The Columbus Blue Jackets are a tired bunch.
Even John Tortorella, who preaches mind over matter, acknowledged in his post-game comments after Game 3 that fatigue could be impacting his club.
“We just, as a group, we've been waiting a little bit here – I thought it was going to be the prior game – about hitting a wall with all of the hockey that we've played,” the coach said following his team's 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “I have to figure that's what happens tonight because it was the whole group of us. From the 12-minute mark of the first period, we're not the team we need to be, obviously, in the series.”
There is no reprieve in sight. The Blue Jackets, who have played more minutes by far than any other team since entering the bubble, took Sunday off to rest. But with just one day separating the team from its ninth game – not to mention nearly seven periods of overtime hockey – in 16 days, it may not be enough time to recover.
Not that the Blue Jackets will use fatigue as an excuse. Tortorella and the club pride themselves on their conditioning level. But after the Game 3 loss, it was easy to see fatigue impacting the game. Each goal against was the result of a player losing a physical or mental (or both) race with a player on the Lightning.
Goal 1: Liam Foudy Gassed
With a little under five minutes left in the first period of a scoreless game, Vladislav Gavrikov gloves down a puck and starts the rush the other way. He gives the puck off to Liam Foudy, then goes to open space. Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner fill lanes in the middle and far side of the ice, as the Blue Jackets hope to catch the Lightning on a 4-on-3 odd-man break.
Foudy slides a pass that hits the back of Zach Bogosian's leg and kicks right to Anthony Cirelli. Gavrikov, Foligno, and Jenner are all on the wrong side of the blue line, but the Blue Jackets appear to be in decent shape, as Foudy might be the fastest skater on the club. All he has to do is keep pace with Cirelli, who has head-manned the puck to Alex Killorn, and let David Savard play the 1-on-1.
But Foudy is gassed, and can't keep pace, which creates a much more dangerous 2-on-1 for Savard, the lone defender at this point. Killorn waits Savard's slide out, then catches Joonas Korpisalo cheating on the pass and tucks it five-hole for the first goal of the game.
Goal 2: Wennberg Loses Man in Coverage
With the score tied at one late in the second period, Alexander Wennberg and Brayden Point square off in a faceoff. Off a faceoff loss in the defensive zone, the center should lock onto the opposing center as the rest of the team identifies their check. On a set play, Ondrej Palat picks Foligno from getting to Nikita Kucherov, who slides the puck to Ryan McDonagh, who has activated from his left point. Riley Nash is a bit late to close out but still prevents a high-danger chance.
The shot stings Korpisalo, who is unable to catch it cleanly. Zach Werenski ties up Palat right in front of the net, but the puck squirts right to Point, who has inside position on Wennberg. It's an easy tap-in for the Game 1 overtime hero Point.
The faceoff and ensuing goal come directly after an icing, which prevented the Blue Jackets from changing a tired line, and Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper took advantage of it. Cooper put a fresh, scoring line on the ice, and Point and his linemates got the job done.
Was there some unfortunate puck luck involved? Sure, it kicked off Werenski's back heel right to the ice that Point was looking to occupy. For Wennberg it was a tough lesson to learn: stay on the defensive side of your man at all times.
Goal 3: Foligno's Disconnected Controller Syndrome
Anyone who's played a video game can tell you about the sudden despair of having a controller disconnect. You're frozen in time, unable to do anything, and it's not a great feeling.
At 5:57, Gavrikov tries to go up the wall to Oliver Bjorkstrand, but the puck is picked off by Carter Verhaeghe, who is in excellent position in the Lightning's 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck (the same one the Blue Jackets run). Cedric Paquette joins Verhaeghe and the two play pitch and catch as the Lightning try to catch the Blue Jackets on a 3-on-2.
David Savard and Gavrikov do a good job of taking away sticks as the Lightning enter in a straight line across, which limits their options. Bjorkstrand has his stick in the lane to take away a pass across the ice. All seems fine, right?
Verhaeghe knows he has a second wave of help, however, in the form of Victor Hedman, an elite NHL blueliner. Nick Foligno, charged with Hedman, is reaching for him, but not skating. He's skating too upright, clearly gassed.
Foligno doesn't take a single stride from the near dot in the natural zone until after Hedman had already beaten Korpisalo. Someone yanked his controller out and just like that, it's 3-1, Lightning.
Fatigue was absolutely a problem for the Blue Jackets in Game 3 and might be for the rest of this series. That's to be expected given the minutes the men on this team have skated since entering the bubble. But the series is likely taking a toll on the Lightning, as well, as all three games have been closely-contested battles with minimal time off between games.
The Blue Jackets love to generate offense, but they know their identity is staying sharp defensively, both physically and mentally. Small mistakes were the difference between Tampa Bay leading this series 2-1, and the Bolts being down at least 2-1.
If the Jackets want to win this series, they know what they have to fix. Will they have the gas to do it?