Scott Hartnell played 10:28 last night and very sparingly after the third period started. Sonny Milano, entering the lineup for Matt Calvert after Calvert’s suspension, played 6:46 last night, including no time on the ice from the third period on - he played 9 total shifts in an overtime game. Brandon Saad played just 2 minutes in overtime despite having the 5th best Corsi number of any of the forwards last night. Sam Gagner played 13 minutes.
Meanwhile, Cam Atkinson played 25 minutes. Nick Foligno played 24 minutes, William Karlsson (who got absolutely shredded by Malkin’s line to the tune of a 30% CF%) played 20+ minutes.
This does not yet take into account that Markus Nutivaara has been inexplicably benched despite playing 66 games in Columbus this season for Gabriel Carlsson, a player who came to North America just two weeks ago. Scott Harrington, widely considered the 8th defenseman for much of the season, has also seen the lineup more than experienced players like Nutivaara or Kyle Quincey.
Head Coach John Tortorella’s other decisions have been baffling as well. After ranking 22nd in the NHL in hits in the regular season (averaging 20.17 hits per game), the Columbus Blue Jackets have gotten away from the game plan that made them a 108 point team in the first place, often pinching in for a hit (as evidenced by the fact that the team has averaged 44.33 hits per game this postseason) at the expense of defensive coverages. I have lost track of the number of times that a defenseman has been out of place and led to a two on one rush for the Penguins.
This is backed up looking at the heat map for Game Three last night (via NaturalStatTrick): look at the location of where the Penguins are getting shots from. They are being allowed to take shot after shot from high danger areas with no corrections or adjustments in the defensive scheme.
Basically, my point is this: Torts’ strategy in this postseason has gotten away from what made this team a 108 point team in the regular season in the first place. His coaching and lineup changes have put the team in a near-insurmountable hole three games into the postseason.
To be clear, I am not calling for Torts to be fired. I do not believe he should lose his job over the coaching mistakes in the postseason. I do believe, however, that there is room for criticism of Tortorella, and much of it is deserved. And if John Tortorella cannot recognize and rectify his mistakes, tough questions will have to be asked about his future. He has earned next season - but there are certainly questions that can and should be asked about what has happened.
When this Blue Jackets team has succeeded this season, they have rolled four lines regardless of matchups, played solid team defense, and protected their crease and their goaltender. This solid defensive zone presence allowed them to break out using speed through the neutral zone and take shots from high danger areas, creating goal scoring opportunities. They have been able to use speed and relentless pressure, swarming the opposition (particularly on home ice), and locked games down with stellar defensive workrates.
We have seen NONE of that in this postseason. This team has completely abandoned what got them to the playoffs in the first place. That falls squarely on the coaching staff. Torts, before this season, hung a sign in the locker room: “SAFE IS DEATH” - and he has completely forgotten his own mantra.
Look at that heat map again. Pittsburgh’s most frequent shooting area is right in front of the crease. Columbus’ is from above the faceoff circles. That is not a method for success in any scenario.
The Blue Jackets coaching staff will have tough questions to answer at the conclusion of this series. I am hopeful that there is some clarity as to why they made some of the decisions that have led them here.
We can only hope that this postseason effort motivates the team and shows them how far they still have to go this offseason.