With five minutes left in Friday night’s Game 4 it was all falling into place for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Leading the high-powered Maple Leafs 3-0 in an elimination game, the Blue Jackets had the hub hosts on the ropes and seemed on the way to another huge playoff upset. The hardest part seemed to be in the rear view mirror. Columbus had survived a second period push when the Leafs held an edge in shots (16-13), 5-on-5 scoring chances (7-6) and high danger opportunities (2-0). Toronto’s expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 in the second frame was 65.63, and yet Columbus scored the only goal and were up 2-0 after 40 minutes.
With just under six minutes to go in the third, Boone Jenner scored to increase the lead to three and that should have been what buried the Leafs.
And then history happened.
“I just think we obviously sat back,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said the morning after. “It wasn’t what went wrong, we just allowed a team to get some energy off of one goal and just didn’t have that push back we needed. A couple of unfortunate bounces with empty nets and that’s the difference in the game. It’s unfortunate because we played a really good hockey game up until that point.”
Columbus was doing everything they’d hoped. They were frustrating Toronto’s lineup of elite shooters, making it hard for them to get the puck to the middle for the best opportunities. Rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins, starting his first post-season game after coming on in relief in Game 3, had made 57 consecutive saves without allowing a goal across the two games and had settled right in. Toronto had only five shots in the first 15 minutes of the third period.
At 16:03 of the third and with the goalie pulled for a Hail Mary attempt, William Nylander scored to give the Leafs a glimmer of hope, although that felt like a parcipitation ribbon goal — just happy to not get shutout. Fifty-one seconds later John Tavares scored a beauty under the bar. Now, suddenly, it was a one-goal difference and a comeback could be completed with one lucky bounce, which Toronto got when Pierre-Luc Dubois’ empty net shot was caught in the outside of the net instead of going in. What were the odds of Columbus’ best player in the series missing in that moment?
And of course, Toronto tied it in the final minute, then won it in overtime, becoming the first team in playoff history to blow a three-goal lead and lose one night, then rally from a three-goal deficit to win the next.
Columbus was that close to winning this series and having a few days off until starting their next. Now, they have to regroup in a day and try to fend off the Leafs’ potent — and now re-energized — attack all over again for 60 minutes on Sunday. How does a team recover from being so close to a series win, and blowing it in such shocking fashion?
“Every day is a new opportunity to learn something,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “It’s a tight series. We’ve seen two pretty good comebacks in the last two games. It’s a great series in my opinion. It’s a battle and just have to get ready for Sunday because it’s another one there.
“Nobody expected this to be easy.”
Yes, Toronto was able to rebound from its own blown three-goal lead in Game 3, but it took nothing short of a miracle to pull off. Columbus’ situation is similar, but different in that they had this thing closed out. They had the upset in their hand. They may even have started thinking about the next round a little. And now, very quickly after such a huge letdown, they have to regain a confidence and mindset that brought them so close to an impressive series win.
Unlike Toronto, the Blue Jackets probably don’t have the runway to be second-best for much of Game 5, nor the spread of offensive weapons to pull off the four-minute flurry Toronto just did. Columbus must start Game 5 with the same intensity and team-wide commitment they’ve had throughout. These are pros of course, but that will be the mental challenge on Sunday.
“There’s things you always want back, even in wins,” Foligno said. “You can’t dwell on things. It’s how you respond to adversity that’s going to allow you to have success. Especially in the playoffs. If there’s anything we’ve learned, that’s what makes good teams great in the playoffs — they respond the right way. I have full confidence our team will respond the right way.
“Our group’s resilient…this isn’t going to faze us. There was an upbeat group at breakfast today.”
That resilience will be put to the test, especially if defenceman Zach Werenski is either unable to go, or slowed by injury. Werenski, a huge part of Columbus’ success to this point, did not take a shift in the final half of the third period or at all in OT. Kekalainen had no update on Werenski’s status for Game 5.
With the series on the line for both teams in Sunday’s do-or-die, Toronto would seem to have all the momentum. They were buzzing down the stretch and in overtime, where they held a 14-7 shot advantage, and their best players had an extra jump that wasn’t always there earlier. There’s no excuse for the Leafs to come out flat.
But Columbus? How do you recover from such a collapse, in an elimination game no less? Comebacks are the theme of this series so it’d be foolhardy to rule them out if they fell behind early, but we’ll get an idea of where this team is at mentally shortly after puck drop when we see what kind of push back they can bring, or if the Leafs are in total control.
It’s hard to think this loss isn’t weighing on the Blue Jackets players today. They’re human after all. There’s got to be a sour taste on Saturday, and somehow they’ve got to put it back together again by tomorrow night.
“The difference is going to be the team that wants it more,” Foligno said about Game 5. “I think you’ve seen both teams at their best of what they bring. For us, I think it’s going to be to try to get to that game faster than them and really that’s the difference in this series.
“We can’t live in the past.”