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Blue Jackets good again, just not good enough for next level
By MITCH STACY
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) In a season of broken records and firsts for the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the most important eluded them again: winning a playoff series.
The Blue Jackets' promising season fizzled out in Game 6 of their opening-round series against the Washington Capitals. They were stunning at times - like in the first two games, both won in OT - but glaringly not good enough the rest of the way. Columbus' power play went to sleep, and the Capitals took four in a row, capping it with a 6-3 victory Monday night.
Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky made some acrobatic saves throughout the series, but he also allowed a goal or two he should have knocked down.
"We did not make big plays," coach John Tortorella said. "At times, we didn't get a big save. That goes right on through the team. I'm not just saying (Bobrovsky), but the whole team. That's why you're out in six. It's tough in the playoffs. We have a number of things we need to get better at, as individuals and as a team."
There are reasons to be optimistic about the future of this young team. It battled through slumps and myriad injuries to key players, climbing back in the Metropolitan Division race with a 10-game winning streak. It played its grittiest hockey in February and March and emerged as a wild card from a mix of teams that all came on strong to finish.
"I'm so proud to lead this team, but I just want to see something good happen for our team," said captain Nick Foligno, who scored two goals on Monday. "I want us to realize the potential we have in here, and I want it to happen now."
RECORDS AND FIRSTS
Columbus traded last offseason for forward Artemi Panarin, who became the star the team had hoped he would be. He broke Rick Nash's franchise record for points with 82 (27 goals, 55 assists).
He was great in the first three games of the playoffs but went quiet as Washington figured out how to pressure him.
The Blue Jackets sorely need another guy performing at Panarin's level. That could turn out to be Pierre Luc-Dubois, who broke franchise rookie records this season for goals and points (20-28-48). He centered the top line next to Panarin, and Tortorella said the playoffs contributed to his growth.
"At 19 years old, pushed into the forefront as far as being our No. 1 center and coming into this series against a team that's pretty deep in the middle, he handled himself very well," Tortorella said. "Were there some minutes he struggled? Yeah, but he's 19. It's just a great process for him to go through early in his career."
SPARKLING BLUE LINE
The first-line defensive duo of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones again was one of the best in the NHL. Both set franchise scoring records for defensemen with 16 goals apiece. Werenski is just 20, and Jones is 23. That line should be strong for years to come.
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS
After losing in the first round of each of four playoffs in its 17-season history, Columbus remains the only currently existing NHL franchise to never have won a playoff series.
What can get the Blue Jackets over the hump?
Another elite sniper to complement Panarin?
A much better season from forward Cam Atkinson? The former All-Star was the team's leading scorer last season but missed 17 games because of injury this time and never found his mojo. Other usually reliable forwards - including Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner - also were unspectacular.
Will the Blue Jackets pay up to keep Bobrovsky and Panarin? Both Russians have contracts that run through next season but are eligible for extensions in July. Panarin, who made $6 million against the cap this season, will be able to command a big raise.
Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy
More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
Updated April 24, 2018
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