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Blue Jackets blow 3-0 lead, fail to eliminate Maple Leafs

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The series goes to a deciding Game 5 on Sunday

Toronto Maple Leafs v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

One night after erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime, the Columbus Blue Jackets found their fortune reversed, with the Toronto Maple Leafs pulling off the same comeback to tie up this playoff qualifying series and send it to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday night at 8 p.m.

John Tortorella is a Hall of Fame caliber coach who deserves a lot of credit for the success the Blue Jackets have had since 2016. His style of hockey is a big reason that Columbus was on the cusp of eliminating a Toronto team with more elite playmakers. But tonight featured two critical, unforced errors by Torts:

Playing Scott Harrington

This morning, the team announced changes to the lineup, including Dean Kukan returning to the lineup in place of Markus Nutivaara. I thought Nuti was good in Game 3, but Kukan had been solid in Game 1 so there’s not much difference. Might as well play a fresher player. Fine. But what was inexplicable was a late lineup change when Ryan Murray was unable to play. In place of Murray was not Nutivaara, not Andrew Peeke, but the infamous Scott Harrington.

This is not just hindsight; I was complaining about this before the game started. It’s inexplicable that Harrington would get to play - in a decisive playoff game - over players whose performance this season has been objectively better.

It would be a questionable decision inn any game, but especially in a back-to-back after an overtime game, when the top four defense played heavy minutes. Why not insert a defenseman you could trust with relief minutes? Why put yourself to play an inferior defenseman like Harrington for those minutes?

As it turns out, that was very necessary as Zach Werenski left the game with an injury in the third period. That’s not something you can predict, obviously, but what you can control as a coach is making sure you have the best possible lineup on the bench. If your #5 defenseman can’t play, then you don’t turn to your #9 when there are at least two better options.

Timeout

With less than four minutes remaining and the Jackets holding a seemingly secure 3-0 lead, Toronto scored two goals within 51 seconds of each other. With Columbus showing obvious fatigue, their top players worn from heavy minutes in consecutive nights, one of the top defensemen injured, and Elvis Merzlikins rattled from allowing his first goals in nearly 106 minutes of playoff hockey ... Torts did not do the obvious move of calling his timeout. His players needed a break. They needed to get a minute to collect their composure and mentally refocus on the final minutes. Instead they just kept playing and Toronto kept dominating possession until scoring the tying goal with 23 seconds left. Heck, he could have called it at 1:36 when a shot at the empty net by Pierre-Luc Dubois landed on the outside of the net instead.

Predictably, Torts didn’t have much to say after the game:

What’s next?

First, some rest for both teams after 151 minutes of hockey in just over 24 hours. Then, back at it on Sunday night for Game 5. The winner of that game will face the loser of Saturday’s Tampa Bay/Philadelphia game in the first round. The loser of Game 5 will go home.

Several big questions remain for the Torts and the Blue Jackets:

  • What is the extent of the injuries to Werenski and Murray? Will either be able to play? It’s a blow if either are out, and a massive one if both are.
  • Who else plays defense? It better not be Harrington again. Give Nutivaara another chance. Give Peeke a shot. They’re fresh and they’re competent.
  • Who starts in goal? Four goals doesn’t look good, but Elvis was great again. He made 49 saves on the night. But are the goals surrendered (all when Toronto had a man advantage) enough to give Joonas Korpisalo another chance?
  • Any more changes to the forwards or the forward lines? Nathan Gerbe came in for Emil Bemstrom but did not give the spark one would have hoped for. His fourth line with Alexander Wennberg and Eric Robinson played less than 10 minutes at 5v5 and was a nonfactor. Oliver BJORKSTRAND remains buried on the third line, with 16:19 minutes and just a single shot on goal (four total attempts). What can get him going?

The Good Stuff

It’s not all bad; after wondering where the hell the goals were going to come from after Tuesday, the Jackets once again found ways to get time in the offensive zone and scoring chances on Frederik Andersen. They even tried getting closer to the net before shooting sometimes!

Natural Stat Trick

Early in the first, Dubois picked up where he left of with another dominant play. He collected a loose puck in the defensive zone and was off to the races. He carried the puck all the way to the Toronto net, and passed it at the last second to Cam Atkinson on the right side.

Early in the second period, the other part of the French Connection - Alexandre Texier, naturellement - won the puck behind the net and circled around the offensive zone. This cycle attracted the attention of the Toronto defense as Tex dished the puck to David Savard. Savard passed left to Vladislav Gavrikov, who thanks to Tex’s move had a clear lane to the net.

We were not yet halfway through the game but the confidence was growing. With how well the Jackets played defense, was there any way that Toronto could score two goals? Unfortunately Toronto began controlling possession after that second goal, though the Jackets kept the quality looks to a minimum. There was a torrent of penalties late in the period, as the game got a bit chippy. Were the Leafs starting to lose their composure?

The third period was fairly even and it didn’t seem like Toronto had it in them to come back. With just 5:40 left, Nick Foligno stole the puck from Morgan Reilly, did a nifty spin move to keep it away, and set up a streaking Boone Jenner for the shot. For as bad as a shooter as Boone has been this season (just a 6.1 shooting percentage), he made this one count:

It seemed like that would ice it, and many people in the comments and on Twitter felt the need to comment on this.

YOU IDIOTS. IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE FINAL HORN SOUNDS.

Sigh.

The Bad Stuff

As for Toronto’s comeback, it’s late and I’m tired and I really don’t feel like revisiting it. I’d say read Pension Plan Puppets’ recap, but they have no words to describe it, either. But there are plenty of gifs to watch there if you hate yourself.

Enjoy your weekend. Spend Saturday thinking about anything other than hockey. We’ll see you back here on Sunday.