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Blue Jackets hope to learn from season, playoff run

Foligno: 'I think we're on the right path to becoming a winning team' in postseason

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

It's the press conference Nick Foligno has to look forward to the least each year.  

As the Blue Jackets captain, he's in many ways the public voice of the team in times good and bad, and as such he was one of the players who had to join the media Zoom call after the team's season ended Wednesday to talk about what went wrong.  

In the moment, he wasn't quite sure what to say, as he often feels in that situation.  

"I'm obviously emotional about losing," he said after Tampa Bay came back to post a 5-4 overtime win in Game 5 to close out the best-of-seven series. "A hard one to take. I wasn't expecting to be done tonight, to be honest with you. I was expecting to play on Friday and Saturday (in Games 6 and 7). I'm sure we'll reflect, but obviously we didn't do enough to get the job done."  

A playoff season that began with Foligno saying he told his kids he was leaving for the NHL bubble in the midst of a global pandemic to come home with the Stanley Cup instead found the same disappointing end as the previous four others in the captain's tenure. 

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He had high hopes when Columbus players got back together in July to chase sport's best trophy, and why wouldn't he? With a four-month break to get healthy, a Columbus team that had built a close bond throughout the season was finally close to full strength on the ice heading into the playoff season, and in what figured to be a 24-team battle royale, the Blue Jackets seemingly had the personnel to be a darkhorse contender.  

And they lived up to that billing in a five-game first-round win over Toronto, frustrating one of the game's most talented teams and earning even more respect in NHL circles by overcoming a stunning Game 4 loss to shut down the Maple Leafs one more time in the deciding contest to move on from the qualifier into the main bracket.  

But from there, Columbus got perhaps the worst draw possible, a rematch against a Tampa Bay team that it had swept a year ago and had eyes on making sure that didn't happen again. It took a memorable five-game series - one that included two Tampa wins in overtime, including a five-overtime epic that ended as the fourth longest game in league history, and four one-goal victories by the Bolts - to finally put the Blue Jackets to bed.  

It was a performance that drew plaudits from across the NHL, from admiration of the team's ability to bounce back from adversity to respect afforded the eye-popping play of unsung goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, but one that in the Blue Jackets' eyes ended far too soon.  

"It was a lot of ups and downs," defenseman and alternate captain Seth Jones said. "We tried to stay even through wins and losses, and the series starts with a five-overtime game that felt like we played 2½, three games just in one game itself. Unfortunately we didn't come out on the right side of a lot of the big moments. Both overtime games and some of the big moments when we needed plays, they ended up making them and putting them in our net.   

"We lose 4-1 but I think we played a lot better than a 4-1 series. But that's the way it goes. I don't think it was a lack of effort by anybody in the room. We have to keep our heads up. We have to give credit to them. They have a great team. They've put together a solid lineup, and they made it tough on us."  

The postseason laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of the team Columbus now has taken to four straight playoff appearances, but one that was weakened by a slew of offseason free-agency departures. Most cutting among them was Artemi Panarin's signing with the New York Rangers, which cost the team its leading scorer for two years running.  

Without Panarin and with two young goalies stepping into bigger roles, head coach John Tortorella forged a squad that made defensive structure, relentless effort and a never-say-die mentality its identity, traits that were bolstered when a slew of injuries led the team to lean into its depth far more than ever expected when the season began. 

That backbone was never more in display in the postseason when the Blue Jackets displayed an admirable combination of teamwork and resiliency, but the lack of high-end scoring touch and depth continued to hurt. Columbus finished with just 24 goals in 10 postseason games, below its average of 2.57 goals per game in the regular season, which placed 28th of 31 NHL teams. 

As a young team -- Columbus was tied for having the third youngest roster in the bubble, and such players as Alexandre Texier, Liam Foudy and Emil Bemstrom, among others, showed their potential throughout the season -- matures, it should keep getting better, while the front office will likely make adding more skill a priority this offseason. 

In the meantime, the captain said the Blue Jackets have to take what they learned about themselves throughout this entire season, and specifically the playoff run, to keep bringing things along for the franchise. 

"We have to use this as experience," Foligno said. "You have to take failure as a learning curve, and I think our group here is one that's very hungry to want more. I think we're on the right path to becoming a winning team in this postseason. 

"I hate reflecting right now, being so fresh off a loss, but I believe in this group. I've said that from day one. The amount of trust and belief we have in each other, it far outweighs anything else going on in the league. We care about each other. Now it's about finding that next level to become a championship team." 

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