As Alexander Wennberg described his late goal that gave the Columbus Blue Jackets a cushion to its lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pierre-Luc Dubois sat beside him with a smirk on his face. Wennberg noted he had, of course, at times in the past tried the miraculous between-the-legs pass to himself on the break leading to a shot as he crashed into the goaltender just in front of him.
“It's not often it works that great, and I'm just happy it did in this one time,” he said.
Wennberg finished up his explanation, and Dubois quickly leaned in, his mouth inches away from the microphone sitting on the table in front of him.
“We've seen it in practice a lot,” he said.
Dubois’ head shot back and turned in Wennberg’s direction, the pair of forwards laughing at what the 22-year-old had just said.
Again on Thursday, the Blue Jackets could smile. They had just completed a 3-1 victory in regulation, falling behind in the first period before tying it up seven minutes later, taking the lead before the period ended and buttressing the advantage with Wennberg’s late score. The result certainly felt a heck of a lot better to John Tortorella’s team than the 3-2 loss that took five grueling overtimes to complete two days prior.
“The team's feeling really good right now,” Dubois said. “We're playing well. We're moving pucks. We're playing well defensively. The team's playing well and that's all that matters.”
Specifically, the team’s goaltender, Joonas Korpisalo, and defense have shined. They’ve allowed for the goal-scorers to gain confidence – and have some extra opportunities – by holding what was the top-scoring team in the regular season to four goals through two games. And this comes after winning a series against a Toronto, which had a group of skilled scorers, as well.
For four straight postseason games, the Blue Jackets have been outshot by double digits. When they get chances, too, they haven’t always been clean.
But in large part due to their ability to stifle opposing offenses, they won the Stanley Cup Qualifying series against Toronto, 3-2, and now have knotted their first-round series with the Lightning at 1-1.
“Korpi's playing really well for us, giving us confidence to try plays,” Dubois said. “We know he can bury our mistakes. Back-ends the same thing, blocking shots, making good plays defensively.”
Somehow, Korpisalo just continues to get better.
The 26-year-old old goalie had a save percentage of 0.911 during the regular season, which earned him an All-Star selection. He followed that up with a 0.956 percent save rate in the Qualifying series versus the Maple Leafs. Through two games, he has allowed four goals on well over 100 shots for a 0.968 save percentage in the first-round matchup with Tampa Bay.
To put Thursday’s performance into perspective, the Lightning were held to one or fewer goals only eight times during the regular season, losing seven of those games. If Korpisalo can keep up his strong play, highlighted by what Oliver Bjorkstrand deemed “big saves,” Columbus will be in business.
“We all know in the dressing room that he's one of the best goalies in the NHL and he's feeling really good right now,” Dubois said. “Every time we make a little mistake, he's there to stop the puck, giving us confidence to try plays. That's all you can ask for in a goalie. Since Game 1, since he started, he's been amazing for us.”
So, too, has the defense – despite having both staring defensemen play more than 60 minutes in Tuesday’s game.
Tampa Bay attempted 37 shots on Thursday, but it had multiple others blocked. Columbus often seemed to be in the heads of Lightning players. At the end of the first period, for example, Nikita Kucherov and Zach Werenski got into a bit of a shoving matchup.
“We bounced back pretty good, I think,” Ryan Murray said. “We had a really solid game tonight. We were just all over the ice. I felt like we supported each other really well, got pucks out when we had to. We just kind of clogged up our D-zone. Whenever there seemed to be a miscue or something happened, someone was right there to block it or with a good stick or something like that. And Korpi made some bigs saves. It was huge to see the guys play like that.”
With Korpisalo and the defense holding the Lightning to a single goal, a struggling Blue Jackets offense had notably less pressure to find success. That’s vital to the way they play, especially right now without high-power scorers to depend on on a game-by-game basis.
Murray and Bjorkstrand scored the first two goals before Wennberg added a third goal in the final period. With the trio of goals, Murray thought Columbus played a “really complete game tonight.”
“That's kind of the way we want to play,” Wennberg said. “We want to give them a hard time out there. Obviously there is really good players on that team, so if we can just keep playing our game and work hard, obviously they're going to get their opportunities, but we've got Joonas back there. It felt, for us, stick to our game plan and it's going to pan out for us.”
And it did.