Any coach that speaks to reporters with a degree of frequency has their own cliché they go back to again and again. It’s never intentional, and most probably don’t even realize how often they say it, but that’s the nature of giving frequent interviews.
For the past three weeks, “we’re going to play our game” has been John Tortorella’s go-to phrase. Constantly he has said it, and his players have said those words in order too, meaning it’s been a theme behind closed doors, as well. What does that really mean? Obviously you’re going to play your game. That’s the nature of what a hockey team does. It plays hockey. Insightful.
But there’s a point behind the cliché. A point that was evident in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2-0 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs to pull out to a 1-0 Stanley Cup Qualifier series lead on Sunday.
Columbus wanted to impose itself on Toronto. It didn’t want to have the spend the entire night responding to what’s indisputably one of the most dangerous offenses in the NHL. So, the Blue Jackets did what they did best – and what they wanted to – regardless of how it looked.
“I think it started with (Joonas Korpisalo),” Cam Atkinson said after the win. “He made some pretty big saves at crucial times. That's the way we have to play. We have to play kind of a greasy, in-your-face defensive style. They obviously have a lot of star power. Breakdowns, they're going to capitalize and get their opportunities. If we play the right way, we're going to have success.”
Calling the Blue Jackets’ win “pretty” wouldn’t exactly be accurate. That’s not what they were going for, though. They were only after the win.
As Tortorella pointed out in his post-game remarks, playing a scoreless game in the third period wasn’t exactly a foreign feeling. Of their 33 victories in the regular season, the Blue Jackets only won by more than one goal in 13 of those games. By this point in the year, they’ve gotten used to it.
So, while they waited for someone to knock the puck past Frederik Andersen, their defense remained as stout as ever and Korpisalo held down the fort. Together, everybody did their jobs. David Savard said he felt like the defense “played well” in front of Korpisalo, and the goaltender agreed, saying they were “battling for me to see the puck.”
Toronto was held scoreless for only the second time in the 2019-20 season. Korpisalo, securing a shutout in his first postseason start, certainly played a big role in the goose egg. He said he “felt pretty confident from the get-go.” Asked whether he had to adjust to a fan-free environment, Korpisalo shook his head, saying that didn’t have any effect on his play.
“There's one thing and one thing only: I try to stop the puck,” Korpisalo said.
"We've really tried to make a point of emphasis as far as just trying to play the right way [on the power play]. Skating, keeping our sticks down and just checking the right way. I thought we did a pretty good job." - Torts#CBJ | @pedialyte pic.twitter.com/536MmCcZg8— x-Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) August 3, 2020
He might as well have used past tense. Per the stats, Korpisalo stopped all 28 shots that got sent his way.
“Nothing we didn't expect,” Seth Jones said. “Korpi is a competitor. He's a hell of a goalie. He made massive saves when we needed them the most tonight, kept us in it. They had some chances when it was 0-0 – three or four of them.”
The game nearly swung in Toronto’s favor when Auston Matthews received a pass from William Nylander in the slot and ripped a one-timer that Korpisalo snagged in the second period to maintain a 0-0 tie. Korpisalo said he noticed the impending shot a split second before it happened and just tried to get something in front of it.
Evidently, his plan worked.
Jones noted that was probably his best save of the night. Savard went even further, saying he believes that moment altered everything going on on the ice.
“I think on Matthews there in the second, it was kind of a turning point for us,” Savard said. “It was huge for our game, and we just got going from there and played better and better as the game went on.”
With Korpisalo and his defense battling, there was a feeling that at some point something would eventually have to give. For all the fraughting entering the series about Columbus’ offense, which ranked near the bottom of most scoring categories in the regular season, the team actually had a few prime opportunities to put goals on the scoreboard in the first and second periods. They just never actually led to the virtual cannon firing.
Not until the beginning of the third period did the Blue Jackets get on the board. And in perfect Columbus fashion, Atkinson’s strike of the puck wasn’t even expected to reach the back of the net. Just ask him.
“I kind of knew where I wanted to shoot. Wasn't really expecting it to go in,” Atkinson said. “But obviously one of those, I'll take. A goal like that kind of gives me a lot of momentum and juice and start feeling a lot better about my game.”
Welcome to Blue Jackets hockey.
It might not always look the cleanest. The margin for error might be smaller than what’s most comfortable. But it can work, even in the postseason.
“There's nothing special we're doing,” Tortorella said. “We're just trying to play the game the right way.”