TORONTO — The Columbus Blue Jackets’ successful playoff series against Toronto was a microcosm of their tumultuous, up-and-down season.
Plagued by injuries to key players in the regular season – including both goaltenders at different times – Columbus pieced together lines with rookies and managed to get within striking distance, earning a No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference qualifying series when play resumed after the coronavirus pause.
Inside the bubble in Toronto, the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs traded shutouts in the first two games. Game 3 saw Columbus come back from a 3-0 deficit to win in overtime. Then they blew a 3-0 lead in the final four minutes of Game 4 and eventually lost in overtime to set up a decisive Game 5.
Then, with the series momentum seemingly leaning in Toronto’s favor, Columbus shut out the Leafs 3-0 Sunday night to advance to the round of 16 and play Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team the Blue Jackets swept in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
Quite a ride so far.
”Stretches we played really well,” coach John Tortorella said of the qualifying series. ”You know, as you keep moving on, the hockey gets more into a grind. We’re playing Tampa, a very good hockey club with lots of weapons.
”We’re going to have to get better in a lot of things, not just defense, but we have to make some more plays, we’ve got to have our forecheck better,” he said. ”So as you move along here and teams are starting to get knocked out here and you start playing these other teams, the game is going to be better so we have to join in.”
The Lightning are suddenly facing injury issues. Star defenseman Victor Hedman went down with an apparent right ankle injury in a 4-1 robin-robin-closing loss to Philadelphia on Saturday, and captain Steven Stamkos has yet to play since sustaining a lower body injury last month. It’s unclear if either will be available for Game 1.
Tortorella said his players didn’t get down after blowing the big lead in the last four minutes of Game 4 and then going down in overtime on an Auston Matthews goal.
”We were confident in the way we’re playing,” Tortorella said. ”We didn’t want that to happen (in Game 4). (Stuff) happens, I guess. But right from the get-go as we started preparing for this game, we knew how we were playing, we just wanted to get back to our game as quickly as possible when we started Game 5.
Joonas Korpisalo stopped 33 shots for the Blue Jackets after being pulled for Elvis Merzlikins before the Blue Jackets went on to win in overtime in Game 3. Merzlikins got the start in Game 4 and was solid until the late flurry of Toronto goals.
Merzlikins was listed as unable to play in Game 5, giving Korpisalo the start and he responded with another shutout. There was no word on Merzlikins’ condition or whether he’ll be able to play Tuesday,
”I think we felt confident coming into the game, and obviously in Game 4 we kind of lost ourselves for a little bit, but we felt confident about where our game was at,” said defenseman Zach Weresnki, who opened the scoring for Columbus on Sunday. ”So we didn’t even have to get settled in, we knew how we had to play and how we had to execute our game plan.”
The Blue Jackets contained Toronto’s high-octane offense, limiting it to just 19 shots through two periods and 33 overall Sunday, two nights after allowing 53.