Jackets face Panthers with playoff chances slipping away

NHL Hockey

The Columbus Blue Jackets, who are on pace to miss the playoffs for the first time in five years, are set to visit the Florida Panthers again on Sunday.

The Blue Jackets have dropped six of their past seven games, including Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Panthers. They are in seventh place in the Central Division with 36 points, five points the fourth-place Nashville Predators.

Saturday’s Panthers victory featured the first career hat trick by ex-Blue Jackets forward Alex Wennberg, who also had the overtime goal that beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 on Thursday.

“It’s always extra special to play against your former team,” Wennberg said. “Our line created a lot of chances, and I’m just trying to ride the wave.”

Wennberg scored three goals on four shots to help the Panthers extend their season-best win streak to five games. The Panthers are now 17-0-1 when they have the lead after two periods.

“He is so skilled,” Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky said of Wennberg. “It’s great to see him score some goals.”

Wennberg had a 13 goals and 46 assists, both career highs, for Columbus in 2016-17. But he scored just 15 goals combined in his next three seasons in Columbus, and on Oct. 8, 2020, the Blue Jackets bought out his six-year, $29.4-million contract. At the time, he had three years left on his deal.

Suddenly a free agent, Wennberg quickly signed a one-year, $2.25-million contract with the Panthers.

The play of Wennberg, who has 11 goals this season, overshadowed some other juicy story lines on Saturday for the Panthers, who are tied in points (54) with the Tampa Bay Lighting atop the division.

First, forwards Aleksander Barkov and Patric Hornqvist each had one assist as they returned from injury.

In addition, rookie defenseman Matt Kiersted, who starred as a senior this past season for top-ranked University of North Dakota, made his NHL debut just days after signing a two-year contract on Thursday.

Kiersted had four blocks and no points in 12:47 of ice time. He also got 1:25 worth of ice time on the power play.

Meanwhile, numerous media outlets have reported that Columbus coach John Tortorella is in danger of being fired either during or after this season.

Tortorella, known for his confrontational style with officials, media members and even his own players, led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup title. But this is his sixth season in Columbus, and the Jackets have yet to get past the second round of the playoffs during his reign.

The biggest current issue with the Jackets appears to be the deployment of high-salaried winger Patrik Laine, acquired from the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 23 in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had landed in Tortorella’s doghouse.

Laine had a 44-goal season in Winnipeg and four straight years during which he scored at least 28 times, but he has struggled under Tortorella. The coach’s attempts to make Laine a “power forward” have not worked.

Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told The Athletic that he wanted Laine to use his “size advantage to say on pucks (because) you’ll create more if you have the puck more.”

Laine, however, doesn’t seem comfortable with the change in style.

“I’ve never really been a guy who is playing in the corners or behind the net too much,” Laine said. “I’m usually the (high-slot) guy looking for openings where I can receive the puck and shoot. That’s what I’m good at.”

–Field Level Media

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