On to the next one.
A late Game 4 collapse put the Columbus Blue Jackets right beside the Toronto Maple Leafs on the precipice of postseason elimination. Two days later, however, John Tortorella’s team topped Toronto, 3-0, to advance past the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the first round of the playoffs.
Now, Columbus is a day away from opening a seven-game series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tortorella and several of his players spoke to the media on Monday afternoon ahead of the upcoming showdown.
Tortorella smirked as he listened to the question.
Does he think the Blue Jackets are still being disrespected for their accomplishments? The cunning cmile told the whole story.
“That's something we'll keep internal,” Tortorella said. “It's kind of an inner fire for us. We try to be who we are. We're not too concerned about what other people think about us.”
That doesn’t mean he’s unwilling to share some of his thoughts, however.
“It pisses me off sometimes as far as how sometimes we're perceived in our market and all that,” Tortorella said. “You can't get caught up in perception. It's a tough way to live if you're worried about perception. So we just kind of gather ourselves and worry about ourselves and stay together.”
To Nick Foligno, a veteran NHL player who’s spent eight seasons with the Blue Jackets and is the team’s captain, it’s “fine” that some outside the locker room might not give Columbus the respect he feels it deserves. In order to arrive at the point where the team can feel mad, he believes praise won’t come “until you win and win consistently.”
This upcoming series, he said, will be another chance to show what the Blue Jackets offer.
“I'm not too concerned about what people say about us,” Foligno said. “I think you've seen that in our group for a long time now. We've always kind of been counted out, which is fine by us and is a reason why we play so hard and know that every time we step on the ice we're out to prove sometimes. I think that's a great motto for our team to have and one that we carry with us every time we step on the ice.”
Cam Atkinson added: “Once the players all buy in and believe in each other and what we're trying to achieve, there's endless opportunity and potential. That's all that matters to me.”
Time To Reflect
On the morning of Sunday’s game, Tortorella didn’t have any interest in reflecting on his team’s first four performances of the five-game Stanley Cup Qualifying series. That, he said, would come afterward.
A day later, less than 24 hours after the Blue Jackets beat Toronto for the third team to clinch the series win, Tortorella lived up to his word. He once again harped on how he thought his team “played a good game in Game 4” until everything went haywire down the stretch.
“We melted down,” Tortorella said. “We have a chance to put it in the open net three times; we don't do that. We make a couple mistakes. I do think we need a save – three shots is three goals. I think we need a save on at least one of them. We don't do that, and that's what happens. But it didn't change how we thought about how we were playing. That's how we went about it. We don't change. We're not too complicated. We just try to play the game.”
Tortorella has to get some credit for staying on message. He hasn’t deviated in his stance of focusing inward at all, even when talking about a series that already ended.
Asked about how the Lightning potentially not having captain Victor Hedman, Tortorella said he didn’t care and remains only caring about this team. That won’t change anytime soon.
Korpi in the net
As of now, Elvis Merzlikins will be unavailable to play goaltender for the Blue Jackets. Tortorella confirmed he’ll be out with an injury for an undetermined amount of time on Monday.
For some teams, losing a goalie of his caliber during the postseason would be an issue. For Columbus, it had an All-Star to take center stage: Joonas Korpisalo.
The 26-year-old started the series in the net before Tortorella went with Merzlikins in the middle of Game 3 when Columbus trailed 3-0, sticking with the rookie for Game 4. Korpisalo didn’t pout. Instead, he stayed ready for when the coaches went back to him as the starter, holding Toronto scoreless for the second time in the series.
“I think both our goalies have handled themselves very well,” Tortorella said. “The thing that's impressed me about Korpi, and I don't know anything about goaltending, but I do understand body language and all that. I think in the past couple years, I think he's really settled himself down in how calm he is in the net, and I think that's important. I think the team plays off of that. Technical stuff and all that, I just want him to stop the puck. But as far as how he looks and appears, I think it's important for his teammates to see that and I think he's really grown in that area.”
Playing three times a week in the regular season, Korpisalo said, “kind of builds your confidence” and helped prepare him for the postseason.
In the Stanley Cup Qualifying series, he had a 1.45 goals-against average to go along with a .956 save percentage. His shutouts came in Game 1 and Game 5 of the five-game series.
“It's all about opportunity, and having Bob the last X amount of years, it's been hard for Korpi to really get a start and to kind of get his feet wet and just kind of play on a regular basis,” Atkinson said. “He got the opportunity this year, him and Elvis. As I told you, I've known all along how good Korpi is, just how he works and how he battles and competes in practice and takes care of himself off the ice. So I'm just happy that it's all kind of working out for him. He was an All-Star this year for a reason. We're going to need him to continue to play best for us and be one of our best players.”