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Blue Jackets left thinking of what might have been after playoff loss

Tortorella, Kekalainen look back at season, its tough end and what Columbus accomplished

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Out of the NHL bubble and home, able to enjoy sunshine and the freedom to do whatever they so desired for the first time in nearly a month, John Tortorella and Jarmo Kekalainen sounded as though they wished they could still be in Toronto when they met with the media for postseason interviews Friday afternoon. 

It was tough enough that the Blue Jackets lost a 4-1 Stanley Cup Playoffs series to Tampa Bay, with the season ending with Wednesday's 5-4 overtime loss, but what was even more galling was how it happened.  

Two days later, the competitive fire continued to burn bright for both the Columbus head coach and general manager, as both admitted the way the team lost the deciding Game 5 -- by seeing a 4-2 lead disappear in the last eight minutes, then watching the winning goal scored on a Blue Jackets turnover in the defensive zone -- made the setback difficult to take. 

"We did so many good things in that series," Kekalainen said. "It's a bitter pill to swallow that we're here now. I truly thought for sure we'd be playing tonight, and if we had gone to Game 6, who knows? … I was 100 percent convinced that we were getting into Game 6 and then to have it turn around like that and lose, it's hard. But we just have to learn from it and move on." 

Video: Jarmo and Torts check in after the season.

"It happens to all teams -- you just don't want to make mistakes," Tortorella said of his team's inability to hold the late lead in Game 5. "It just aggravates me even this morning that we lose it on a freebie. I wanted to see what it was going to be like if we win Game 5. I wanted to see how Game 6 was going to be, see how players react -- on both teams, quite honestly. I just wanted us to get there. We played well enough to get there, but we didn't get it done and that falls on us." 

So two days after the Blue Jackets' season ended, there was raw emotion left for those two men, who watched a team bind together through adversity all season and achieve beyond what the NHL pundits thought was possible before the season, only to come up short of its ultimate goal. 

For the Columbus, there were plenty of positives throughout the campaign, chief among them how the team's young players developed throughout the season and playoffs, including notable growth from Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois; how the Blue Jackets overcame offseason departures, a slow start and numerous injuries to build a team-first mentality and notch another playoff berth; and a memorable first-round win over Toronto followed by the tight playoff series against the Lightning. 

Those are unquestionably all good signs for the team going forward, something Tortorella realizes even if the pain of falling short yet again remained stark. 

"I get sick of those conversations when you get eliminated -- it's the elimination conversation," he said. "What did you get out of the playoffs? Were there positives? The young kids playing? I'm tired of those conversations. 

"But I also have to be honest about some of the things that went on here, and we have a good group of guys. And there is a belief in that locker room. It didn't start in the bubble. It started when the season started. I'll put this team up against anybody as far as how hard they work, and I think they've really bought into the mental part of the game as far as playing as a team." 

For the Blue Jackets this was always going to be an interesting season, with many around the NHL expecting the team to take a significant step back after the summer departures of free agents Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene, among others. 

While such youngsters as Dubois and Werenski continue to come along - Dubois ended up being a point-per-game player in the postseason, while Werenski led all NHL defensemen with 20 goals - and are joined by a trio of players who will be just 21 next season in Liam Foudy, Emil Bemstrom and Alexandre Texier, the Blue Jackets boasted the youngest team in the league on opening night and the third youngest roster in the bubble. 

Combining the free agency losses and the youth of the team, it's easy to see why so many expected a step back, yet Columbus made the round of 16 for the fourth consecutive season, making the franchise just one of three in the NHL that can boast that accomplishment. 

The franchise also answered a big question when it comes to goaltending, as both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins showed they can carry the mail for long stretches of the season. Korpisalo earned an All-Star bid and was one of the stars of the playoffs, while Merzlikins' was dominant in January and February with a stretch of five shutouts in eight games to keep the team charging up the standings. 

The next step will be seeing where the team can get improve in order to not just make the postseason but to have an extended run, but there's also little arguing the franchise answered a lot of questions it needed to this season. 

"I think as the season started, there were a lot of questions asked," Tortorella said. "You had your departures, you lose your No. 1 goaltender. There were a lot of questions, but we just went about our business. It was an interesting year obviously with all the injuries. It certainly puts a lot of light on the depth of our team." 

Notes from Exit Day 

♦ When it comes to injuries, Kekalainen said goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who was "unfit to play" the Blue Jackets' last six postseason games after starting Game 4 vs. Toronto, was close to a return and likely would have been back on the ice had the team's season continued until the weekend. 

The news was less encouraging on two other players. Kekalainen did not have an update on Josh Anderson, the forward who underwent shoulder surgery in March and was continuing to rehab with the team in Toronto, while the general manager said Brandon Dubinsky "most likely can't play anymore" thanks to a chronic wrist injury that cost him the 2019-20 season. 

♦ Tortorella played veteran center Boone Jenner for just 8:03 in the season-ending Game 5 loss, with Jenner finishing minus-2 in the contest after also being minus-2 in the Game 4 setback as well. Jenner finished the playoffs with just one point in 10 games - his goal late in Game 4 vs. Toronto. Still, Tortorella said, "It breaks my heart that I sat Jens. … That's a hard thing for me to do," before acknowledging the struggles in the center's game. 

♦ On the other hand was Alexander Wennberg, who had an excellent all-around Game 5. The oft-discussed center had a goal and an assist for his first-ever multipoint playoff game and skated 23:04. Wennberg had been demoted to a fourth-line role at one point this postseason but righted his game after a video session with assistant coach Brad Larsen. "I think it helped him," Tortorella said. "I thought he just started carrying the puck, carrying the puck to the middle of the ice, held on to pucks won some faceoffs. I played him 23 minutes the last game and he deserved it. But it (upsets me) why he isn't there all the time." 

♦ Tortorella said he did not address the team following the conclusion of Game 5 and still has not done so. The head coach said he no longer conducts exit interviews each season, preferring to talk to players during the offseason when the emotion of the season is no longer fresh in players' minds.  

♦ Kekalainen said he would look at the possibility that some of the team's "prospects and some roster players" would be loaned to Europe in an effort to find more ice time before the start of the 2020-21 campaign. Some European leagues are already in the process of beginning as usual, while the NHL and AHL are targeting beginning next season in December at the earliest. Defenseman Tim Berni, a 2018 sixth-round pick who signed an entry-level deal to join Cleveland this upcoming season, already has a deal to return to his former team in Switzerland to begin the campaign, and Kekalainen said others could join. 

"We have some guys that didn't get into the lineup, now you haven't played from March 12th to whenever the league starts, let's say in December," the GM said. "That's nine months. You cannot take nine months off from hockey." 

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