Maybe some out in the world would have characterized the Columbus Blue Jackets’ confidence as delusion.
Not John Tortorella. Nor his players.
They didn’t need anyone watching on television to explain what happened in Friday’s disastrous Game 4. They were in Scotiabank Arena as the Toronto Maple Leafs raced back from a 3-0 deficit to knot the game at three goals apiece in the final four minutes before Auston Matthews knocked in a game-winning fourth goal in overtime.
Around noon on Sunday, team captain Nick Foligno and Tortorella both reemphasized their lack of demoralization or disillusionment that the collapse would carry over into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Qualifying series. They said they didn't have any worries.
“You've got to remember, in Game 4 we played a good hockey game,” Tortorella said on Sunday evening. “I think in the third period, prior to a little bit of a meltdown there, I think we held them to two scoring chances. We were confident in the way we were playing. We didn't want that to happen, you know. Shit happens, I guess.”
Shit, as Tortorella, has happened to Columbus all season. In fact, responding to it has essentially become the identity of the Blue Jackets, who entered the season widely picked to miss the playoffs after having lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene.
So when the Maple Leafs stormed to a 4-3 overtime victory on Friday evening, the Blue Jackets didn’t panic. Heck, nobody expected them to be there in the first place. Why lose their minds now?
Two days later, in the deciding game of the five-game series, Columbus secured a 3-0 victory to move on to the first round of the playoffs where it’ll meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in a rematch of last year’s postseason.
“This is kind of what we do, it feels like. We do it the hard way and we get it done,” Gustav Nyquist said. “It feels good that to win this, we can put that little debacle behind us there last game.”
Sunday’s game, for the most part, was bereft of any drama. Some of it, in fact, came before the puck dropped when Tortorella announced Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray would be in the lineup despite dealing with injuries and Joonas Korpisalo would replace Elvis Merzlikins as the goaltender. Had neither defenseman played, perhaps the fifth matchup between the two teams would have been a tad more dramatic.
Instead, Werenski gave Columbus a quick advantage by scoring less than seven minutes after the opening puck dropped. His goal gave the Blue Jackets an early edge that Korpisalo said allowed the rest of the team to gain a bit of confidence.
“Obviously, Game 4 we kind of lost ourselves for a little bit,” Werenski said. “`But we felt confident where our game was at, so we didn't really have to get settled in. We knew how we had to play, and I think we executed our game plan pretty good tonight.”
Liam Foudy, a 20-year-old rookie who grew up as a Maple Leafs fan, scored the first goal of his young career a little more than midway through the third period. Playing far and away the most important minutes yet of his career, the former first-round pick thrived because, as Tortorella said, he “wasn't afraid to hold onto the puck.”
Foligno sealed the victory with 23 seconds remaining by walking in an empty-net goal.
Among all of the players who stood out in what Nyquist stressed was a “full-team effort,” Korpisalo stood out for his outstanding protection of the net. The 26-year-old All-Star didn’t allow a single goal in his fourth start of the series, saving all 33 shots on goal. Playing in place of Merzlikins, whom Tortorella said was hurt, Korpisalo bookended the series with his second shutout.
“We’re not in the bubble if we don’t have those two guys,” Tortorella said, hammering home a point he has made about the goalies for the past month. “We were all nervous when the season started and we had some departures – Bob left and all that stuff. We were nervous about what our goaltending was going to be. We don't have a sniff being here if it's not for those two guys.”
More than likely, Columbus wouldn’t have a sniff of advancing past the Maple Leafs without both of them, either.
Korpisalo shut out Toronto in Game 1, responding to all of those who expected the Matthews-led offense to threaten him with an outstanding performance. He then got sent an onslaught of shots in Game 2, allowing a pair of goals, before getting pulled midway through Game 3 after allowing a trio of goals. An energized Merzlikins replaced Korpisalo in the middle of the second period, holding on as Columbus pulled off a three-goal comeback of its own. He then gave up four goals in Game 4, got hurt, and Korpisalo came in for another shutout.
Tortorella predicted before the series that he’d need both of them, but even he couldn’t have foreseen that split of time – and success.
“I think I've come into a group of guys that never quit,” Nyquist said. “There's no quite whatsoever in this team. Just great character in there, and really proud to be a part of this organization and excited to keep going here and move further into this tournament.”
Next up? Tampa Bay. Columbus got counted out last year, so it won’t happen again.
Not that the Blue Jackets care what outsiders think, anyway.
“It’s a group that we don’t do it easy, the easy way,” Tortorella said. “As I said to you guys earlier today, we just try to go out there and play. I’m proud of them.”