The record will show that the Columbus Blue Jackets are leading their qualifying series against the Toronto Maple Leafs because Pierre-Luc Dubois took this series by the throat, put his team on his back and turned in a tour-de-force performance in Game 3. And that is as it should be. At the age of 22, Dubois is still finding his way, but performances like that – a hat trick, including the game-winner in overtime – clearly show he’s clutching a road map to stardom.
But as much as Dubois can take credit for having the Maple Leafs on the brink of elimination Friday night, the player’s performance and the Blue Jackets’ ability to dig themselves out from a three-goal deficit represented another example of the genius of Columbus coach John Tortorella. And as he pointed out, it had little to do with the very public tongue-lashing he gave Dubois on the Columbus bench during Game 2. After all, that’s a pretty readily available tool in Tortorella’s arsenal.
Actually, what made it all so intriguing was that despite the fact Dubois wasn’t delivering to that point in the series and Tortorella was not at all happy about it, he leaned even more on his young center and gave him both the pressure and confidence that comes with that kind of responsibility. And Dubois responded with one of his best games as an NHL player. And it was Tortorella who managed all of that. Now, Torts is not an easy person to embrace and he’s certainly not big on the warm and fuzzy. But the man can coach, as evidenced by his two Jack Adams Awards as NHL coach of the year.
One of the most underrated and important assets a coach can have is the ability to read his players and react quickly. When the Chicago Blackhawks were winning Stanley Cups, nobody was better at it than Joel Quenneville and Tortorella is every bit as good.
“I think people make a bigger deal out of (the exchange with Dubois) than it should be,” Tortorella said. “We’re coaching our players, all our guys. I’m not so sure that had anything to do with (Game 3).”
And Tortorella is probably right. But what made it work was how both Dubois and Tortorella reacted to the exchange. Going into Game 3, Dubois had not exactly been a standout, nor was he for much of this season. He had only four shots in the first two games of the series, with the only impression he made on the series being the check from behind that knocked Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin out of the series. So perhaps both of them deserve equal amounts of credit.
“Luc is a good player,” Tortorella said. “We’re trying to get consistency out of him. We’re trying to teach him what it is to be a pro in all situations and obviously he was a huge part of it tonight.”
With the Leafs leading 3-0 and seemingly on cruise control, Tortorella pulled goalie Joonas Korpisalo and gave Elvis Merzlikins his first taste of NHL playoff hockey. Merzlikins stopped all 21 shots he faced, but more importantly, the change moved the needle in terms of momentum to the Blue Jackets. On that one, Tortorella admitted to being a little lucky because his motive were not exactly pure.
“It certainly wasn’t due to (Korpisalo’s) play,” Tortorella said. “You go down 3-0 and you’re playing back-to-back, I have to start thinking and I need to get ready for the next game. We have tremendous faith in Elvis…he’s a really good goalie. It gave us a chance to catch our breath. I think one of the biggest things we needed to do was just stop and slow it down a little bit because it was getting away from us.”
And now the series is getting away from the Maple Leafs, a team that continues to try to locate a killer instinct in the playoffs. The Leafs, as everyone knows, possess an abundance of talent, but through three games in this series, will is administering a beating to skill. Tortorella said that even when his team was trailing 3-0, he thought it was in decent shape, which was the polar opposite of what Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe felt.
“I didn’t like our game at 1-0, 2-0, 3-0,” Keefe said. “We got what we deserved. We didn’t have any purpose or plan to our game.”