Cam Atkinson elevates his play after sitting out three games in March

New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur (30) makes a save on Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Cam Atkinson (13) during the second period at Prudential Center.

Message received, lesson learned.

Columbus Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson hadn’t missed a game all year. And it wasn’t as if he hadn’t been producing. After all, the former Boston College star had scored 18 goals through early March. But something was apparently missing from his game, at least in the eyes of head coach Todd Richards.

And just like that, he was a healthy scratch three times over a stretch of five games in 10 days last month. The coach obviously wanted more, and with wingers coming back from injury, he had the depth to make those tough coaching decisions. Understandably, Atkinson wasn’t happy sitting in the stands. How he has responded, though, could go a long way in helping this team cross the finish line as part of the top eight in the East this year.

Especially in the past seven games, Atkinson’s play has stood out in a very good way. He is playing a north-south game, utilizing his quickness and speed to keep opposing defensemen on their heels. And he’s forechecking with a purpose, often going into corners against much bigger opponents and coming away with the puck. In other words, he took the undeniable message delivered by his coach and responded the right way: He improved his game.

Before the CBJ puck drops: Flyers

"Obviously, no one wants to sit, but the way I viewed it is I’ve got to get my game going," Atkinson said. "Maybe it was punishment; maybe it was a little slap in the face, but that’s what I needed, I think. I’m still a young guy, and you never want to get complacent and comfortable up at this level.

"You want to keep pushing yourself," he continued. "When I was sitting, I kind of looked back at my game and figured out what I needed to do to get back in the lineup. I definitely feel I’ve been playing the way that the coach is used to me playing, and I feel good out there. I want the puck, and I like making plays — I think that’s when I’m playing my best. So far it’s been good, and I’ve got to keep it going. I got my game back, so I’m happy."

At his best, Atkinson has the wheels to dart into open spaces and get himself into position to unleash a very quick and accurate shot. He’s playing once again on a line with Matt Calvert and Brandon Dubinsky, and the line has produced six goals over the past seven games, two goals for each linemate.

"Who I’m playing with right now — Calvy and Dubi — we all kind of help each other out with our games," the Connecticut native noted. "Obviously, Calvie’s a fast guy, and we kind of feed off each other out there. When I’m moving, he’s moving, and vice versa. And Dubie’s game is self-explanatory — he’s one of the hardest working guys. It’s fun to play with those guys.

"We harp on getting in on the forecheck first and creating turnovers" Atkinson went on. "I think that’s what we’ve been doing — that’s our identity as a team. I’m not the biggest guy, but I’m not afraid to mix it up in the corner and try to get the puck back if I can. We’ve got to keep it going."

Call it the continuing evolution of a young player in the NHL. It certainly can’t be easy when the boss tells you your services aren’t needed on a particular day, especially when you feel you’re quite capable of providing those services. But how Cam Atkinson has responded is exactly the way it’s supposed to work.

He reached down and found another level to his game. And his team is better for it. The challenge now, for him and for all his teammates, is for Cam Atkinson to keep his game at that level for the seven regular-season games to be played over the next 10 days. It’s a final stretch drive on steroids.

"Yeah, that’s the hardest part for any player," Atkinson smiled. "It’s all about hydrating and sleeping and knowing when you have to rest."