Steve Gorten sgorten
Coach John Tortorella sensed something was wrong with the Blue Jackets on Friday not long after opening faceoff of a 2-1 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The biggest clue: Two of his “mainstays,” defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, were struggling, and continued to do so all game.
“When I see that, I’m saying, ‘Something’s going on with our club, where it’s just one of those games,’” Tortorella said after practice Saturday at the Ice Haus. “And I felt it right from the first few minutes.”
Tortorella added, “I don’t even want the answer as far as what happened because it was the whole group,” and then speculated his players “just didn’t have much in the tank due to some games we played.” Friday marked the Jackets’ third game in four days and fifth in the past eight.
The team had racked up 50-plus shots in three consecutive games before Friday.
“Hopefully, they’ll bring the proper energy and the proper way of playing” Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nationwide Arena, Tortorella said, and added, “I do trust the team that they will.”
Sunday’s game be the second of four consecutive against Metropolitan Division opponents, kicking off a week that will feature games at the Devils and Flyers on Tuesday and Thursday and a home game against the Blackhawks on Saturday.
After Friday’s loss, which kept the team one point short of the second wild-card in the Eastern Conference, Tortorella declared, “We better not be nervous” for the final 24 games of the regular season.
On Saturday, he elaborated on that remark.
“I trust the team, but I think a lot of guys on the team haven’t been in a situation where there’s expectations, and now there’s a fight ahead of you here as far as getting in (to the playoffs),” Tortorella said. “Last year, we kind of cruise and play really good hockey, but we were given up for dead before the season even started. It’s a lot easier playing in that type of situation.”
The Jackets remain “a confident group,” captain Nick Foligno said, and there’s comfort in knowing “we’re a team that’s going to control our own fate.”
“We put ourselves in this situation. We understand that fully,” he said. “But we know we can get out of it. We’ve just got to grind away. Another opportunity (Sunday).”
The Jackets played the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion Penguins tough in two matchups in Pittsburgh in December, losing 3-2 in a shootout Dec. 21 and 5-4 in another shootout six days later.
“It’s going to be an intense game,” rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois said, and added, “If we want to be in the playoffs, we’re going to have to beat good teams.”
Tortorella acknowledged that the Jackets played well the first two meetings against the Penguins, but a quality performance alone won’t be enough Sunday.
“I always tell you guys I coach a team on how we play. I’m going to continue doing that,” Tortorella said. “But when you get into the 20s (number of games left), you’ve got to find a way to get the results, too. Results are the most important thing when you’re in our situation and with the games dwindling.
“I do think we’ll be ready to play,” he continued. “I do trust our team in the way they assess themselves as far as what happened (Friday) night. So, we’ll get ready to play. I want to get them out of the building here as quickly as possible (Saturday) because I want their energy in that game (Sunday).”
Tortorella said the final seven weeks of the regular season will be “a really good time for us to evaluate the people we have here,” and how players handle the pressure of a playoff chase will be telling.
“Do we embrace it, accept the challenge and look at it as an opportunity? Or do we get nervous? I don’t have the answer,” Tortorella said. “You have to do it as a group, but you find out (about) the individuals within that group and how they respond to these types of situations.
“We talk about mental toughness, handling situations, resiliency…we’re going to have it every night for the rest of the year here,” he added. “I’m anxious to see how some guys handle it.”
In addition to veteran players, Tortorella said, the onus is on some of the Jackets’ rising young players to provide leadership.
“So, it’s not just leaning on the guys that are older,” he said. “We won’t get through it the proper way if the young guys don’t take a step, continue to take a step and accept the responsibility. … It has to come from within everybody.”