Jan 18, 2014; Buffalo, NY, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen (19) and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Mark Pysyk (3) go after a loose puck during the third period at First Niagara Center. Columbus beat Buffalo 4 to 3 in a shootout.
Timothy T. Ludwig/Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Johansen chuckled, which is not unusual. The big kid from British Columbia seems always to be smiling, having fun. And you can imagine what a blast he’s having now, on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs, anticipating his first NHL playoff game. And how did the big, young center go from five-goal scorer last year, in the NHL’s lockout-shortened season, to 33 this year?
This is when he chuckled, as he answered, "I’m still the same person. I’m just taking my game to another level, I guess. And now it’s got to go up another one."
Then he did what he always does: He deflected the attention to his team and his teammates.
"Obviously, the team’s done a lot of great things this year," Johansen continued, "but now it’s all behind us, and it doesn’t mean anything if we come out here and lose this series. We’re just going to take it one game at a time here and focus on game one and try to find a way to win."
Not surprisingly, Johansen was named the NHL’s Most Improved Player in this week’s announcement of the NHL Network Radio’s Espo Awards. There’s absolutely no doubt he has taken his game to another level this year. Now, he says, everybody on the Blue Jackets will have to elevate their games further in round one against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It can’t be just a few guys elevating their games," said the Blue Jackets first-round pick in 2010. "It’s got to be everybody on our team, from Bob in goal to the forwards. Everybody’s got to be playing to the best of their abilities. But saying that, if you’re struggling a little bit, have a couple of bad shifts, or a bad period, or even a bad game, you have to be able to stay focused and make sure you’re aware of the task at hand and you do the best you can."
Johansen fully expects the series against the Penguins to be played at a level even more intense than the Blue Jackets faced pretty much every game for the last two months of the season, as they battled to qualify for the playoffs.
"Yes, of course, that’s what makes playoffs so special in any sport," he noted. "You see the teams and the players ramp their game up another level, and that’s what makes this time of the year so exciting."
It seems fitting Johansen scored the final regular-season goal for Columbus, the game-winner in the Blue Jackets 3-2 win Saturday that sealed seventh place in the East and a first-round matchup with Pittsburgh. It was his fifth straight game-winning goal in the team’s final five one-goal games. He’s become the offensive leader of the team but says he will have plenty of help as the Blue Jackets try to match the offensively-gifted Penguins in round one.
"They have very talented offensive players over there," he acknowledged. "At the same time, we have a lot of skill in this room, too, and we’ve had guys who have been finding ways to score all year long. We don’t need to score four or five goals, but it’s going to be tough to contain their guys.
"I expect Pittsburgh to play a pretty similar style to us, so I’m expecting a very physical and fast series for sure, Johansen continued. "It’s a job we have to make sure we’re ready for and make sure we’re taking care of business and not giving their top guys anything."
Johansen isn’t surprised at all that he and his teammates were able to go 25-13-3 in the second half of the season to earn the second playoff appearance in franchise history.
"I think if anything, we could have done better," he said. "You know, there were a few games there in the last 20 or so where I thought we could have come out with some more points. Maybe we had an unlucky bounce late in the game and ended up with no points, or something like that. At the same time, we did play a lot of great hockey and put ourselves in a position in the playoffs here, so now the fun begins."
Ah, yes — fun. Ryan Johansen is having lots of it right now — as usual.