John, Jarmo and Ryan. Whether they knew it or not, they were to be the starring cast for the Blue Jackets 10 years ago.

It was them, one from the bench, one from a suite atop and one helping bring Seth Jones in from Nashville that helped raise the expectation and trajectory for a team that long dwelled in the league’s basement.

Perhaps that’s why John Tortorella, who praised his team mightily following the club’s game four loss to go down 3-1 in the series, was visibly upset with the team’s elimination on Wednesday.

“I love our team,” Tortorella said when asked about his team’s resiliency following a 2-1 loss on Monday and heading into a do-or-die scenario. “I like the way they’ve handled themselves the entire time in the bubble. Certainly we got some work to do, but we just got to look to tomorrow and get ready for our next game. That’s all you can do.”

The upbeat approach to defeat on Monday, didn’t carry over into Wednesday following elimination.

“You know what guys, I’m not going to get into the touchy-feely stuff and the moral victories. You guys be safe.”

That was all the head coach cared to say, ending his post-game press conference after two questions and 56 seconds. Tortorella’s post-game quotes or lack-thereof have been well-documented through the years, particularly after a loss. But one has to wonder what exactly was the trigger for his latest display. In the qualifying round, Torts declined to comment in game two, answering nearly every question the same: “We sucked, Toronto was really good.”

That, to his credit, was an awfully played game by the Jackets. The post-game comments were to be expected.

But, Wednesday was a game in which the Jackets owned the ice in the second period, outshooting its opponent 24-8 and answered a pair of Tampa goals in the first 6:39 with four-straight before the Lightning found a way to even the score in regulation. The result, while disappointing, offered little for the coach or his team to feel slighted or cheated about. Might it be that this Columbus team, showed signs that they’re closer to being a contender than ever before?

A year ago, the Blue Jackets stunned the hockey world with a sweep of the then 128-point Lightning in the first round. They’d fall one round later to the Bruins, en route to a Conference championship and Final appearance. The team lost star players Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency, but still managed an 81-point season in the COVID-shortened season, the same points percentage as Toronto with over $18 million less in salary spent.

It’s a team that sucked life out of the high-skilled Maple Leaf offense and kept the Lightning skill from full potency for much of the series including four overtime’s in game one. It’s a team that’s making a steady rise to be an Eastern Conference power. Something Tortorella has experience coaching.

Pierre-Luc Dubois burst on a national stage with a strong playoff including a superb series versus the hometown Leafs. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are easily the best defensive unit in the NHL and due to the pause, entered the postseason healthy. And, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins are under team control for the next two seasons at just over $6 million and might just be the best goalie tandem in the league.

It might not have looked like a year ago, but the Jackets have the looks of for real. Like Tampa post-2003 for real and New York in 2012 kind of real. They’re close to breaking out and might just have the ingredients for a little…a lot more.

And maybe that’s what stings the most for the Jack Adams finalist. He knows it’s for real. And every year you don’t now, is another year lost.

 

About The Author

Mad about being born into a Mets household during the Yankees dynasty, Neal McHale turned to something different after the 2000 World Series. He got NHL 2001 as a gift and it helped pioneer a hockey love affair. His first sportswriting gig was covering the historically-gritty Big East Conference. Since 2015, he's been with Inside Hockey covering the NHL.

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