COLUMBUS – When people talk about the playoffs being “big-boy hockey” this is exactly the kind of thing they’re referencing. And as this second-round series between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins continues to progress, the Blue Jackets are just a little bit bigger than the Bruins.
This series is one of two teams going in opposite directions. The Blue Jackets are getting stronger, more physical, faster and better with every passing game. The Bruins are getting slower and less dangerous and their best players look very, very tired. And the Blue Jackets aren’t just beating them, they’re crushing their will and frustrating them. At the end of the game, Brad Marchand, he of zero points in this series, punched Columbus defenseman Scott Harrington in the back of the head and, yeah, he got away with it. That was about as tough as he was, though.
The Blue Jackets were credited with a ridiculous 53 hits in Game 3 – part of that was undoubtedly the home statistician and part was their obvious strategy of attempting to grind the Bruins into dust. After a 2-1 win in Game 3 of the series, the Blue Jackets are starting to tilt this series and unless the Bruins can find a way to reverse the tide, the Jackets aren’t only going to the Eastern Conference final, they’ll go there as a well-rested team.
Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno was asked just how tough it is out there and, as usual, he had a very unique and insightful response.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s not tough. It’s awesome. This is what you envision playoff hockey to be. The hardness of it, the compete from everybody. You get hit, you hit them, sticks are flying, punches. That’s what it is. It’s fun. It’s what you dream about as a player and it challenges you as a player. You have to be hard all game long and you cannot let up for one second.”
He also talked about the Jackets being “comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” and there’s something to that. Having a coach like John Tortorella around, who you’d swear creates chaos in the dressing room as a tactic, never leaves you feeling terribly comfortable. Toss into the cauldron the uncertainty surrounding leading scorer Artemi Panarin and Vezina winning goalie – along with Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, who were acquired at the deadline – and that leaves a fair bit of room for tension. So in many ways, the Blue Jackets are uniquely prepared to play out of their comfort zone, essentially because they don’t have one.
“I felt pretty much all the way through it was our best game for sure,” said Duchene, who scored the game-winner for the second straight game. “I thought we were more on our toes. I thought we went after it a little bit more. I think we’ve gotten used to the type of hockey we have to play in this series. It’s very different than the last series.”
Because, again, this is big-boy hockey. Every inch of the ice is under dispute and every small play gets magnified. It requires players to dig in and dial in and the team whose players do it with more gusto generally win the series. One of the players who is doing that is Boone Jenner, who opened the scoring for the Blue Jackets and was huge on the penalty kill. Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said it was Jenner’s best game in Tortorella’s time in Columbus. “Did you see him out there? He was awesome,” Foligno said. “This is what he’s made for. He’s a diesel engine where he just chugs along and, man, he’s warmed up right now and ready to go. He drags a lot of guys into playing like that and he just keeps coming. He doesn’t stop.”
Another one of those players is Seth Jones, for whom it is only a matter of time until he gets his name on a Norris Trophy. Jones led all Blue Jackets in both shot attempts (12) and hits (six) and played 27:43, which was the most of any player on either team. There were so many potential drives for the Bruins that died because of Jones’ long stick and long reach. “He’s always a guy that when we played against Columbus before, I hated playing against him because even when you felt like you had him beat, he’d reach around and get the puck off you,” Duchene said. “He does a very good job on both sides of the puck.”
In a series where the gap between best players is enormous and supporting players is substantial, Columbus goes into Game 4 with an opportunity to take a stranglehold in the series. “I want them to be as excited as they possibly can tonight,” Tortorella said after the game. “They have the right to be. For the next few hours, damn right you should feel 10 feet tall, but we come back to the building (Thursday) and we get back to work.”
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