Showtime hat trick from Dubois pushes Maple Leafs to brink of elimination

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie discuss the Toronto Maple Leafs’ tough loss in Game 3 and how Game 4 could be a huge moment for the young core.

TORONTO — Maybe it was a dose of reverse psychology.

In the hours leading up to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ intent to upset the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in a sprint series of 100 per cent away games, coach John Tortorella said publicly that his roster was devoid of “game-breakers,” that the blue-collar, we-before-me shot-blockers simply weren’t build top-heavy that way. (You know, like the Maple Leafs are.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we present Pierre-Luc Dubois.

All the 22-year-old centreman did Thursday night was peer up at the scoreboard, notice his club was down 3-0 to one of hockey’s most talent-rich rosters, and then go out and score a trio of pretty goals — including Game 3’s overtime winner at the 78:24 mark, pushing the Leafs to the brink of elimination.

P-L-D! A goal for each initial. The first hat trick in Columbus Blue Jackets playoff history. In a 4-3 comeback OT victory.

“If he wants to be a difference-maker, a game-changer, one of the best players in the league, he has all the capabilities, all the tools. Tonight, he showed it,” said winger Cam Atkinson, after tossing Dubois the club’s player-of-the-game chapeau.

“It’s not always going to go your way, but it’s those moments where you capitalize on your opportunities. Big-time players step up in big-time crucial situations. Sure enough, hat trick. Put us all on his back. It’s good to see.”

That depends on which bench you sit.

In this city, they’re ready to paint Dubois’ tour de force Game 3 performance as yet another chapter in a tragic novel choke-full of disappointing collapses.

Sheldon Keefe said the Leafs “got what we deserved.” So did Columbus.

The gutsy response of Dubois — and, by extension, the Blue Jackets — can also be seen as part of the Stanley Cup tournament’s century-old lineage of stepping up when things get tough.

In one of his more thoughtful moments this summer, Tortorella — who memorably tore the accent off Dubois midway through Game 2’s loss — spoke about the strange and illuminating effects of the post-season spotlight.

“I have been surprised where guys shrink, and then other guys, you just say, ‘Man, I didn’t expect that he’d be standing this tall. He’s not afraid of this,’ ” Tortorella said during reset camp.

“And that’s where it is. This is an added pressure. And some guys just want it, and they revel in it. Other guys shrink. So, I’ve been surprised both ways.

“That’s mental, to me. That’s not physical. That’s a mental toughness, to be able to handle these types of situations. That’s when you find out who’s who.”

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In his own way, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas stressed something similar heading into what’s shaping up to be the tightest and most compelling of the eight qualification-round series.

“The talent level of the group has never been in question,” Dubas said from the bubble. “It’s been the maturing and mindset of group that we know we have to take strides in.”

Dubois and Tortorella both downplayed the viral clip from Game 2 of the coach hollering at his young top-line centre to wake the f— up, and Dubois spitting some venom right back at his bench boss. But, as evidenced by Game 3, the veteran coach knows when to pull a goalie and push a skater.

“People make a bigger deal out of than it should be. We’re coaching our players,” Tortorella said post-win. “I’m not so sure that had anything to do with tonight. I just think Luc played a really good hockey game and had some great concentration.”

Dubois shook off Game 2’s poor performance and said he didn’t need a Jack Adams winner barking in his ear to jump-start his batteries.

“If you’re lacking motivation, I don’t think you’re in the right spot or playing the right sport,” Dubois said. “Everybody was motivated tonight. We went down 3-0, just kept believing.”

The ice titled the Leafs’ way when Dubois’ top line hopped the boards, and the kid from Ste-Agathe-des-Monts used his speed and his out-sized frame (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) to drive the net and take advantage of a depleted Toronto defence, worse off without Jake Muzzin on its shutdown duo.

Dubois snapped five shots and beat Frederik Andersen on three of them.

“PL didn’t miss,” said Seth Jones, scorer of Columbus’s other goal.

“He’s strong as an ox down in the corners. His puck protection is off the charts. He’s a handful for any defenceman, no matter how big you are or how quick you are. He always finds a way to muscle you off, hold you off with one arm and make a play.

“He can match up with any centreman in the league when he’s on his game, and we love having him on our side.”

And it’s only because of gutsy drafting that they do.

To think: The same week Dubois plays OT hero to swing the pendulum in a critical elimination series, Jesse Puljujarvi, the forward everyone expected Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen to draft third overall in 2016, re-signed with Karpat.

Less than 21 hours from Dubois freezing the clock at Scotiabank Arena, he and the Blue Jackets will be at it again, with a shot to end the Maple Leafs’ season on Friday night.

But that doesn’t mean Tortorella won’t let the kids whoop it up a little tonight.

“I want ’em to have a ball right now. That’s why we play,” Tortorella said.

“It was a really good games by both teams. It’s too bad fans weren’t in the building. I want ’em to enjoy themselves in the proper way. I trust them. They’ll be ready to play tomorrow.”

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