Johansen has Jackets on the board

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COLUMBUS -- Early in the season, someone asked Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards which player needed to step up with a big season -- other than defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky..

The answer came quickly and without hesitation: Ryan Johansen.

It might have seemed like a lot to ask of the fourth-overall pick in the 2010 draft.

After all, Johansen managed just 14 goals and 33 points in his first 107 games for the Blue Jackets.

But Richards was prescient, as the 6-foot-3, 223-pound center exploded this season with 33 goals and 63 points, the runaway leader in both categories for a Blue Jackets team that exceeded expectations and qualified for the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.

What was it that sparked the emergence? Magic?

"Confidence," Richards said Sunday as his team prepared to host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal, currently knotted at one game each after the Blue Jackets stunned the Penguins in double overtime Saturday evening.

"You go back to the previous seasons, it's maturity, just growing up. I think sometimes we want these guys to, we're asking questions, why isn't he better? I mean, he's a young kid and you're asking a lot, sometimes demanding too much or expecting too much. I think to have the expectations are good, but again you have to keep reminding yourself that he's a young player and he's still got a [lot of] growing to do and a lot of learning to do."

What's interesting about the likable Johansen, who grew up in British Columbia and played his junior hockey in Portland of the Western Hockey League, is that the question is no longer, "When is he going to get better?" Now it's, "Holy smokes, how good can this kid be?"

"There's still a lot of room. It was interesting," Richards said. "Game 1, you didn't see a lot of Joe, and [Saturday] night we saw a lot more of Joe, a lot more of Joe. He had the puck, played big, played strong and, when he does that and uses his size to his advantage, he's a tough player to play against, tough player to defend because he's a good skater, he has his speed, he has his burst but he has his size."

The 21-year-old acknowledged that during his first two seasons, which included time in the American Hockey League during the 2012-13 lockout, there was a mixture of disappointment at his lack of production and a firm belief that things would turn around.

"I think it's both," Johansen told ESPN.com Sunday. "When you're in the moment, it's obviously at times disappointing when you're not producing or finding ways to get on the score sheet or things like that.

"But at the same time, I've always been a self-confident person that's always believed in myself. I didn't have the easiest road coming up through juniors and stuff and really had to work as an underdog, so for me it was just keep plugging away, keep staying focused and having fun and enjoying this game and I'm just happy where I'm at today."

Some young players might shrink from the notion that they are "the man" on offense for a team desperate for success. Johansen has embraced the role.

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