COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Artemi Panarin turned out to be everything the Columbus Blue Jackets were looking for when they traded for him last summer: A dead-eye sniper and deft puck distributor who can get game-breaking goals and make everyone around him better.
And, the Blue Jackets hope, a guy who can get them deeper into the playoffs.
So far, so good. Columbus heads home to Nationwide Arena after taking a 2-0 lead over Washington in their first-round series on Sunday night, a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win in which Panarin contributed a pair of key assists.
That came three nights after Panarin won the series opener in overtime. With two assists already in regulation, he drove down the left side, slipped past Capitals defenseman Dimitry Orlov and snapped a shot over goalie Philipp Grubauer’s shoulder.
”There’s very few people who can make that shot,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said.
”He can make a play from nothing,” Orlov said. ”He’s so smooth.”
The Blue Jackets probably wouldn’t be playing in the postseason without the 26-year-old Russian they call the ”Bread Man.” He was a steady presence and consistent scorer through a bumpy season of slumps and injuries to other key players.
Panarin led Columbus with 27 goals and 55 assists, and his 82 points were the most in a single season in franchise history. His plus/minus of 23 and average of just over 20 minutes on the ice per game were career highs.
Panarin – sounds like Panera Bread, hence the hockey nickname of ”Bread Man” or just ”Bread” – has embraced being a featured star after playing in the large shadow of Patrick Kane in Chicago in his first two years in the league.
”In Chicago, I played with Kane and got a lot of assists from him,” Panarin said. ”But I always wanted something more, to put more of the game on myself and be more accountable for the result. Here, I got that, what I wanted.”
Panarin, who won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL in 2015-16, was acquired from the Black Hawks last June along with forward Tyler Motte for forward Brandon Saad and goalie Anton Forsberg. Saad was a reliable player for Columbus for two seasons.
”Bread is a different type player because he can make a special play to win a game,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. ”I just think for you to get through and find your way and try to be a better playoff team, you have to have some players that are dynamic. You’re not coaching it, they just see something, they seize a moment and they win you a game. Or they make a huge play to get you back in the game in another way.”
With the Blue Jackets on a power play and down 3-2 in the second period on Sunday, Panarin dribbled the puck and patiently waited for a lane to open up before delivering a pinpoint circle-to-circle pass to Cam Atkinson , who scored the tying goal.
Panarin’s line mates, veteran winger Atkinson and 19-year-old rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, have benefited from his skills. Atkinson – who had two goals on Sunday – has come on strong after missing time with injuries, finishing the regular season with 14 goals and 14 assists in February and March. Dubois had 20 goals and 28 assists in the regular season, making him the most productive rookie in Blue Jackets history.
Panarin makes $6 million a year on a contract that runs through next season. He’ll be due a sizeable salary bump if the Blue Jackets decide to keep him around after that.
So far, he’s been an ideal fit.
”When they first traded me, of course for a couple days, I worried,” he said. ”But then I calmed down and understood that this is all good for me. I understood that here I would progress as a player first and foremost. What’s most important to me isn’t money, but the whole game.”
Associated Press Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report.
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