‘The job’s not done’: Blue Jackets ready for next playoff challenge

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ shocking Round 1 sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning began on the wrong foot.

Down 3-0 after the first period of Game 1, the Blue Jackets found themselves in the dressing room wondering if their season was going to go out with a stomping from the Presidents’ Trophy winners. There was no yelling from head coach John Tortorella or inspirational speech from captain Nick Foligno. They just had a belief that they were better than they had showed after 20 minutes and they needed to get back to their strengths.

“I don’t think any of us envisioned us making that kind of a comeback, but because we had that mindset and then we start smelling blood and getting that game going, it took off from there,” Foligno told Pro Hockey Talk recently.

(Tortorella already said what needed to be said in his pre-game talk to the team.)

Foligno’s goal nine minutes into the second period would start the memorable comeback en route to an opening game victory. Two days later they would take a surprising 2-0 lead in the series and the questions about their failure to close out the Washington Capitals in the same situation a year ago were at the forefront.

What happened in 2018 didn’t dominate the pre-Game 3 discussion in the Blue Jackets’ dressing room, but it wasn’t completely forgotten. The focus remained the same, as did the belief they could continue to play the way they had been playing through two games.

“For us, it was let’s make sure whatever happens in this game, we’re playing our best and then we’ll answer whatever we need to answer in Game 4,” Foligno said. “I just loved that no matter what was going on in that game, no one thought anything different other than we’re going to win this.”

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Win they did — an upset like no other: sweeping the NHL’s best in Round 1. It was another step in the right direction for the franchise, one that began with a gamble in February by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen with his approach to the trade deadline. 

The GMs bold moves — adding Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid — had a positive impact in the dressing room.

“I think it was really appreciated by the guys that have been here a while,” Foligno said. “When you looked around the room and the core group that’s been here for at least these past six, seven years, it was a chance. It was an opportunity that he felt strongly enough that he wasn’t hurting our future but he felt like we had a chance to really try and do something here. You’ve got to be in a good situation to have that happen and we feel proud that we’ve done that and given our organization a chance to be in this position as players and then also the confidence from our management to allow us to do that.”

Foligno’s main message in the wave of good feelings following the series win was simple: “The job’s not done.”

But while the Blue Jackets’ still have work to be do, their progress this season has been felt around the Columbus. In their 18 seasons in existence, they had never won a Stanley Cup playoff series. There were many years of falling short of expectations, but there’s been a different feeling around the city of late.

“Now it’s three years in a row we’ve made the playoffs,” Foligno said. “It’s not just a flash in the pan anymore. I think people really believe we are a good team and we’ve become a better organization. We still don’t have the respect that we need and that’s just got to be earned; it’s not anything other than earning it and by winning and consistently being a good team. You can just see the persona around the city of our team and how much people love our team. 

“After [Game 4], my god, it was insane. You had people crying in the stands. It meant that much to people here because of the years of just disappointment or not quite getting off the right foot, the years it was supposed to get better [and] it didn’t. I think now they feel like there’s a real foundation here. There’s a real growth in that it’s not just one year it’s a good team and the next year it’s a struggle. It’s every year now we’ve been a good team and now they really have something to hang their hats on as a fan base. Now we’re proud to try and deliver that.”

Foligno acknowledged that next year could be different as the futures of potential unrestricted free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus remain uncertain. But those are concerns for another day. The Blue Jackets enjoyed their sweep of the Lightning but have already turned their attentions to facing the Boston Bruins in Round 2 (Live stream). 

With nine days between series, Tortorella obviously wants his players to retain their sharpness, so on Monday he organized an intrasquad scrimmage which attracted nearly 6,000 fans to Nationwide Arena. Foligno used his downtime to keep a close eye on the Bruins-Maple Leafs series when he wasn’t being “super dad” to his three young children.

There’s always talk about rest versus rust this time of year, and while players certainly welcome the time off to heal up from various bumps and bruises suffered during the season, Foligno sees it from a different angle, one that’s specific to their experience.

“I think this actually benefited us because of the magnitude a little bit of how long it’s been coming to try to get a series win here,” he said. “It’s given us a chance to really enjoy it with the fans and with the people around here, and then lock it away and get re-focused and have some time to be able to do that. I wonder if it’s a Game 7 win maybe it’s good because you just roll into the next series, but I think there’s still so much emotion and so many things going.

“We really believe we still have better hockey to play. That’s how we temper it. We haven’t done anything. We’re proud for the organization, but one series win doesn’t do anything and we’re hungry for more and we know it’s going to get harder, so it’s a great challenge for us to see where we stand and we’re looking forward to that.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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