Body language often does more speaking for John Tortorella than his words. He’s an emotional coach, unafraid to speak his true feelings regardless of the situation, and his face doesn’t hide them.
Such was the case, once again, on Wednesday.
Shortly after the Columbus Blue Jackets suffered a brutal 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that eliminated them from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, succumbing to a game-tying 6-on-5 goal in the final two minutes of regulation and another goal five minutes into overtime, Tortorella evidently wanted to take no time to reflect on a season that came to a sudden conclusion.
After a five-word answer about the late-game collapse, a reporter started the second question of the virtual postgame press conference by saying, “Hey John, I know it's hard after a series loss to really compress your thoughts, but…”
Tortorella closed his eyes and raised his eyebrows.
“...what has this whole experience been like being in the bubble, being so close to your players, working with them on a day-to-day basis and…”
Tortorella opened his mouth, leaned back and peered to his left at something or somebody off-camera.
“...just mentally seeing them come back after a pause in time unlike any in human history?”
Time for the head coach.
“You know what guys?” Tortorella said. “I’m not going to get into the touchy-feely stuff, the moral victories and all that. You guys be safe.”
He stood up, turned left and exited the interview about as abruptly as his team’s postseason run ended just minuted beforehand.
“I'm obviously pretty emotional about losing,” Nick Foligno said. “It's a hard one to take. I wasn't expecting to be done tonight, to be honest with you. I was expecting to play come Friday and Saturday.”
There was a feeling of incredulity among the Columbus players, and anybody watching or listening to Tortorella could sense the disgust coming from him.
“We lose 4-1, but I think we played a lot better than a 4-1 series. But that’s the way it goes.”– Seth Jones
The Blue Jackets, quite simply, had no business blowing Wednesday’s game. They held a two-goal lead for the first half of the third period and outshot the Lightning, 41-26. They controlled the majority of what happened on the ice for the middle part of the game, which included 24 shots in the second period, which is more than they had on goal in four of the nine prior postseason games this month.
“We even talked about staying on our toes,” Cam Atkinson said. “I thought we, for the most part, we played a really, really good game, dictated the whole play, had a lot of chances. Guys were feeling it. They're just a team that if you take your foot off the gas pedal, they're going to get their chances and they're going to capitalize. They're not always going to be pretty goals, but they get to the hard areas. Sure enough, that's what happens.”
Missed chances by the Blue Jackets happened to be a cruel theme of the first-round series.
In Game 1, Columbus managed just two goals, eventually losing in the fifth overtime to squander Joonas Korpisalo’s NHL modern record of 85 saves. The third game of the series was another one-goal loss, with Emil Bemstrom sending a shot toward a wide-open goal that clanked off the post instead of giving his team momentum. Two days later, the Blue Jackets put together what was arguably their best all-around game of the series – not including an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal called back for an offsides penalty – yet ended up on the losing end by a one-goal margin.
Then came Wednesday’s disastrous end to Game 5, which represented the end to the 2019-20 Blue Jackets campaign. To Seth Jones, it was a “roller-coaster” that ended how none of them preferred.
“It was a lot of ups and downs,” Jones said. “We tried to stay even through wins and losses. The series started with a five-overtime game, and that felt like we played two-and-a-half, three games just in that one game itself. Unfortunately, we didn’t come out on the right side of a lot of the big moments. Both overtime games and some of the big moments when we needed plays, they ended up making them and putting them in our net.
“We lose 4-1, but I think we played a lot better than a 4-1 series. But that’s the way it goes.”
Early in Wednesday’s matchup, Tampa Bay appeared on the verge of a beatdown. Tyler Johnson and Blake Coleman scored first-period goals within 61 seconds of each other for an early 2-0 lead.
Foligno got a goal back within six minutes, then a barrage on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy in the second period netted a pair of goals from Kevin Stenlund and Alexander Wennberg. A Bjorkstrand goal in the third period added some cushion to what was a two-goal lead.
Kevin Shattenkirk’s goal put the Lightning within striking distance with eight minutes left, though, and Anthony Cirelli tied it up with 1:38 remaining in regulation. Brayden Point ended the game with goal 5:12 after overtime began.
“All year long, we were kind of comfortable in those games,” Foligno said. “I don't want to put it on youth or whatever. We found ways to win close games all year long, so it's a hard one to take. It's just the way we played, that was probably our best game. We had doubled them in shots and didn't get the result.”