COLUMBUS — About four minutes into the final period at Madison Square Garden, the Blue Jackets’ Brandon Dubinsky picked the pocket of Rangers defenseman Nick Holden and passed the puck to Cam Atkinson skating hard into the slot. The charging Atkinson netted a laser shot for his career-high 29th goal of the season.
The goal, Atkinson’s second of the game, also tied his career-high total of 53 points from last year as Columbus cruised to a 5-2 win. Moreover, the play was another display of the synergy this season of the stalwart Atkinson-Dubinsky-Boone Jenner line as the Blue Jackets enter the season’s final 21 games. The line has 12 goals and 14 assists in the past dozen games.
The 27-year-old Atkinson, the team’s leading scorer and one of the longest-tenured Blue Jackets, is hitting his stride this season and his success is tied to that of his much-improved team, which has won four of the last six and is tied with Pittsburgh for second place in the rugged Metropolitan Division.
“He’s just been coming through huge,” Jenner said.
The baby-faced Atkinson, who at 5-foot-8 and 182 pounds is a diminutive forward by NHL standards, has gotten better in each of his six seasons in the league and was chosen for the All-Star game this year for the first time in his career. If he reaches 30 goals this year, he’ll be only the seventh Blue Jackets player to do it.
Not bad for a guy who was told all along that he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to play in the NHL.
“It’s no secret,” Atkinson said. “At every single level and at every age, people always doubted me, and that has fueled my fire to be the person and the player I am.”
He showed off his ability to find the net in the All-Star game last month, scoring three times, including an unassisted, tying goal in the final game as the Metropolitan came back to beat the Pacific Division 4-3.
“We knew he was a good player last year,” Columbus coach John Tortorella said. “He’s been a more consistently good player this year. Cam has a swagger about him and when things are going well he has confidence. At times last year I thought Cam was on the wrong side of that swagger and forgot about why he was a good player and forgot to do some of the things to be that good player. I think he’s been more in tune to that this year and has been much more consistent as far as his preparation.”
Atkinson said he felt like he belonged at the All-Star festivities in Los Angeles among the nation’s best players. It was a shot of confidence for a player who is distinguishing himself as one of the league’s top scorers.
“I’m just happy I’ve been playing a little more consistent this year,” he said. “Pucks are starting to go in a little more for me, so it all stems from hard work.”
The Connecticut native was drafted by the Blue Jackets in the sixth round in 2008 and played three seasons at Boston College, winning the national championship in 2010. He made his debut with Columbus in 2011.
John Davidson, the Blue Jackets’ president of hockey operations, acknowledged that when he was hired in 2012 he wondered if a player as small as Atkinson could stand up to the rigors of the NHL and not be pushed around.
“I think Cam Atkinson is a guy who doesn’t have any fear.” Davidson said. “He has a great passion for the game. He does everything right, off the ice and on the ice. He made me a believer.”