Let's get this unfortunate truth out of the way: The Tampa Bay Lightning deserved to win that hockey game.
“This was a good test for us. It was a tough night after the game ... for everybody. But we got together and talked about it, talked about the great opportunity we have in front of us to step up and see if we can get this figured out in an adverse situation."
That's what John Tortorella said after the dramatic Game 4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round.
Yes, I know, it hurts to say out loud. Joonas Korpisalo was better than spectacular in a 3-2 5OT marathon loss. One does not simply set the modern-day NHL record for saves in a single game by being anything other than spectacular. If Seth Jones didn't open eyes against the Maple Leafs, he surely did by playing the most minutes of any player in NHL history. If they could have just found a way to win that game, we'd justify their gritty effort and talk about how hard they are to play against. But at the end of the day, the Blue Jackets spent a fair bit of the game - and quite a bit of the overtime sessions - holding on for dear life, hoping and waiting for a bounce that never came.
Monkeypuck.com's "Deserve-To-Win O-Meter" saw the Lightning win on over 90% of their 1000 simulations. Their expectations suggested that the Blue Jackets would have given up over eight (8!) goals. Is the game played on Moneypuck.com? Obviously not, but in this case, I'd say the eye test aligned with the numbers.
The NHL's postseason schedule has been unkind to the Blue Jackets, who have played 25 periods of hockey in 10 days. The last team to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blue Jackets were also somehow the first to play in the Quarterfinals.
With two OT games against Toronto and the 5 OT classic tonight, the Blue Jackets have skated the equivalent of eight postseason games in nine days.#CBJ— 1st Ohio Battery (@1stOhioBattery) August 12, 2020
But all is not lost. The Blue Jackets know how to respond with their backs up against the wall. After all, this team has been given zero breaks this season - the most man-games lost in the NHL during the regular season, an exodus of free-agent talent leaving Columbus for
sunnier pastures qualifying-round exits, a dramatic three-goal lead vanquished in under 200 seconds against the Maple Leafs, etc. and have always found a way to persist.
John Tortorella recently compared himself (and other bench bosses) to a guidance counselor, putting the onus on the players to determine the outcomes of these games. And while I agree with his assessment that coaches get too much credit for team success and to much blame for team failure, he clearly impacts this franchise in a way that no other Blue Jackets' coach has ever even approached.
Tortorella: "The mental part of the game, to me, far outweighs the Xs & Os of the game right now so that's something that we do try & coach quite a bit ... but then it falls on the players & how they handle it ... to develop mental toughness you need to go through experiences"— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) August 7, 2020
When other coaches say things like "we're just going to take this one game at a time" or "we're going to come back ready for the next game", it feels like lip service. With Tortorella, there's legitimate buy-in. His players reflect his psychology.
The pressure was - and is - on the Lightning to win this series. The Blue Jackets, for all of the reasons listed above, probably shouldn't even be here. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, took the first-round sweep in 2019 to heart, addressing the roster by adding players and moving precious draft stock to add skaters that remind people of Blue Jackets players. This is arguably their strongest roster, a surefire Stanley Cup favorite. Even in their win, it's not like the Lightning blew the doors off the Blue Jackets, and it took 150+ minutes of playoff hockey to secure a victory.
Momentum is a fickle thing. Just when it seems that one team has it, it can vanish in an instant. While it sure feels that Tampa Bay has secured momentum for now, who's to say that the Blue Jackets won't respond how they have all year after being kicked in the teeth?
I'm not here to say that the Blue Jackets will rebound and come back to win this series. I'm not even going to proffer that they win Game 2. But this series is far from over.