In the midst of their best regular-season showing in the 17-year history of the franchise, the Columbus Blue Jackets avoided long losing streaks and clinched a berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 11 games remaining on the schedule.
But over those 11 games, the Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points) won just three times, including in the finale at the Toronto Maple Leafs, played themselves out of contention for The President’s Trophy and the Metropolitan Division title to earn a first-round series against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but that has not changed coach John Tortorella’s opinion of his players.
“I’m not worried about this team,” Tortorella said. “I’m really not. I trust the team. This is new to them. This is new to them. Clinching a playoff spot with 11 games left, did I handle it right as a coach? I don’t know. I really haven’t been involved in that. A number of these players haven’t either, so no matter what happened, I still feel we’ll be ready to play.”
One of those individual things that Tortorella wanted to get going, particularly late in the season, was the play of prolific scoring forward Cam Atkinson.
After a decrease in shifts and time on ice, Atkinson tallied the game-winning short-handed goal and played 23 shifts in the season-ending victory over the Maple Leafs after scoring just once in the previous 11 games.
“Cam not only gets back offensively, but concentrated on the other side of the puck,” Tortorella said. “He’s been brutal the past little while, but it’s so important for him to feel he contributed to the team before we get to the real stuff.
“That stuff’s huge. That line played well. Those are the things, as a coach, that you’re thinking about. It’s always important. The results, you want it, but at this point, when you can’t move up or down, the other things are important to me.”
In addition to Atkinson’s play, the Blue Jackets got a boost from their penalty killing unit against the Maple Leafs. After killing off a double-minor early in the game, Columbus twice more kept Toronto off the scoreboard with a man in the penalty box.
And forward Matt Calvert had a hand in the success of the penalty killing because of his aggressiveness, which led to an assist on Atkinson’s short-handed goal.
“He had some other chances, too,” Tortorella said of Calvert. “Him and Bill (Karlsson) have been very good. That’s a tough power play. Six minutes in the first period, that was a big part of our game. It’s nice to see him score a goal.”
While learning about the team as a whole and certain line combinations, the Blue Jackets’ bench boss got critical insight into what one of his youngest players, 20-year old Gabriel Carlsson, is made of.
The first-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2015, Carlsson tallied an assist and three shots on goal, which were positives for Tortorella.
“The most important thing I like about his game is just his demeanor,” Tortorella said. “He’s not afraid. He’s not afraid to step up. He’s not afraid to make a pass into the middle of the ice. He’s not a tentative player. I think he’s very confident, and to me, that’s the most important thing. When we’re searching for our six to start Wednesday, that’s the most important thing I was looking for.”