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Tortorella upset with Jackets' effort, implores stars to 'play harder'

Loss to Devils magnifies top players' collective struggle to produce.

by Brian Hedger JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Practice was slated for noon Wednesday at The OhioHealth Ice Haus, but when the clock struck twelve, the only thing on the ice was a bunch of pucks.

The rest of the Blue Jackets' practice participants, players and coaches, held a pre-workout meeting before getting on the ice. The topics of that meeting were kept private except for one topic that was addressed - the Jackets' effort Tuesday in a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils at Nationwide Arena.

Asked if his review of the game on replay confirmed his postgame feelings that Columbus didn't compete hard enough, coach John Tortorella didn't hesitate to answer.

"Two-fold," he said. "More than I even thought. I'm not going to get into a long conversation about it. We did not play hard enough. How surprising? It's doesn't matter how surprising. It's unacceptable."

The Blue Jackets put more shots on goal, 42-36, and held onto the puck for longer stretches than the Devils. What they didn't do enough was attack the middle third of the ice, get to the net for rebounds or capitalize on any of their six power plays in an ongoing struggle that's affected them all season.

They also didn't get enough production or effective play from their star players, who've struggled, collectively, from the start of the season. Many of those top players are part of the power play, which fell to 2-for-42 in the past 15 games (4.7 percent).

Tortorella didn't take questions about the power play specifically, but indirectly talked about it when addressing the larger issue of top players not playing up to their usual standards.

"My biggest concern is we simply have to get our core guys playing harder and better," he said. "And sometimes, instead of pointing the fingers outward, you've got to point the finger inward. It can't keep on going around like this. You're not going to win games consistently in this league, and be the team you want to be, if you don't have your top players being your top players - no matter what situation they're in. It's not trying to rip them. It is what it is."

The Blue Jackets have lost consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 4-10, when they dropped four in a row (0-3-1) leading into the start of a six-game win streak. Two of those defeats were against Metropolitan Division teams, just as the past two were, against the Washington Capitals on Saturday and Devils on Tuesday.

They've got another one against the Devils coming up Friday at Prudential Center in New Jersey, but Tortorella doesn't really care who's opposite the Blue Jackets on the ice.

"We have really good players," he said. "They are really good players. Eventually, that really good player has to figure it out. We're going to help them as coaches, but eventually the responsibility falls on them to figure this out."

That message hasn't been lost on the Blue Jackets, who are in the thick of the division race despite sluggish starts from a number of top guys.

"We talked a little about self-evaluation, and just being honest," veteran forward Boone Jenner said. "We've found ways to get some wins, but for guys like myself, just to get going and find a way to start contributing in a positive way, and helping the team … then I think we can even go to the next level as a club."

Tortorella also pointed a finger inward.

"Some of the responsibility falls on me," he said. "As the coach of a team, that is one of the biggest responsibilities of me, as a coach, is to get our top players to play. So, I'm right in there with it, and that's why I'm frustrated and not enjoying winning four and five games in a row as I watch our team play. So, don't discount me. That is my responsibility to try to find a way, and we're going through that process."

News & Notes

-- It was noted during Tortorella's press conference that if the other three lines don't start producing consistently, opponents will likely deploy their top defensive players exclusively against the Blue Jackets' top line of Artemi Panarin, rookie Pierre-Luc Dubois and right wing Josh Anderson.

"If they're going to use their top players to match up against a 19-year-old (Dubois), the other guys should be able to take advantage of that," Tortorella said. "We can slice it 10 different ways and talk about it 10 different ways. Our top players haven't been our top players, and they have to start being our top players."

-- Three of the Jackets' eight defensemen didn't practice, but only one was unexpectedly absent. That was Zach Werenski, who got a maintenance day off. The other two were Ryan Murray, who's on injured reserve with an upper-body injury, and Markus Nutivaara - who's missed the past two games with an upper-body injury.

-- Forward lines in practice were the same as in the game against New Jersey, with one small notation.

Rather than splitting reps on the fourth line with Tyler Motte, at right wing, Markus Hannikainen shared time during rushes at left wing with Jenner, who'd been moved onto the fourth line Monday at practice.

Hannikainen, who was recalled from the minors this past weekend, has been a healthy scratch the past three games. He usually skates at right wing.

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