By AARON BRACY, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Cam Atkinson and the Columbus Blue Jackets have picked a perfect time to get on a roll.
Atkinson scored a hat trick to lead the surging Blue Jackets to their sixth straight victory, 5-3 over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.
Oliver Bjorkstand and Boone Jenner also scored for the Blue Jackets, who tied Philadelphia for third place in the Metropolitan Division.
“We’re playing our best hockey right now and this is when you want to be playing your best hockey,” Atkinson said.
After setting career highs in goals (35) and points (62) last season, Atkinson has struggled through much of an injury-plagued 2017-18 campaign. But he is heating up at just the right moment and has 12 points (six goals, six assists) in his last 10 games.
“Confidence is the biggest thing,” Atkinson said after upping his season totals to 16 goals and 33 points in 55 games.
Claude Giroux, Andrew MacDonald and Shayne Gostisbehere scored for the slumping Flyers, who dropped their seventh in the last eight games.
“We just need to put it behind us and somehow get our confidence back,” Giroux said.
Philadelphia and Columbus are one point ahead of New Jersey, which holds an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.
If the playoffs began on Friday, the Flyers would finish third in the division based on tiebreakers while the Blue Jackets would get the first wild card. Both teams have 11 games remaining.
Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky made 27 saves, including some big stops early in the third period. He denied Nolan Patrick from close range with a good glove save 1½ minutes into the period and used his pad to stop Sean Couturier a minute later.
Bobrovsky’s play has been solid during the winning streak, and Columbus has averaged 4.3 goals over its last six games.
“I’m not going to overthink it,” coach John Tortorella said. “The biggest thing is we’ve concentrated on each and every day and tried to play simple and straight-ahead hockey. We’ve scored a few more goals, (Bobrovsky) has been outstanding and we have found a way to win some games.”
Atkinson scored into an empty net with 0.8 seconds remaining for this third goal.
Most of the scoring happened in the first two periods.
Gostisbehere scored just 14 seconds into the second on a power play when his wrist shot from the right circle went under Bobrovsky’s right arm to pull Philadelphia to 3-2.
Atkinson responded with his second of the game, a slap shot from a sharp angle on a 2-on-1 break that would turn out to be the game-winner, to put the Blue Jackets back up by two goals with 16:37 left in the second. That was the last straw for Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, who pulled Petr Mrazek after the goalie allowed four goals on 10 shots. He was replaced by Alex Lyon.
“He didn’t give up a bad goal tonight, but you look for a timely save and that’s what we didn’t get,” Hakstol said.
MacDonald drew Philadelphia to 4-3 with 7:37 left in the second when his slap shot from the slot went off both posts and in.
There were offensive fireworks in the first period, too.
Columbus produced the first goal with 10:19 left when Bjorkstand scored a highlight-reel goal from his right knee. Seth Jones’ initial shot was blocked by Jori Lehtera, and Bjorkstand gathered the puck as he was falling down and fired it past Mrazek’s glove side.
The Blue Jackets went up 2-0 just 11 seconds later when Jenner scored on a deflection.
Giroux’s one-timer from the left circle made it 2-1 with 8:26 left in the period, but Columbus quickly pushed it back to a two-goal advantage when Atkinson deflected Zach Werenski’s shot from the point past Mrazek.
The Flyers had two good chances on a power play in the closing minutes of the period, but Bobrovsky extended his left pad to stone Jakub Voracek and then snared Gostisbehere’s slap shot from the point.
NOTES: Flyers G Brian Elliott practiced in full pads with goaltending coach Kim Dillabaugh at the morning skate. Elliott had core muscle surgery on Feb. 13 and was expected to miss five to six weeks. … Columbus LW Matt Calvert returned to the lineup after sitting out Wednesday’s 5-2 win over Montreal. … The teams ended the regular-season series with two wins apiece. … Giroux received stiches to his upper lip after taking a puck to the face with 14 minutes left in the second period.
Blue Jackets: Host the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.
Flyers: At the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.
For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
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