TORONTO – “Toronto was really good. We sucked.”
Send file. Lift feet. Crack beer.
The Blue Jackets head coach had zero interest in breaking down a lacklustre showing that suddenly has his bunch all knotted up at one game apiece with the Maple Leafs, convincing 3-0 winners Tuesday evening.
In a press conference that didn’t last much longer than his mid-game chew-out of top centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, Tortorella thrice said that his team “sucked” and that Toronto was “really good.”
Then he walked away in his tracksuit and began plotting for some Game 3 revenge.
One man’s burn-the-tape performance is another’s play-it-on-repeat masterpiece.
Sheldon Keefe’s first postseason victory as an NHL head coach was about as convincing as it gets.
A little right-wing flip in the top six and a little pressure to crack the fortress resulted in a flood of momentum.
“We were just focused,” Keefe said.
The big guns came to play and stayed patient through what could’ve been a frustrating goaltending performance by Joonas Korpisalo, reminding Leafs Nation that the twin engines of great teams run up the middle.
Does doubt crawl into a star player’s mind when everything they’ve thrown at the opponent’s net for nearly five periods gets kicked away, gloved down or ends in a ping?
“Certainly, those thoughts can creep in, but I think as a team when we’re playing like that, we have so much belief in each other that eventually it’s going to pay off. We’re gonna break through,” captain John Tavares said. “You’re just kinda staying in the moment, waiting for the next opportunity.”
Auston Matthews, centring a new-look top line with Mitch Marner to his right, finally busted headstand artist Korpisalo’s shutout streak 56 saves and 96 minutes deep into the series by deftly tipping a Zach Hyman feed off the rush.
“Everything is tight out there, and goals are hard to come by,” said Matthews, who also threw a couple hits. “It was nice to get that one and kind of jump-start a nice push.”
Then Tavares capped off a stellar eight-shot effort by foiling Korpisalo on a breakaway.
In both instances, Columbus’s top defensive pairing took a minus and Zach Werenski got caught deep on a rush of his own, retreating behind the play with his face pointed at his own net, the red lamp alight by the time he got there.
This is Maple Leafs hockey at its best — speedy, space-creating, and executing on great looks.
Toronto dominated play 5-on-5, outshooting the Jackets 27-10, doubling up their foes in scoring chances 26-13, and tripling them up in high-danger opportunities 9-3 (per naturalstattrick.com).
The more wide open, the better for the boys in blue and white.
By storming in Matthews- and Tavares-led waves, the Leafs were able to gloss over a concerning 0-for-6 performance on the power-play in this series. And a lead gave Keefe the luxury of throwing out Kyle Clifford’s energy line more often than when he was chasing Game 1.
The vaunted Columbus forecheck never posed a threat because by the time the Jackets dumped the puck in, they were so tired, they needed to change.
“I just think we didn’t have it tonight. That’s really the difference,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “You can dissect it any way you want, but it ultimately came down to we didn’t play a very good game. It’s unacceptable.”
Toronto, meanwhile, enjoyed a string of positive developments.
Rookie Nick Robertson drew a penalty and didn’t hesitate to let a few pucks rip on the second power-play unit. Frederik Andersen stopped all 21 shots he faced for a third career postseason shutout and improved his series save percentage to an NHL-best .982. Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, and Alexander Kerfoot all got their names into the boxscore.
Most important: Toronto’s will matched its skill, and thus hinted at what’s possible when there is an urgency to churn legs, draw penalties and battle for second chances.
“Our guys brought it to another level tonight from a competitive standpoint,” said Keefe, who was closely monitoring the mood on the bench during the drought.
“The goalie was a big difference for them, but I really liked how our guys just took a drink of water and got ready for the next shift and stayed with it.”
Apply enough pressure, and the dam will break.
“There were certainly more people in front than the first game,” said Korpisalo, the best Blue Jacket on the ice.
The heart-in-your-throat scene of seeing Jake Muzzin being stretchered off and driven to a hospital after a frightening Dubois cross-check — and the status of the top shutdown defenceman’s health — will no doubt be the topic of greatest concern for this city’s hockey team as action rolls on.
When these sides do meet again, for a third installment of run-and-gun and ground-and-pound, Toronto will try to replicate Game 2 and Columbus will attempt to throw it back to Game 1.
As Keefe notes, each game takes on a personality of its own.
This one was all Leafs — flash, dash and keep the puck in the fun zone.
“We expect them to make some adjustments,” Tavares said, “but I liked the way we were in sync and connected.”
A best-of-three starts Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.
Not sucking will be of utmost importance.