The Jackets lost to Chicago 3-1 Friday in the second game of a back-to-back.
It was a night where John Tortorella challenged his team to play like they belonged among the top teams in the NHL, and while they didn't win the battle, they made a bigger statement of showing they can play the way they're supposed to play against top teams.
It was the first of three consecutive games the Jackets play against another team at the top of the league rankings, and the caliber of competition showed. A fast and furious first period produced three goals, two for Chicago and one for the Jackets. It was followed by two more periods of fast-paced hockey that filled the ice on both ends with chances and impressive goaltender performances.
All of the scoring came when one team found a way to capitalize on a misstep of the opponent.
After giving up a power play goal 32 seconds into the game, the Jackets got on the board late in the first. Jack Johnson corralled a missed Blackhawks pass and banked the puck around the boards to Sam Gagner behind the net. Gagner fed the puck to Nick Foligno at the bottom of the left circle, where the captain shot the puck past Corey Crawford to tie it 1-1.
The Blackhawks responded 22 seconds later off a Jackets' turnover to make it 2-1. That score stood until Chicago added a late empty net goal with 44 seconds left in the game.
"I thought we played a good hockey game," head coach John Tortorella said. "I thought we played a hard game. A much better game than we played last night. We don't get the result, but I just want us to play the right way. We played the right way tonight. Both goalies were good. They score a couple we score one.
"I'm encouraged. I think we took a step in the right direction compared to last night's game and maybe a couple others prior. We played more like the way we're supposed to play. We were more physical. We ended up with more scoring chances. It's a step in the right direction."
Lukas Sedlak left the game over halfway through the second period and did not return due to an upper body injury.
Here's what we learned.
Video: Foligno on showing improvement tonight
Back to the Jackets' identity.
The Jackets know they lost this game, and they don't like it. But the way this team played tonight showed the group getting back to what it means to be a Blue Jacket on the ice. Even after giving up an early goal on the penalty kill, the Jackets responded with vigorous play that saw them challenging Chicago throughout the game.
"The back and forth, the skill the size and speed, the hitting, that's what we are," Foligno said. "When we do that, we're a dangerous team. You saw that tonight. I think guys were getting more comfortable doing that, and understanding that."
This game is different than just a "moral victory."
There were no points earned for the Jackets Friday, but this game came at a time when there are different things that need to be stockpiled going into the playoffs.
All year long, the youth of this team has been trumpeted over and over. Having a game like tonight, that reflects a playoff atmosphere in every aspect from the fans to the skill to the pace of play, teaches players who haven't been in the post-season before exactly what playoff games will demand.
"When you're in the playoffs, at least from a coach's point of view you want your team as healthy as they can be and playing the right way," Tortorella said. "I just want our team playing the right way and I want aggressive mindset. That showed up tonight."
Video: Torts evaluates his team's play tonight
Time to own the swagger.
The Jackets remain in second in the Metro Division with a one-point edge over the Pittsburgh Penguins. They stand third in the league even as Chicago leapfrogged them with the win. The Jackets need to be comfortable owning the respect they've earned with their performance to date this year.
"We have to understand in here that we're a great team too," Foligno said. "You don't get this many points by fluke. We belong in this company. Now it's going out there and making sure your game is where it needs to be. The games we're playing, the emotional level will be there. So it's making sure you're getting yourself sharp."
Bonus: Don't think winning doesn't matter.
The Jackets responded to the Blackhawks challenge tonight and matched them. They outshot Chicago 33-24, had 54.05% of all 5-on-5 shot attempts, and won 67% of all face-offs. But this is still a team that knows winning is the stat that matters.
"We still lost," Sergei Bobrovsky said. "I don't like to say we played well or we shot a lot, we still lost the game. It doesn't matter how many shots we had or how many goals we allowed, we still lost and there are no excuses. There are fans that watch on TV and it doesn't matter how hard we traveled (or anything else). They cheer for us and they expect us to win."