Ryan Johansen's skills keep Penguins on full alert

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Ryan Johansen's playoff debut wasn't a big splash, but the Penguins will remain wary of Columbus' strapping top-line center for the rest of their first-round playoff series.

Johansen, 21, had a breakout season, leading the Blue Jackets with 33 goals and 63 points. In Game 1 Wednesday, a 4-3 Penguins win, Johansen had no points, three shots and three of his team's 48 hits. He also blocked two shots, won 10 of 21 faceoffs and had a plus-minus rating of minus-1.

"For guys like myself, we've got to work extra hard if we want to make skill plays, to make time and space for ourselves," was Johansen's take on his first taste of the playoffs.

"Even though we lost, I enjoyed [the game]. It was a good experience."

The Penguins plan to keep a close watch and close gap on Johansen, the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft who did not reach double figures in goals in either of his first two NHL seasons and split last season between the NHL and the American Hockey League.

"He's got skill," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "That didn't jump out the first couple of games I played against him a couple of years ago. You could tell he was an NHL player, but I didn't know at that time that he would be capable of this. He's turned out to be a good No. 1 center.

"He can really skate, and he can play at a high pace. He's got really good skill. And he's got a pretty good nose for the net, too. He knows what areas to be in. He's got a knack for finishing.

"He's going to be a handful this series."

The other top-line center in this series has a strong impression of Johansen, too.

Asked if Johansen reminded him of anyone else in the NHL, Sidney Crosby thought for a couple of seconds and came up with Penguins teammate and noted sniper James Neal because of a shared ability to wind up and shoot in traffic.

"Those two guys, you feel like you're pretty close and they get a great shot off," Crosby said. "You don't know how they do it. He's one of those guys. He sees the ice really well, too, so you can't get caught up chasing him too much [or] he's going to find other guys.

"All around, he's really solid. He's got a lot of size, too."

Johansen is 6 feet 3, 226 pounds. He can play with a physical edge -- he had 114 hits in the regular season -- and he's durable. He was one of three Columbus players to appear in all 82 games.

His size is apparent at times in his heavy shot -- "It's got a lot behind it," Crosby said -- but it helps in other ways, too.

"He's starting to realize how big and strong he really is," Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski said. "A lot of times when you have that you can hold onto the puck a little bit more, use his big butt in the corner. It's going to take a pretty strong guy to knock him off the puck."

Johansen saw other forwards selected in the top 10 of his draft class -- Carolina's Jeff Skinner, Edmonton's Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, now with Dallas -- make an impact more quickly, and that pushed him toward his breakout season.

"I was a step behind in the producing part of it," Johansen said. "It was a big motivation for me this year to put the puck in the net. I think I learned the defensive game well first. Looking back at last year, I thought I did a really good job of playing that checking role and playing in my own zone. This year I'm starting to take over in the offensive zone, which is nice for a skill player to finally do."

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly. The Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo contributed.

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