Welcome to Part 1 of our season-ending column on the Columbus Blue Jackets. A weird and potentially explosive offseason awaits the team.
We will address the future and what could be coming in Part 2. But for now, we will focus on the playoff series that just ended on Wednesday.
The Blue Jackets may have lost in just five games, but it didn’t seem it. They lost two games in overtime and lost all four of their games by one goal.
To say this was an agonizing defeat for the Blue Jackets is an understatement. Both John Tortorella and Jarmo Kekalainen expressed their feelings on Friday about the season being suddenly over.
“The one that bothers me, and it falls on us, is we didn’t protect that lead at the end,” Tortorella said. “To lose it on a freebie, that just pisses me off. I wanted to see what it was going to be like in Game 5. I wanted to see what Game 6 was gonna be, see how the players react on both teams quite honestly. I wanted us to get there. We played well enough to get there, but we didn’t get that done.”
“We did so many good things in that series,” Kekalainen said. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow that we’re here now. I truly thought for sure that we’d be playing tonight (Game 6.)”
To be frank, the Blue Jackets should still be in the bubble. They played their best game of the series in Game 5. Although they got off to a slow start falling behind 2-0, they scored four unanswered goals to take a 4-2 lead midway through the third period. We seemed destined for a Game 6.
Instead, everything crumbled right before the Blue Jackets’ eyes. They went from thinking Game 6 was coming to a morning flight out of Toronto the next day.
How did this happen? How come the Blue Jackets are home so soon? Simply put, they made critical mistakes at different times. Let’s review the five things that stood out as to why they are no longer competing for a Stanley Cup this season.
5 Costly Blue Jackets’ Mistakes
1. Blowing Big Lead(s)
Many are going to look at Game 5 when the Blue Jackets blew a 4-2 third period lead. While that is valid, this was an issue going back to the Toronto series. In Game 4 against the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets were up 3-0 late in the third period.
You know what happened next. They lost in overtime.
That was a worrisome sign even though they came back and shut Toronto out in Game 5. If they were going to make a long playoff run, they had to prioritize their game and shutting opponents down.
While the Blue Jackets did a great job of keeping the series close throughout, they suffered big moments in games where they blew a lead. This started back in Game 1.
With the score 2-1 Blue Jackets going into the third period, they allowed the tying goal on a bit of a fluky play. The puck went in off of Joonas Korpisalo’s pad. They went on to play five full periods after that.
That made it two out of three games where the Blue Jackets couldn’t hold a third period lead. They were known this season for being comfortable playing in one-goal games and not relenting. But in the bubble, that part of their game failed them at the worst possible time. They couldn’t recover in that Game 4. They couldn’t recover in Game 1. And they couldn’t recover in Game 5 either.
The playoffs are a different animal. The stakes are higher. The desperation is higher. Teams can come back at any point given the level of talent on the ice. The Blue Jackets stood back and the Lightning made them pay. The lesson here is simple. They have to do a better job locking things down late in games. They were good at it in the regular season. They need to get to a new level in the playoffs. Had they won those games, who knows where we’d be right now?
2. The Game 5 Freebie
You play all those minutes and your season in Game 5 ends like that? Ouch. It was supposed to be a simple pass. Instead, the Blue Jackets were left to wonder what just hit them.
David Savard had the puck on his stick in overtime. He sent a pass over to his partner Vladislav Gavrikov. The puck bounced away and right on the stick of Nikita Kucherov. Then 5OT hero Brayden Point was all alone in front of Korpisalo. It was no contest.
Tortorella all season has made mention of allowing the opposition freebies. That is high on the list of things that disgust him. Point’s winner was the ultimate freebie. As you can imagine, Tortorella was aggravated that this was how the series ended.
It’s an unfortunate play. But it’s the kind of play you can’t allow to happen in overtime in that part of the ice. A completed pass there and they’re playing on. The lesson here? Take care of the puck at all times and limit those kind of mistakes. This mistake ended the season.
3. Where Was the Leadership?
The Blue Jackets came into the bubble as one of the youngest teams in the league. With that, their leadership had to take charge. Seth Jones introduced himself to the land of the elite. Everyone else on their leadership team, well, it wasn’t that good.
Cam Atkinson missed some time with an injury. When he was in, he had some moments but nothing overwhelming. Nick Foligno played well in Game 5 but had plenty of rough stretches prior to that. Boone Jenner found himself on the bench in Game 5. Gus Nyquist was barely visible.
According to Tortorella, it wasn’t a matter of effort. It was a matter of finding goals. I asked Tortorella about the veteran leadership and what happened with them in the series.
