Blue Jackets’ offensive struggles give ‘fourth line’ an elevated role


COLUMBUS, Ohio — The only Blue Jackets line that has gained traction this season has been center Sean Kuraly with Eric Robinson and Mathieu Olivier on the wings.

Is that the Blue Jackets’ fourth line? You would think so, based on the players’ pedigree and NHL experience. But the way Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen has used that trio in recent weeks — he’s matched it against the opponents’ top line — would suggest it’s more of a checking line.

And then there was the third period Wednesday in Nationwide Arena when the Blue Jackets were down 2-1 and desperate to score the tying goal against Canadiens goaltender Sam Montembeault.

Larsen shortened his bench in pursuit of the equalizer, alternating heavily between the No. 1 line — center Boone Jenner and wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Gus Nyquist — and Kuraly’s line, which is a compliment to Kuraly and company and a mild rebuke to the other lines.

The tying goal never happened. The Canadiens scored an empty-net goal with 1:53 to play that ended any drama, but it’s clear which lines Larsen thought gave his club the best chance for a comeback.

“The players dictate it,” Larsen said. “It’s pretty simple. They scored another goal for us (earlier in the game). They’re giving us a lot of good minutes for a lot of games here, so it’s trust on both ends.

“They’re generating. They’re forechecking. They’re banging. They’re tracking pucks. They’re getting their looks, too, so it’s easy (to play them).”

Kuraly is quietly having an excellent season. Only Jenner (eight) and Gaudreau (seven) have more goals than Kuraly (six), and only Gaudreau (18), Jenner (14) and Yegor Chinakhov (10) have more points than him (nine).

Robinson and Olivier, with two goals each, have matched or exceeded the goal scoring of players who play much higher in the lineup: Cole Sillinger (two), Emil Bemstrom (two) and Jack Roslovic (one).

Wednesday, Larsen didn’t hesitate to play them. Not only did they take the opening faceoff, but Robinson (16:14) and Kuraly (15:54) also were among the leaders in ice time for Blue Jackets forwards.

“That’s something you have to earn,” Olivier said. “And once you earn it, you have to keep it. Every game, you start over. I firmly believe that.

“If he keeps coming back to us like he has the last few games, perfect. That means we’re doing our job.”

It also means other players aren’t.

Sillinger, who played so well as a rookie last season, played just 9:24 on Wednesday, a season low. Bemstrom, who was on the top line just two games ago, played only 11:51 (and erased a late second-period power play with a bad penalty).

The Blue Jackets didn’t have enough players going and didn’t do enough to make life difficult for Montembeault, who made 30 saves and won for the first time in five career outings against the Blue Jackets.

The game dragged through two periods with a 0-0 score, but Olivier put the Blue Jackets on the board only 1:08 into the third. He stepped up in the zone to corral a turnover by Montreal’s Mike Matheson and rifled it past Montembeault.

That goal seemed to awaken the Canadiens, who lost 7-2 to Buffalo in Montreal on Tuesday before a late-night flight to Columbus.

Only 90 seconds after Olivier’s goal, Montreal’s Arber Xhekaj fired a puck from above the left circle that deflected off the traffic in front of Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo and found a spot in the back of the net.

Asked if he even saw the puck, Korpisalo responded: “Not really. But I should have, probably.”

Then, only 57 seconds later, the Canadiens had a 2-1 lead. David Savard, the longtime Blue Jackets defenseman, had a puck glance off his skate in front of the Blue Jackets’ net and score past Korpisalo to make it 2-1.

It was Savard’s first goal in 37 games.

“It wasn’t a beautiful goal, but I’ll take it,” Savard said. “It went off my skate — the toe. But I didn’t kick it.”

It was a kick in the groin to the Blue Jackets, though.

“First one goes off a stick, the second one goes off a skate,” Larsen said. “It’s too bad because we were playing a heck of a game. We weren’t giving up much, and we had some good looks ourselves.”

(Photo of Mathieu Olivier: Russell LaBounty / USA Today)


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