On the Columbus Blue Jackets’ bench, John Tortorella claimed his team felt “OK.” Sure, he had a sense that the game was slipping away, but he also hadn’t lost hope by any means. He had noticed some positives in his team’s play over the prior 45 minutes on the ice.
Everybody in Columbus watching on television – none of whom could have predicted the eventual 4-3 overtime victory to grab a 2-1 five-game series lead – had a different feeling. Doom and gloom reigned within a fanbase that had just seen the Blue Jackets fall behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-0, when Nick Robertson snuck a third shot past Joonas Korpisalo at the 8:48 mark of the second period in a pivotal Game 3 matchup.
How in the world was anyone supposed to have hope? This Blue Jackets had scored just two games across the first seven-and-a-half periods of the Stanley Cup Qualifying series, with one coming on a shot Cam Atkinson didn’t even think would go in and the other finding the back of the net when the Maple Leafs had pulled their goaltender late in Game 1.
To a young team not exactly frothing with players who’ve experienced years of playoff hockey, that didn’t matter.
“It took us a little while to find our game,” Tortorella said. “We were kind of going in increments as far as our level. Certainly, we weren't playing at the level high enough early on. Got unlucky on their first goal. We just try to keep on playing.”
The mindset to which Tortorella referred to didn’t sound too dissimilar to what Nick Foligno had talked about less than 36 hours beforehand. He said the Blue Jackets’ solution to a 3-0 shutout loss didn’t require “rocket science,” noting “we always seem to bounce back the right way.”
What happened in the ensuing period-and-a-half of regulation combined with overtime on Thursday evening proved his point better than he could have possibly expected.
Immediately after Robertson’s goal gave Toronto a 3-0 lead, Tortorella decided to make a switch that seemed unlikely only a couple of days prior. He gave Korpisalo the hook, calling in Elvis Merzlikins as a replacement in the net. The change “certainly wasn't due to Korpi's play,” Tortorella said, but rather dictated an opportunity to allow the team to take a breath.
“I think it's just to give us a little shift in energy, to wake us up a bit,” Pierre-Luc Dubois said. “I think that's what started it.”
Less than three minutes passed before Dubois got Columbus on the board, pulling the Blue Jackets within two goals. That, combined with some key saves from Merzlikins, was when Dubois saw “the tide shifted a bit.”
“It was a team effort tonight,” Dubois said. “Korpi played well enough to keep us in it. We just changed him to give us a little boost. Elvis made saves to give us a chance to come back. From there, it’s like our team, we gained confidence. And then the rest is history, I guess.”
History that won’t be forgotten in Columbus anytime soon, either.
Seven minutes into the third period, Seth Jones chopped the Toronto lead to one goal by shooting the puck over goaltender Frederik Andersen’s head and into the top-right corner of the net. In a single shot, he made up for a miscue earlier in the game when the puck went off his skate and led to a shorthanded Maple Leafs goal.
With momentum on its side, Columbus’ physical forechecking nature with energetic play suddenly reappeared. What had become the team’s identity before evaporating for a game-and-a-half’s time was suddenly again present.
Midway through the third period, the improbable happened: The Blue Jackets tied it up at three goals apiece. Dubois sent the puck underneath Andersen’s arm for his second goal of the night.
“I'll keep reiterating, you're never out of the fight until that last buzzer goes off,” Atkinson said. “So you find a way to get one and kind of get the momentum and start feeling good about your game and just keep throwing pucks in there. You never know what's going to happen.”
Anyone who had turned off their television an hour or so earlier suddenly found themself frantically searching for the remote again. Not only had the Blue Jackets tied it up, but all the momentum was on their side.
“We stayed with it, started playing some good hockey late second, third period,” Seth Jones said. “Found ourselves back into it.”
A couple of scares for both teams came and went, sending the game to the series’ first overtime.
There, again, each team had several opportunities, with Merzlikins steadying the Blue Jackets. Offensively, Columbus doesn’t have the firepower of Toronto, and it has never claimed that to be the case. But on Thursday, it had the game’s top goal-scorer: Dubois.
On a breakaway with less than two minutes left before double-overtime, the 22-year-old center got control of the puck on a breakaway, sending the puck into the top-right corner of the net. Andersen couldn’t stop what turned out to be both the game-ender and the third goal in his hat trick.
“We've been in a lot of situations where we go into overtime or we're down by two or three,” Atkinson said. “That's just the resilient group that we have in the locker room. All the older guys kind of held it together in between periods and obviously into overtime. You're never out of the fight. It was a heck of a game for us.”
The swing game, which took a lot out of players on both teams, leaves Columbus needing just a single victory in the next two games to advance out of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“I want them to have a ball right now,” Tortorella said. “That’s why we play. It was a really good game by both teams. It’s too bad fans weren’t in the building. No, I want them to enjoy themselves right now in the proper way. I trust them. They’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
Before walking off stage and heading back to the hotel, Atkinson added, “The job isn't done.”
He and his team will look to finish it on Friday at 8 p.m., less than 21 hours after Thursday’s game concluded.