“Jens (Boone Jenner), it just breaks my heart that I sat Jens,” Tortorella said. “He probably got eight or nine minutes in that last game. That’s a hard thing for me to do with a guy like that, with how hard he works. But there were some struggles in his game. It certainly wasn’t effort (related). But we needed some goals at certain times.”
Tortorella went on to say that they needed more out of Nyquist such as a big play or a goal. He also said Foligno was in the same situation. “It wasn’t for a lack of try. Sometimes they were trying too hard. I can live with that,” Tortorella said.
Teams that advance far into the playoffs get results from their leaders. Foligno, Jenner, Atkinson and Nyquist can and will learn from this experience. The lesson here? Learn from this shortcoming and get better from it. There’s no questioning the desire of these players. But the team needs results. We’ll discuss this more in part two, but this does point to a severe lack in the roster. They need help. Goal scoring was a huge issue with this team. Players have to find a way to score. The leaders especially have to set an example. It will be up to them to evaluate what went wrong and rectify it.
4. The After Effects of Losing in 5 OT’s
Simply put, the Blue Jackets had to win Game 1. There’s no way around it. Of all series that had an overtime game of that length, the winner of that game won their series 100% of the time. As soon as Point won the game, you could tell the weight of the world came off the Lightning.
For the Blue Jackets however, all that energy was spent and it resulted in a loss. Give them credit. They bounced back in Game 2 to even the series. But from an energy standpoint, the Lightning had the advantage and used Game 3 to build a series lead. They never looked back.
In Game 3, the Blue Jackets spent the final 45 minutes of the game skating in quick sand. They had no legs. The team anticipated having this come up at some point. It happened to come in a 1-1 series.
Losing that epic game eventually cost the Blue Jackets later. Had they won Game 1, there would have been some more room for error. But the effects of that loss were felt later in the series. It gave the Lightning the boost they needed.
5. Offensive Offense
In the end, the Blue Jackets didn’t score enough goals. That was the biggest takeaway from this series for me.
The goaltending? Check. Korpisalo finished with a .941 save percentage. He and Elvis Merzlikins have the crease sealed down.
The defense? Check. They held two of the highest scoring offenses to well below their season average in goals. With Jones and Zach Werenski anchoring them, that’s in good shape too.
But the offense? It’s truly offensive. While they have some nice pieces, they don’t have the high-end scorer. The most damaging loss was Artemi Panarin’s. He broke games on his own.
While Pierre-Luc Dubois is heading in that direction and Atkinson/Oliver Bjorkstrand can light the lamp in bunches, the rest of the roster just doesn’t have the necessary goal scoring you need to make a run. Just look at the teams who have advanced.
The Lightning have Point, Kucherov and Stamkos whenever he returns from injury. The Blue Jackets don’t have these caliber of players. The Bruins have David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. The Blue Jackets don’t yet have players of their stature.
Colorado has Nathan MacKinnon. We could go on. You see the point. There is a lack of skill on this team that must be addressed. We’ll tackle this in detail more in part two but for now, the Blue Jackets had to spend the season playing a defense first game. That will wear on players over a season.
The Blue Jackets made it very clear in their series against the Lightning that they need more offensive and power-play help in the offseason. For as good as the Blue Jackets are at 5-on-5, it’s amazing to consistently see them struggle on the power play. They’ve tried many things to get them going. But consistently, what they’ve tried hasn’t worked. No one is afraid of them.
To a man, every single player on the Columbus Blue Jackets has more to give from a goal scoring standpoint. But they also need help. If there’s going to be a noticeable improvement in 2020-21, everyone has to do their part. The players have to find ways to score. The coaching needs to put the players in position to score. And management needs to make the right moves to bring in more offense. You can bet the team is looking. But as Kekalainen said on Friday, there’s a lot involved for a trade to happen. It doesn’t just come together quickly.
Still, the offense must improve. If this series told the Blue Jackets anything, it’s that they have quite the deficit to make up if they want to be a true contender.
Seth Jones said it best. The Blue Jackets were on the wrong end of most of the big moments. That was too much to overcome. The Lightning got their revenge and the Blue Jackets are done for this season.
These were costly mistakes. You can’t make these kind of mistakes against a good team and expect to get good results. While there is a lot to celebrate with this team, the way they exited these playoffs is a bitter pill to swallow. They should still be playing. But thanks to killer mistakes, they will watch the rest of the playoffs from home.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our end of season series where we’ll take our first look into the offseason including potential moves and the draft. Fair warning, the environment is just right for there to be plenty of fireworks throughout the league. The Blue Jackets will be in the midst of that.