The morning after sweeping the best team in the NHL, Jarmo Kekalainen answered his cell phone and was asked just how he was feeling.
“A little relief,” said the Columbus Blue Jackets GM, his voice hoarse from a night of celebrating a 7-4 series-clinching win in Game 4. “Tired. Happy. All those things.”
It was an appropriate response.
The first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning might have been short and seemingly easy. But what Kekalainen has gone through since pushing in all his chips at the trade deadline has been downright exhausting.
Two weeks ago, when the Blue Jackets were sitting outside of a playoff spot, people had been calling for Kekalainen’s job. Now, having defeated the Presidents’ Trophy-winners in what was arguably the biggest upsets in sports, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he wins general manager of the year.
But Kekalainen isn’t counting his money or collecting congratulations just yet.
Winning a playoff series, a first in the Blue Jackets’ 19-year history, was huge. But Kekalainen hopes it’s just the beginning for a team that is now playing with house money.
“I think it should give everyone confidence — and more confidence — that we can beat anybody,” he said. “It’s not going to get any easier on this side (of the playoff bracket). Whoever we’re going to play next (either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Boston Bruins) is going to be a great team. It’s going to be another great challenge for our team. We know that. But having beaten Tampa Bay, the best team in the history of the National Hockey League, in a playoff series should give us confidence that we can beat everybody.”
That confidence didn’t just appear in the past 24 hours.
When the Blue Jackets traded first-round picks and top-end prospects at the deadline for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel — and held onto pending free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — it was because they believed their team was good enough to win a Stanley Cup. No one else believed them. At the time of the trades, Columbus was a bubble team.
Winning the Stanley Cup? Just making the playoffs was going to be difficult.
When they did, no one gave Columbus a chance against Tampa Bay. All but one of Postmedia’s 23 hockey writers had the Lightning going all the way to the final, while 19 picked them to win the Stanley Cup.
The first-round series was supposed to be short and sweet. And it was, but not like anyone could have predicted.
“I think it gave us all energy that people weren’t even talking about us. They were just talking about who Tampa was going to play in the second round,” said Kekalainen, who praised the players for playing a team-first game. “It doesn’t matter the names on the roster if you don’t play as a team. I think that was our biggest strength. Those guys love each other and play for each other and trust each other and they have fun. It paid off.”
Boy, did it ever.
But how exactly did it happen? How did a star-studded team that won 62 games in the regular season suddenly forget how to play winning hockey?
Part of it was a match-up problem, with the Blue Jackets’ physical forecheck silencing the Lightning’s speed and skill. Part of it was goaltending, with Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky outplaying Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. Part of it was Nikita Kucherov getting suspended and Victor Hedman playing hurt and Tampa Bay’s stars simply not showing up.
But the biggest part was, well, that’s hockey.
The gap between the best team in the league and eighth-seeded team in the conference isn’t as big as with other sports. Upsets happen. A lot.
Four Presidents’ Trophy winners failed to get out of the first round in the past 13 years. Four others lost in the second round. In 2012, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks 4-1 in the first round, and then went on to win the Cup.
“The National Hockey League wanted parity. And that’s what they got with this system,” said Kekalainen. “A team can beat anybody when you come together like we did. Tampa is a great team. They have a lot of big stars. They had a great regular season and I’m sure they’re going to bounce back again and be better for the experience. But that’s what is great about hockey: anything is possible.”
It helped, of course, that the Blue Jackets needed to win almost all of its remaining games to get into the playoffs. While the Lightning had a playoff spot sewn up by Valentine’s Day and nothing really to play for in the final months of the season, the Blue Jackets were fighting tooth and nail every single day.
“We knew we probably had to go 6-2 minimum to get in. And we went 7-1,” said Kekalainen. “They were all playoff games. I’m sure that prepared us to play in the playoffs. But we had a pretty good regular season. It’s not like we squeezed in with a .500 record. We were 16 over .500 with 98 points.
“We deserved our spot in the dance and now we’re going to the second round.”
So, does that mean that the Blue Jackets are now favoured against the Leafs or the Bruins in the second round? Not exactly, laughed Kekalainen.
“Both of those are two great teams,” he said. “There’s no bad teams left now. Like I said, we know that we’re going to be up against a really good team, no matter who it is. It only gets harder.”
DUCHENE DOING IT ALL IN COLUMBUS
The Blue Jackets would not have been able to sweep the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs without some help from the Ottawa Senators.
Matt Duchene wasn’t able to participate in the playoffs during his time in Ottawa. But the centre, who Columbus acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2019 draft and prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson, showed what Senators fans what might have been with three goals and seven points in four games.
“He hasn’t played in a lot of (playoff) games in the NHL, but he’s been on the big stage in the Olympics and he knows what it takes to win,” said Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. “He has all the elements in his game that we needed to add. Great power-play player, great offensive talent, great playmaker. So he’s delivered. And that’s why he’s one of the top players in the league and why we had our eye on him for a while.”
While Duchene led the Blue Jackets in scoring, Ryan Dzingel, who was also acquired at the deadline from the Senators, had zero points in four games.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019