Disappointment. Sadness. Pride. Anger. Contentment. Bitterness.
Name any emotion, and at least a couple of players from the Columbus Blue Jackets probably felt it at some point on Wednesday after their season came to a close due to a 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s only natural in the aftermath of such an abrupt conclusion.
In the third period of Game 5 of the first-round matchup, nobody had much reason to feel too strongly about Tampa Bay’s odds to pull out a comeback win. The Blue Jackets quickly fell behind, 2-0, in the first period but dominated the second period to grab a 3-2 lead, added a goal to its lead in the third period and seemed in control of the action with a double-figure edge in shots on goal. The Lightning came storming back, however, adding two goals – including one in the final two minutes with their goalie pulled – by the end of regulation then won in overtime.
That’s playoff hockey. It’s not always fair, and it never goes by a script.
“They're an opportunistic team,” an emotional Nick Foligno said following the defeat. “They have the firepower to score.”
And they did, ending Columbus’ postseason run suddenly on Wednesday.
Foligno said he wasn’t prepared to go home, expecting his team would play again in Game 6 and Game 7 on Friday and Saturday, respectively, and he wasn’t alone. Coach John Tortorella stormed out of his post-game press conference after the second question.
Yet the ending shouldn’t completely overshadow the rest of the season, and it won’t. No chance. Not after all the Blue Jackets overcame to get to that point.
“I think we're a team that expected more out of ourselves, so it's get back to work.”– Nick Foligno
Preseason projection of Columbus varied after an offseason saw the three key pieces to a playoff team – Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene – left the city for other franchises in free agency. Many, however, picked the Blue Jackets to either miss the playoffs entirely or end up on the bubble.
And that was before their terrible injury luck.
Seth Jones and Oliver Bjokstrand suffered fractured ankles that forced them out of action, and Cam Atkinson also dealt with an ankle injury. First-time starting goaltender Joonas Korpisalo put together an All-Star campaign before a knee issue requiring surgery sidelined him. Alexandre Texier battled a lumbar stress fracture in his back earlier this year, and Dean Kukan had a meniscus tear in his knee. Josh Anderson underwent labrum surgery in his left shoulder, rehabbing and never returning even after the unexpected pre-postseason layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The injuries could only set back the Blue Jackets so much, however. They managed to pull out a 33-22-15 regular-season record, then they followed it up by topping the Toronto Maple Leafs in their Stanley Cup Qualifying series – their second-ever postseason series win – before ultimately falling to the Lightning with four one-goal losses, including a couple of heartbreakers.
“Any time you go through injuries, no matter what amount, it gives the managing, it gives the coaching, it gives the whole organization a look at where we are for the future – not only right now but for the future,” Tortorella said on Aug. 1.
He didn’t specify, but he said he saw “some surprises” with how much certain players tossed into tough situations had developed. He looked for the positives, and he found them.
Of course, the Blue Jackets have some offseason moves to make to turn themselves into a title contender, but they also have ample young talent that’s developing and had impressive moments in the postseason.
They got glimpses of what 22-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois, 21-year-old Emil Bemstrom, 20-year-old Liam Foudy and 20-year-old Alexandre Texier will become in the future.Their top pairing of defensemen – 25-year-old Seth Jones and 23-year-old Zach Werenski – is already one of the best in the NHL. With a pair of talented 26-year-old goaltenders in Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, the Blue Jackets should be set in the net going forward.
“I hate reflecting right now being so fresh off a loss, but I believe in this group,” Foligno said. “I've said that from Day 1. The amount of trust and belief that we have in each other, I think it far outweighs anything else going on in the league. We care about each other. Now it's about finding that next level to become a championship team.”
This one will sting, and that feeling likely won’t leave for a while.
But there’s a bright future possible in Columbus if Tortorella and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen can make the right moves going forward.
“I don't care if you're a young team or an old team. When you don't get the job done, there's room to grow,” Foligno said. “That's where our team is right now. We're a team that's battled through a lot to get to where we are right now, and we have to continue to get better and understand how hard it is to win in this postseason. We haven't tasted that yet. We've got one round win under our belts.
“I think we're a team that expected more out of ourselves, so it's get back to work.”