Gustav Nyquist and his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates are facing the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL play-in round.
Way back in October, way before the pandemic, when Nyquist was still new with the Blue Jackets, Nyquist set a minor tone for the Columbus season with a game-winning penalty-shot goal in Toronto.
It was only Nyquist’s second career penalty shot — he missed on a 2014 attempt with the Red Wings against the New York Rangers — but it was the first Nyquist converted.
And it was in overtime, in Toronto, with his new team.
“That’s the one opportunity, I guess, I’ve had in OT,” Nyquist said last week, speaking with reporters. “I’m sure that doesn’t happen that often. That was a fun moment. Especially against Toronto.”
Nyquist, a former Red Wing who the team dealt to San Jose at the February 2019 trade deadline, signed with the Blue Jackets last summer.
The signing didn’t produce bold headlines anywhere but in Columbus, for a Blue Jackets team that was decimated by free agency.
But the Jackets have been one of the NHL’s surprise teams, and Nyquist’s contributions on and off the ice are a major reason why.
“You say ‘Gus’ and I say ‘Pro’,” said Jackets coach John Tortorella, who praised Nyquist’s professionalism on several occasions this season when the Jackets faced the Wings. “He’s just a good pro. He’s one of the better players I’ve seen in small spaces. He doesn’t say boo and I’ve used him in a lot of different spots, bounced him up and down the lines.”
Nyquist, 30, played on scoring and checking lines with the Jackets, was a key contributor on the power play, and even played some on the penalty kill.
On a Jackets roster that was decimated by injuries almost from Day One, Nyquist played all 70 games and had 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists), second on the team.
The Jackets desperately needed a veteran presence with five key free agents leaving a young roster. Nyquist, with his ample postseason experience with the Wings, proved to be a great fit in Columbus.
“When we lost all the (free agents) and Jarmo (Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen) did it (signing Nyquist), that was a very important signing for this club,” Tortorella said. “It certainly came to fruition as we played this year.”
Nyquist and the Jackets begin this most unique of NHL playoffs Saturday against the Maple Leafs.
All the Eastern Conference playoff games are at the Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena, but it’s difficult to say the Leafs have any real sort of home-ice advantage.
With no fans in the arena, Nyquist feels everyone is on an even keel that it’ll “be the same for everyone else.
“It’ll be different for sure,” Nyquist said of playing in front of no fans. “That’s something we’ve never done before, competitive games without any fans. It’ll be different.
“I’m focusing on the play and where to be (on the ice). We’re all just trying to focus on our systems and what we need to focus on to beat a good Toronto team.
“But it’ll be different. This is something that’s never been done before. It’ll be weird. But it’s the same for everyone. It’s (no fans) something we’re not going to focus on.”
Going directly from a brief training camp, to one exhibition game, to playoff hockey is going to be something entirely different for an NHL player.
The NHL has been idled for four months because of the pandemic. But Nyquist feels the level of competition and intensity will rachet up quickly.
“It’s playoff hockey, you’ll have to fight for every inch on the ice,” Nyquist said. “It’s another step up of where we were from the last game against Vancouver (that Columbus played in March). It’s always a step up in the playoffs, and getting right into the battle.”
Nyquist quarantined in Columbus with his family, rather than return to Sweden where they normally would return during a four-month hiatus from the NHL.
Nyquist kept in touch with family and friends in Sweden.
“We haven’t seen them in quite a while,” Nyquist said. “We’re just trying to stay updated and everyone is making sure everyone is healthy. It’s hard when you don’t get to see them in person, but with technology, FaceTime, it’s been good to see them that way.
“We stayed here the whole time, we didn’t end up going to Sweden because of the virus and not knowing what’ll happen (with the virus). We’ve been quarantining and it’s definitely something we hope we don’t have to go through again in our lifetime.
“Obviously we paused the season for a good reason and hopefully we can get going here again and get sports back in a safe way.”