The Columbus Blue Jackets became the second team to be eliminated this season, following the Calgary Flames’ early exit at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks the night before. They were eliminated in five games by the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a match-up that even Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said “didn’t feel like a 4-1 series.”
So what were the three key factors that played into the Blue Jackets’ early exit as a team that had a 108-point regular season and finished fourth overall in the NHL? Let’s take a look.
Lack of Experience
The Blue Jackets had 10 players make their NHL postseason debuts in the series. Seven debuted in Game 1, including defensemen Zach Werenski, Gabriel Carlsson and Scott Harrington, and forwards Alexander Wennberg, William Karlsson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson. Forward Sonny Milano made his debut in Game 3 on Sunday, while Lukas Sedlak and Markus Nutivaara made their playoff debuts in Game 4 on Tuesday. Overall, their 20-man lineup for Game 1 was the youngest of all 16 teams in the postseason at 25.7 years old.
Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson said it best after one of the final games of the regular season: “You can’t mimic a playoff game, you just can’t—the intensity, knowing that every play can be the difference in the game, for that game, for the entire series,” Johnson said to FanRag Sports on April 2. “It’s something that the young guys are just going to have to go through.”
The mental aspect was one of the key areas of the game that the Penguins won every time. Down by two goals? Not the time for the 2016 Stanley Cup champions to panic. Multi-goal lead? Time to keep their foot on the gas pedal and make it more.
Johnson said that the mental game is the toughest part of the playoff grind.
“You have to be mentally tough to stay the course,” Johnson said after the Blue Jackets were eliminated.
It also probably didn’t help that the Blue Jackets lost 10 of their last 12 games to close out the regular season and postseason. Postseason success largely depends on getting hot at the right time, and limping into the playoffs was probably not the best frame of mind for the team to be in knowing they would be facing the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Goaltending Battle
The Penguins unexpectedly lost starter Matt Murray during Game 1 warm-ups and were forced to go with 32-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury for the series. Though he was considered the team’s back-up, Fleury has spent the majority of his career as a No. 1 netminder and was more than up to the task. He capped off the first round with 49 saves en route to the Penguins’ series-clinching win in Game 5.
Johnson said he and the Blue Jackets were not at all surprised by Fleury’s timely saves and overall performance.
“[Fleury] has a lot of experience and has won a Stanley Cup before; it’s not like he’s some no-name goaltender going in there,” Johnson said. “He’s had a lot of success and he’s earned all of it. I’m not surprised he was able to come in and play great for them.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky struggled all series. The anticipated Vezina Trophy winner for the NHL’s best goaltender this season, his final numbers were the worst of the 2017 playoffs with an 0.882 save percentage and a 3.88 goals-against average in five games. That’s significantly different from his season numbers, which were a 0.931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average across 63 games.
His play left several wondering if he was playing injured, or if it was simply something mental that was impacting his play. Bobrovsky uncharacteristically gave up huge rebounds, bobbled the puck and overall looked uncomfortable in net for the entire series. His career playoff statistics are less than stellar, so one has to wonder if postseason pressure is something Bobrovsky has a hard time dealing with.
No one ever wants to see their captain and one of their top two defensemen injured. But, the feeling of dread becomes greater when it happens right before a crucial elimination game. The Blue Jackets lost 19-year-old defenseman and Calder Cup finalist Zach Werenski for a significant portion of Game 3—including the critical overtime—and all of Games 4 and 5. His partner, Seth Jones, was still able to hold his own, but it was hard to deny that the Blue Jackets didn’t miss their blue line anchor.
Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno, who was spotted sporting a boot and was unable to finish warm-ups ahead of Game 5, sat out the team’s final playoff game. His leadership on the ice was sorely missed after his play drove a lot of his teammates’ efforts in Game 4. As one of the few Blue Jackets with playoff experience, Foligno’s presence was missed in the room, on the bench and on the ice.
Yes, the Penguins also played without two crucial players in Murray and defenseman Kris Letang. But overall, the Penguins showed that they were the better team, had the experience from their previous Stanley Cup-winning season and keeping their core intact and had the better goaltending performance—all of which led them past the Blue Jackets and into the second round.
However, the Blue Jackets have a bright future ahead of them. The youngest team in the NHL gained valuable experience throughout the course of the season and learned what playing in the postseason is like. The overall team culture and mindset changed, which was inspired by coach Tortorella and captain Nick Foligno learning how to handle the captaincy. They have a lot to be proud of and the records they set—personally and as a team—this season, but expect their premature playoff exit to inspire their offseason work and light a fire under them heading into the 2017-18 season.