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Long-suffering Duchene gives Blue Jackets playoff punch

(AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

By MITCH STACY

AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Matt Duchene is having a splendid time these days. It showed when he skated up to the glass to greet his wife, Ashley, and 3-month-old son Beau during warmups before the Columbus Blue Jackets won their third straight playoff game.

Nothing but smiles and "aaaws," a sweet moment for mom and dad shared with thousands of others via social media.

That night the 28-year-old Canadian center scored the first goal of the game for Columbus , a sweet backhander off a rebound to break a scoreless tie in the second period. The Blue Jackets went on to a 3-1 win in building a 3-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team hardly anyone thought they could beat.

Duchene added an empty-net goal two nights later in the series-clinching 7-3 win, finishing the four-game sweep as the Blue Jackets' top scorer with three goals, four assists and a plus-5 rating.

Duchene, acquired by the Blue Jackets from Ottawa at the trade deadline, is having fun.

"It's a blast, man," he said Friday. "A great group of guys, and from day one I felt so comfortable. It's awesome to see our hard work, and these guys' hard work, and everything come together at the right time."

The contributions to the shocking sweep also pried a playoff monkey off the back of the 12-year NHL veteran. He tasted the postseason twice before while playing with Colorado but wasn't a major factor, finishing with no goals and six assists in eight games. The Avs were bounced in the first round both times, in 2010 and 2014.

Duchene yearned not only to get back to the playoffs, but to contribute and advance. He thought that could happen this season when Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen rescued him and winger Ryan Dzingel from the sinking ship in Ottawa at the trade deadline.

Duchene had been told the Blue Jackets also were hanging on to stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky - both will be unrestricted free agents after the season and have declined to re-sign with Columbus - to make an "all in" run at the playoffs. They needed another top center, and Kekalainen had been after Duchene for a couple years.

There wasn't instant symbiosis. Duchene had just four goals and eight assists in 23 regular-season games after being a point-per-game guy with Ottawa. The Blue Jackets finally began a surge that would see them win seven of their last eight and slip into the playoffs in the 81st game. Duchene then blasted off.

"I think that's the hardest part when you come to a new team, and you're used to be being a go-to guy on your old team," Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. "Now there's a lot of go-to guys on this team. You've got to find your way, and I think he's done a good job of that."

Coach John Tortorella said that while it didn't show up on the score sheet, Duchene was a major contributor in the last month of the season. He is Torts' kind of player. Hard worker, a thinker who loves to talk and understand hockey.

"I think (he's) come in from the get-go, no matter if he's put up numbers or not in certain situations, has played hard (and) has been very coachable," Tortorella said. "I've asked him to work away from the puck, and I've watched that every game, the concentration he's putting into playing away from the puck. He hasn't missed a beat with me."

Said Duchene: "Everyone wants to look at numbers and think it's all about that. We all played at a different level in the playoffs."

Columbus awaits the winner of the Boston-Toronto series.

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Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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Updated April 20, 2019

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