Matt Duchene shedding playoff curse with Blue Jackets on cusp of history

Watch as a big rebound ends up on Matt Duchene’s stick and he shovels it into the net to give the Columbus Blue Jackets a 1-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3.

There was a time when Matt Duchene was thought to be a bad omen for a team with playoff hopes.

That time seems to be over. If you doubt it, ask fans of the Ottawa Senators. They have started charting the playoff points of some of their dearly and recently departed stars like Duchene, who has exploded for two goals and three assists during the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ stunning 3-0 series lead over the Stanley Cup favourites from Tampa Bay.

Mark Stone, another ex-Senator, leads all playoff scorers with eight points heading into Monday’s games. Defenceman Erik Karlsson has five for San Jose, although the Sharks are down 2-1 to Stone’s Vegas Golden Knights and Karlsson has been suspect (and perhaps hurt) in his defensive play.

Stone and Karlsson, of course, are already playoff-proven from their years in Ottawa.

It’s Duchene who has rid himself of the ‘curse’ that his teams couldn’t go anywhere. In the Jackets’ 3-1, Game 3 win over the Lightning, Duchene opened the scoring with a rebound goal off his backhand that was reminiscent of his highlight-reel goal for Ottawa against Philadelphia in late November, except that on the Flyers’ goal, Duchene whacked the puck out of mid-air.

The moral of the story — Duchene’s backhand is every bit as lethal as his forehand.`

The 28-year-old from Haliburton, Ont., who greeted his wife Ashley and their three-month-old son, Beau, at the glass during the pre-game warmup, is clearly having the time of his life. The pressure is off, Duchene has scored his first two career playoff goals and suddenly anything seems possible in Columbus.

After the Jackets provided their fans with the first 3-0 series lead in franchise history, Duchene screamed with emotion while being named a game star, and spoke about the thrill of winning at home in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“The energy that they brought, that’s the kind of stuff you dream about as a kid,” Duchene said. “That’s why you play the game.”

And the Blue Jackets brass, led by Jarmo ‘All-In’ Kekalainen, a former player-personnel director for the Senators, says of Duchene: That’s why you make that trade.

Kekalainen had more than a few anxious moments between the trade deadline and this moment in time, with a foot to the throat of a 128-point regular season team. Already confronted with pending UFAs in winger Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, Kekalainen rolled the dice on acquiring forwards Duchene and Dzingel from Ottawa and goaltender Keith Kinkaid and defenceman Adam McQuaid from New Jersey and the New York Rangers, respectively.

Columbus just eked into the post-season, latching onto the second wild-card spot in the East, earning them the unenviable task of facing the Lightning, who fashioned one of the finest regular season records in NHL history.

Thanks for coming, Columbus. Or so it looked.

Yet, playing all those meaningful games down the stretch turned out to be a blessing as the Jackets handcuffed Tampa in their own rink for the first two games, before sounding the cannon at Nationwide Arena in Game 3.

At some point there will be a reckoning, at least off-ice. Columbus has six pending unrestricted free agents, including the newly acquired Duchene and Dzingel. And do you think anyone in the Buckeye State cares about that on the precipice of making hockey history? In their 19 years, the Blue Jackets have yet to win a playoff series.

The same can be said of Duchene in his nine previous NHL seasons.

He recorded six assists in two playoff series for Colorado, making it clear to Avs management that two playoff appearances in eight seasons wasn’t cutting it. He wanted out — a chance to play for contender.

In yet another cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, Duchene was traded in November 2017 to a Senators team that was coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference Final. All of the data suggested a team playing over its head in the spring of 2017, but Ottawa thought it could make a run, with the help of Duchene.

He did provide 49 points in 68 games in 2017-18, but the Senators spiralled to 30th place. This season, while announcing a rebuild, the Senators fell to last place overall, although Duchene was extremely productive, better than a point-per game player with 27 goals and 58 points in 50 games with Ottawa.

With the Blue Jackets, Duchene was hardly an overnight sensation, eventually cobbling together four goals and eight assists in 23 regular season games. Doubts persisted, about Kekalainen’s great gamble and Duchene’s ability to mesh with his new mates.

With half as many goals in just three playoff outings, those regular season stats, and doubts, are yesterday’s news.

Combined with his Colorado playoff record, Duchene went a total of nine career playoff games without scoring. But when he scored a goal and chipped in three assists in the 5-1 win in Game 2, he set a Columbus record for assists and points in a single playoff game.

“The job’s not done, but at the same time this is fun,” Duchene said, after Game 2. “This has been unbelievable, and we want to finish the job and leave no doubt. Obviously, we have a great opportunity at home in front of our fans. I think these fans deserve that we get the job done here at home.”

Duchene was a player Kekalainen had long coveted, much as the Senators once did. At the deadline, Duchene was scooped from Ottawa along with Julius Bergman in exchange for Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson and the Blue Jackets first-round pick in 2019. If Duchene, a pending UFA, signs with Columbus after the playoffs the Senators would receive another first-round selection in 2020.

Duchene insisted he loved his time in Ottawa, enjoyed the camaraderie in the room even if the team’s season was a disaster. He called the trade “bittersweet,” but added about the playoff possibilities in Columbus:

“That’s what I’m looking for. That’s kind of what gets me up every morning for sure. It’s what I haven’t experienced in this league yet.”

More recently Duchene said of his Blue Jackets teammates, “I’ve never felt the vibe that I’ve felt in this room. It’s pretty amazing.”

It will be more amazing if the Blue Jackets win this thing in four — no Presidents’ Trophy winner has ever been swept in the first playoff round.

For Duchene, it would represent a personal triumph a decade in the making.

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