‘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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    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

    Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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    TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

    The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

    The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

    The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

    The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.