks up. Or, they could spread the wealth and try Laine on a different line. This would force teams to decide which line they want to use their top defense options against, and likely free up space for the others. “Pick your poison”, so to speak.
Matching Laine with Jack Roslovic and Kent Johnson, for example, could give the Jackets two dangerous scoring lines. And even if they don’t play together at 5-on-5, Laine and Gaudreau could still team up on the power-play, which is ultimately where you’ll see them most effective anyhow. Laine can set up for the one-timer, with Gaudreau feeding him from across the ice.
It will be interesting to see what Larsen and the Jackets decide to do. For the time being, it’s just been fun to watch the Jackets have a dominant line for a change. Especially when they’re playing without so many key players.
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