Riley Nash and his Columbus Blue Jackets dispatched the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday, blanking the Buds 3-0 in the deciding game of a Stanley Cup Qualifier series that had it all.
The best-of-five series — a thriller that unravelled in front of no fans inside the NHL Eastern Conference bubble in Toronto during a pandemic — will be remembered mostly for a pair of stunning finishes.
Toronto was first to blow a three-goal lead, the shocking turnaround coming in Game 3 on Thursday.
Columbus forward Pierre-Luc Dubois — who was roasted by head coach John Tortorella on the bench in Game 2 — potted his hat-trick goal in overtime to secure a 4-3 triumph in a contest the Blue Jackets trailed 3-0 halfway through the second period.
The Leafs had one foot outside of the bubble on Friday, trailing the Blue Jackets 3-0 with less than four minutes to play and facing elimination in Game 4.
Auston Matthews tallied in OT to cap an incredible comeback that gave hope to a fan base that has not witnessed a playoff series victory since 2004.
The Blue Jackets responded with a disciplined effort in Game 5 to sink the Leafs, the win setting up a Round 1, best-of-seven series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Game 1 will get underway at noon on Tuesday.
Nash, a 31-year-old centre from Kamloops, played in all five games against Toronto, recording eight shots on goal, a 60.3 face-off percentage (35-for-58), three blocked shots, 15 hits, one takeaway, two giveaways and a minus-1 rating in 71 minutes of action (14.31 per game).
He won four of five draws on the penalty kill and registered four short-handed shots on goal.
Nash, who played between wingers Liam Foudy and Oliver Bjorkstrand, logged six minutes of penalty killing time in the series and helped stifle the Leafs’ power play, which finished 2-for-13.
Here are excerpts from a conversation with KTW on Monday:
KTW: What was it like to be part of a series like that, with so many momentum changes and the ridiculous comebacks?
NASH: The momentum swings and the ups and downs, the roller coaster ride that it was, it was pretty crazy. I don’t think I have been or will be part of anything quite like that.
Our comeback was pretty great. They one-upped us. It was nice to get it done yesterday and it was good for us to come back with a really good effort and show that we have some resolve.
KTW: During those wild comebacks, did the moments seem any less meaningful given there were no fans in the building?
NASH: You definitely miss the fans a little bit. But you still feel those momentum swings and the atmosphere. You just hear the other bench, more or less, when they score and that’s even almost more infuriating than hearing the whole building erupt. Guys are so locked in at this time of the year that nothing really fazes us too much.
KTW: After the loss in Game 4, was there anything said in the room to lift spirits?
NASH: We had a little talk about it. It’s kind of like an elephant in the room where if you don’t address it, everyone is kind of thinking about it and it’s still on their minds. The leaders felt it was pretty important to talk about it, recognize that it did happen, but also recognize we had such a great opportunity in front of us to get the job done. We did kind of blow it, but let’s look at the opportunity ahead and seize that one and if we get the job done, it won’t be talked about nearly as much.
KTW: From an individual standpoint, how do you rate the way you played?
NASH: I thought I played fairly well, just tried to be as solid as possible. There is a lot going on with lineups and trying to get back into shape and find your spot again, who’s going and who’s not quite in mid-season form. I got into it a lot quicker than I have in the past and was definitely happy about that.
KTW: What did you consider your line’s toughest assignment of the series?
NASH: We didn’t really have an assignment. We had one of our top lines against their top line whenever we could get that matchup, but it was just kind of like the regular season, the last 30, 40 games, where you know what you could expect. We could play against almost any line and be solid, get momentum and just be physical. For the most part, we did a pretty good job of that. It’s one of those things where you play solid and hope that our top line can outplay their top line and we’ll be OK.
KTW: What do you see as your line's biggest challenge when you look ahead to the Lightning?
NASH: It's pretty similar, but this team is a little bit deeper. They have all four lines that can really play. Everybody is going to have to play a lot of minutes and important minutes, too. Everybody has to contribute. It would be nice if we [our line] could chip in a little bit more offensively. Hopefully, that comes.
KTW: Can’t let you go without a question on your head coach [John Tortorella]. Not surprisingly, he stole some headlines and got into it with some media. He wouldn’t answer questions at some points. He really ripped into Dubois, who came back with a hat-trick. Today he was defending [Leafs' head coach] Sheldon Keefe. Those are just a few things. What’s it like to play for a coach like that and is there a method to his madness?
NASH: I don’t know what he does with the media (Nash chuckled). That’s kind of his prerogative. But he definitely has a consistent message for us as players and I appreciate that. He’ll tell you right to your face what he expects. If you’re not quite doing that, he’ll let you know that, too. There is no BS to him. As a pro, that’s basically all you can ask for, not being told one thing and another thing happens.
I haven’t read about his interview today, with Keefe. Those guys played hard. It was definitely not an easy series. Being a Maple Leaf, they are obviously going to be under some intense scrutiny. I feel bad for some of those guys, but that’s the nature of the beast.
KTW: But you guys do watch some of his antics on TV. How much have they been talked about?
NASH: There might be the odd conversation about it (Nash chuckled). No doubt. We are like anybody else, where if something comes up, we’ll definitely tune in, but we see the other side of him, too.
The media gets a little snippet of it and we see the other side. Our stories and what we see is a little bit different than you guys. He’s definitely a unique head coach, but I’ve really grown to admire the way he coaches and everything he’s done for me in the last couple years.