COLUMBUS, Ohio — The moment could easily have been lost in the mayhem of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ back-and-forth overtime loss on Monday. It was a play in two acts, and it said something about each of the Blue Jackets players involved.
At 2:12 of the third period, with the Jackets and Florida Panthers tied 3-3, Columbus rookie Adam Fantilli lowered his shoulder into Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe at the goal line, jarring the puck loose and sending Verhaeghe to the ice to gather his senses.
It was the biggest hit of Fantilli’s young career, the first glimpse of the physical aspects of his game that so charmed NHL scouts during his youth, especially last season at the University of Michigan.
The aftermath of the hit said something about Blue Jackets power forward Dmitri Voronkov, an impressive but less ballyhooed rookie than Fantilli.
Voronkov instinctively raced across the ice as the Panthers started to confront Fantilli, pulling Florida forward Kevin Stenlund, a former Jacket, off of the Blue Jackets’ prized rookie and demanding that he fight him instead.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a hit, to be honest with you,” Fantilli said. “I thought it was just kind of a routine play. I certainly didn’t think it was worth getting into something over it.
“That guy (Stenlund) came after me and I wasn’t really into it. I thought I’d be more useful playing, but I was really grateful that Voronkov stepped in for me. That was awesome.”
Expect more hits from Fantilli as he continues to get acclimated to the NHL. Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent spoke glowingly about Fantilli after Wednesday’s practice, saying he expects him to be a “big guy who can beat you one-on-one,” like, say, Anze Kopitar, Eric Staal or Evgeni Malkin.
Part of Fantilli’s makeup, though, is playing with a physical edge, too. It’s now starting to emerge. His four hits on Monday vs. the Panthers were a career high, and he’s fifth among Blue Jackets forwards with eight total this season.
“The more experience you have, the more you can read the game,” Vincent said. “You get a better sense of where (the puck) is going and then you can start to time those hits, be in a better position to make those physical contacts.
“He’s a guy who feels he can make a difference already. That’s a mental state, but it’s because he’s physically ready to play at this level.”
Fantilli said he’s suffered none of the typical intimidation most teenagers face in the NHL. Going up against players you’ve idolized on TV isn’t easy, especially when they’re much bigger players than in the NCAA.
“Hockey is hockey, and you play physically when and where you can,” Fantilli said. “It’s really fast (in the NHL). Sometimes those hits don’t take place as frequently, but when they do, they tend to be bigger because of that speed.”
The NHL reviewed Fantilli’s hit on Verhaeghe, the league told The Athletic on Wednesday, but opted not to issue supplemental discipline. The initial point of contact was determined to be a full-body check, with only subsequent contact with Verhaeghe’s head. He remained in the game.
Blue Jackets center Sean Kuraly, who leads the club with 24 hits so far this season, sees more conflict emerging from Fantilli’s game.
“You come into the league wondering if it’s going to be gentlemanly, and you realize real quick you’re going to get the snot knocked out of you,” Kuraly said. “The first time that happens to you, it’s game over. You realize it’s an all-out battle. You eat or you get eaten.
“He realized early on with a couple of hits he took that you can get jacked out there. He’s a competitive guy. Fiery. And he’s a strong kid. That’s part of his game. That was a good, clean hit on a good player of theirs.”
The Blue Jackets were off on Tuesday, so Wednesday was their first chance to review the film from Monday’s loss. One of the highlights was Voronkov jumping in to pull Stenlund off Fantilli before Voronkov wrestled Stenlund to the ground. They both were handed roughing penalties.
Vincent has raved about Voronkov being a quick learner in his six NHL games. He’s 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds but moves quicker than you’d think, has softer hands than you’d expect, and has already become a power-play weapon at net front.
But the response to Fantilli getting jumped was pure instinct by Voronkov, who speaks only limited English after signing with the Blue Jackets over the summer.
“I don’t know how to explain this guy,” Vincent said. “What he did (on Monday) was him being a good teammate, but it’s beyond that.
“His understanding of what needs to be done as a hockey player is quite amazing. It’s a different league, a different country … everything is different for him right now. But he’s a hockey player. He wants to compete. He wants to be in those big moments where it matters. We have a real good hockey player here.”
Kuraly said he didn’t see how quickly Voronkov responded until the Blue Jackets’ film session on Wednesday.
“It was perfect,” Kuraly said. “Just perfect. That’s what we needed exactly at that moment, and Voronkov responded, which is impressive.
“It’s not needing everyone to square up and drop gloves, but we have to protect each other. That’s the language of hockey, right there.”
(Photo of Adam Fantilli: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)