COLUMBUS — It was apropos that the three empty-net goals by the Columbus Blue Jackets in their 7-3 win to sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday were scored by Artemi Panarin, Alexandre Texier and Matt Duchene.
They represented parts of the all-in approach by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen at the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25 that transformed the Blue Jackets and helped them win their first Stanley Cup Playoff series in history.
Duchene was the key to the flurry of moves. The center was acquired from the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 22, the day before the Senators traded forward Ryan Dzingel to Columbus. Defenseman Adam McQuaid came via trade with the New York Rangers on Feb. 25, the same day the New Jersey Devils traded goalie Keith Kinkaid to Columbus.
The Blue Jackets were expected to roll but were inconsistent over the next month.
Duchene was a disappointment. After getting 58 points (27 goals, 31 assists) in 50 games for Ottawa, he had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 23 games for the Blue Jackets.
“You come in and you’re expected to provide something for the team,” Duchene said. “You want to do it and you feel honored. You want to give back. That’s been my mentality the whole time.
“At first I didn’t let it flow as much as I wanted to. I was kind of in the same boat as everyone else here where we were a little tight and overthinking and not just letting the game flow.
“You’re trying to make everyone happy instead of just playing your game and making yourself happy in terms of how you’re playing. Usually when you do that everyone else is happy with your game too.”
The Blue Jackets struggled as well. After losing 4-1 at the Edmonton Oilers on March 21 they were one point behind the Montreal Canadiens for the second wild card.
Following a series of meetings over the two off days in Vancouver, the Blue Jackets won five in a row and seven of their last eight to qualify.
“I’m just happy this group stuck together throughout the negatives outside our locker room,” forward Cam Atkinson said. “We know what we have in here.”
Duchene leads Columbus in playoff points with seven (three goals, four assists). His first NHL playoff goal in 10 games — he played eight with the Colorado Avalanche — came in Game 2 to give the Blue Jackets a 3-0 lead in the first period. They won 5-1.
“We got that one early and the floodgates opened for me and my line,” Duchene said. “We obviously had a great first period and from then we carried it through.”
Kekalainen could have traded Panarin before the forward becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. Panarin stayed and had five points (two goals, three assists) against the Lightning.
The Blue Jackets also kept goalie Sergei Bobrovsky even though he said before the season he will become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Bobrovsky made 106 saves and won all four games.
A month ago, the France-born Texier, 19, was playing in Finland. He got his first taste of North American-style hockey with seven games for the Blue Jackets’ American Hockey League affiliate in Cleveland.
He played the final two regular-season games, scoring one goal, and Tuesday scored his first two playoff goals.
“For a young guy to come into a pressure situation and play like that and play like he did is pretty remarkable,” forward Nick Foligno said.
Like Texier, there was a time Duchene couldn’t have imagined being with Columbus.
“If you had told me last year the day I got traded to Ottawa (from the Colorado Avalanche) that I’d be here right now, I guess anything can happen,” Duchene said. “You never know what to expect in this league. I’m very pleased to be here and excited for this group.”