In Monday night’s Columbus win over the Philadelphia Flyers, it wasn’t hard for many to figure out the stars of the game.
Columbus’ Cam Atkinson showed his offensive prowess again, scoring two goals – including a highlight-reel breakaway tally – to get to 32 on the year. Meanwhile, Zach Werenski scored a key goal for the Jackets, continuing his record-setting freshman campaign in the NHL. And in net, Sergei Bobrovsky earned his league-best 37th victory of the season.
And through it all, the team’s unsung heroes did what they usually do – stay out of the headlines but provide a key piece of the team’s success.
In a year in which Werenski and defensive partner Seth Jones have garnered most of the headlines – and deservedly so – for helping remake the Blue Jackets’ blue line into a puck-moving unit, David Savard and Jack Johnson have gone about their business quietly and effectively.
The two have been the team’s most prolific penalty killers all season long while also providing an offensive spark at times. And when it comes to protecting a lead or taking a key faceoff in the defensive zone, head coach John Tortorella has had no concern pointing to Nos. 7 and 58 to get the job done.
Take the second period against the Flyers as an example. At a time when the game seemed like an endless parade of Blue Jackets to the penalty box, Johnson and Savard played key minutes. Johnson played 9:44 of action in the second period, 5:48 of it on the penalty kill, and Savard wasn’t far behind, logging 8:25 of time overall and 5:22 with the Jackets facing a manpower disadvantage. The Flyers didn’t score on the power play against either Jacket, though Johnson was on the ice for Travis Konecny’s goal shortly after a PP expired.
Those were tough minutes for Johnson and Savard, and things didn’t get any easier in the third period. Savard played 11:07 – more than half of the time on the clock – in the final frame, while Johnson wasn’t far behind at 10:20. Each played 2:07 of penalty kill time as well, or all but 47 seconds of the team’s man-down time.
To cap it all off, Johnson and Savard were on the ice for a shift that lasted a full 2:08 leading up to Atkinson’s empty-net goal that sealed the deal. In the end, Savard played a team-high 26:34 of ice time – 9:14 with the Jackets down a man – while Johnson had 26:22 (9:40) in the win that set team records for victories and points in a season.
Things weren’t much different in the team’s previous win March 10 vs. Buffalo at Nationwide Arena. After Boone Jenner’s game-winning goal with 5:07 to play, Savard played 3:07 of the final minutes to protect the lead, while Johnson was right behind with 2:57 of action.
Over the course of the season, it’s no mistake that Savard and Johnson have been put on the ice in key situations. When it comes to zone starts, Johnson’s 5-on-5 defensive zone faceoff percentage of 40.8 leads the Jackets, with Savard just behind at 39.6, and the two are also 1-2 on the team in total defensive zone starts.
There is also evidence the two are among the best penalty killers in the league as well. In 4-on-5 penalty kill situations, Savard has been on the ice for 3.77 goals allowed per 60 minutes with Johnson at 3.93, placing the two 10th and 11th among NHL defensemen in that regard.
As a result of all the PK time as well as defensive zone starts, the two have been matched up against some of the best offensive players in the league and still turned in credible performances. This chart shows Savard and Johnson at the top when it comes to facing opponents who earn the most time on ice, providing evidence the two have been on the ice against tough opposition.
While it’s clear that the coaching staff sees the pairing as perhaps its most trusted defensive duo – Savard and Johnson significantly trail Jones and Werenski for power-play time – there is an offensive component to their games.
This is especially true of Savard, whose mark of 1.16 points per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play this season ranks first among Blue Jackets blue liners and 19th among NHL defensemen with at least 200 minutes played. Overall, Savard has been one of the NHL’s top blue liners the past few years when it comes to driving offensive play – all while providing his trademark physical play.
Johnson’s possession numbers haven’t been as sterling the past few years, but they have improved this year. His Corsi and Fenwick numbers – stats that show how many shots are attempted by each team when a player is on the ice – are right around 50/50 in 5-on-5 situations, a solid showing considering how many defensive zone draws he’s been on the ice for and how often he sees top competition. The numbers are also improvements on previous campaigns.
The Blue Jackets have won a lot of games this year for a lot of reasons. And to close out the tightest of games, Tortorella knows who he can trust to be out there – and often, two of those guys are wearing No. 7 and No. 58.