So many times over the last four months, Blue Jackets center Cole Sillinger has looked up into the rafters in disbelief. A great save by the opposing goaltender. A puck clanged off the crossbar or post. A shot sent inexplicably wide.
On Friday in Anaheim, Sillinger tilted his head that way out of sweet, merciful relief.
Sillinger hadn’t scored a goal since Nov. 17, one week before Thanksgiving. He went 45 games without doing what seemed to come so naturally to him last season when he scored 16 goals as an 18-year-old NHL rookie.
Late in the second period, with the Blue Jackets on the power play, Sillinger found open space in front of the Ducks’ net while rookie Kent Johnson possessed the puck and searched for passing targets from the right circle.
It looked so easy. Johnson zipped the puck to the far post, where Sillinger calmly put his stick blade on it and directed it past Ducks goaltender Lukas Dostal. He looked up and exhaled, a blast of air that could rival the Santa Ana winds.
“It feels pretty good,” Sillinger told reporters in Anaheim. “One goal in however many games … obviously I demand more of myself, but it’s a good start.”
We’re getting SILLY 🔥 pic.twitter.com/mCq1C8uo6M
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) March 18, 2023
This Blue Jackets’ season hasn’t really been about wins and losses for months now, at least not in the classic sense. It’s about developing the young players on this roster and putting the franchise in a prime spot to add an elite-level player this summer.
Sillinger, the No. 12 overall pick in 2021, is an absolutely vital part of this franchise. Nobody within the organization has expressed concern about his long-term ability — he is seen as a two-way, middle-six center — but his utter lack of offense had to be getting worrisome.
Before Saturday, his last 60 shots on goal had been gobbled up by goaltenders. He was a healthy scratch for two games in mid-January and the Blue Jackets have discussed the possibility of him going to AHL Cleveland for at least that long.
“You hope this allows him to just take a breath here and rediscover that scoring touch that we know he has,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “It’s great to see him score for us.”
Sillinger’s goal pulled the Jackets into a 3-3 tie with the Ducks and continued a theme. The Jackets trailed 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, and 4-3 before Patrik Laine scored a power-play goal early in the third period to make it 4-4.
The Ducks pulled away late, taking a 5-4 lead on Max Jones’ goal with only 2:37 remaining, then adding two empty-net goals. Anaheim defenseman Scott Harrington, who has never scored more than two goals in an NHL season, had two goals against one of his former clubs, including one of the empty-netters.
Anaheim, with the NHL’s worst defense, is the perfect club to help break scoring slumps. But the Blue Jackets were a scattered mess in their own zone, especially early.
Larsen tried yet again to play Gaudreau and Laine on opposite wings, but he split them up by the second period. And the line-scrambling continued into the third period.
“We just weren’t clean,” Larsen said. “I don’t know if it was the back-to-back or what, but we weren’t clean with the puck. We were our own worst enemy a lot of the times in what we were doing, so (the line changes) were me just trying to find some combinations that could play cleaner.”
🚨 Harrington chips it in to the empty net!
His second goal of the game. #FlyTogether pic.twitter.com/wIZFbHKBA0
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) March 18, 2023
The loss made official what we’ve known for several months in Columbus. It mathematically eliminated the Blue Jackets from playoff contention with a whopping 14 games remaining in their season, the earliest they’ve ever been eliminated.
But it made for a good night if your eye is on the NHL draft lottery. Anaheim’s win moved them back into 29th place, now seven points ahead of last-place Columbus. The Jackets still have a three-point gap behind 31st-place San Jose and a five-point gap with 30th-place Chicago.
(Photo of Cole Sillinger and other Blue Jackets’ players celebrating his second-period goal on Friday: Michael Goulding / NHLI via Getty Images)