COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's out there on the ice for everyone to see.
Big, bold,bluestenciled-in-all-caps letters read"Stanley Cup Playoffs" with an accompanying image of the trophy John Tortorella held up as the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. The Columbus Blue Jackets coach skated past that image at the blue line at Nationwide Arena at practice Tuesday while preaching "aggression one possession at a time."
What else would you expect? Columbus enters its Eastern Conference first-round series againstthedefending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (Game 1 is Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena) looking to make an aggressive first statement. The Blue Jackets are making their third postseason appearance in franchise history, but with Tortorella, this is a team that could shake things up.
Tortorella is known for his up-front approach,and he has spoken at length this season about playing with confidence, swagger and even arrogance. This team does everything by committee, he said. It has been waiting to show it in the playoffs.
"I know the attitude of this team, and they're just dying for this opportunity," Tortorella said. "I don't think anybody is going to short themselves as far as how they're going to go about their business."
Columbusenjoyed a 50-24-8 regular season (108 points). It won 16 straight regular-season games at onepoint and finished third in the league with a plus-54 goal differential.The only NHL teams with more points were division rivalsWashington (118) and Pittsburgh (111) and Western Conference top seed Chicago (109).Columbus holds15-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup, however, which is tied for seventh among playoff teams.
Just don't bring up Pittsburgh or postseason format or playoff beards or a late-season slide in which the Blue Jackets lost six of their last seven games. Tortorellasaid he knows this team "a hell of a lot better"than he did last season.
What kind of team could Columbus be in these playoffs, then? Let Torts spin thatas only he can.
"As a team, we have 108 points," he said. "I don'tgive a s— what happened the lastfew games.It's a 108(-point) team, a 50-win team. They should sticktheir chest out. They belong where they areright now, and that the feeling needs to bethere when there are some struggles within theseries."
Tortorella is aknownpersona who is in the playoffs for the ninth time as a head coach. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are a curiosity heading into a regional rivalryagainst Pittsburgh that will ratchet up like it did in the first round of the 2014playoffs. The Penguins won that series four games to two, but five of those six games were decided by one goal.
Tortorellareplaced Todd Richards after the Blue Jackets bottomed out with an 0-7 start to the 2015-16 season, and he has led a steady uphill climb since. Center Brandon Dubinsky said the ascent began in earnest with a West Coast swing in late October that ended with a 4-0 victory in Anaheim. Columbus no longer hoped to win; it expected to win. It also expects that attitude to carry over into the playoffs.
Right winger Cam Atkinson, who led Columbus with 35 goals this season,echoed almost word for word what his coach had said moments earlier.
"I think it's huge just the fact we know what to expect now," Atkinson said. "In the playoffs three years ago, the majority of our guys it was their first time in the playoffs. You could tell there were nerves and we didn't know what to expect. We know what to expect now, and we're going to chase this."
To get there, they'll have to first take out the Penguins. The teams split the regular-season meetings with the home team winning every matchup. Columbus beat Pittsburgh 7-1 on Dec. 22 and 2-1 in overtime on Feb. 17. The Penguins won 4-3 in overtimeFeb. 3 and 4-1 on April 4.
Dubinsky is expected to be the antagonistonce again for Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, who led the NHL with 44 goals. Neither Dubinsky nor Tortorella shed any light on that potential matchup.
"I just enjoy trying to beat Pittsburgh, and ifplaying against him and playing hard againsthim is part of it, then I'll do it," Dubinsky said.
Tortorella alsodidn't linger on Pittsburgh's "big-name players," preferring to keep the emphasis on internal matters during an 11-minute press conference. There's a different attitude in Columbus now, one Tortorella influenced by raising the standard.
Tortorella also focused on one concept more than any other.
"The real important part of playoff hockey is momentum," he said. "When you have it, if you have a good period you want to have another good period. I don't think you get too far ahead. To me, it's more magnified in the playoffs."
Tortorella then spun that around one more time.
"I think it's always important to try to gainmomentum, but I'm certainly not going to say ifwe don't skate or if we struggle in the first periodand then they bang in two, then what I do I say to theteam?"he asked rhetorically. "'Oh, we're screwed here. We didn't getoff to a good start so let's go home.' I think it'sfighting back to get the momentum."
Could Columbus grab that momentum against Pittsburgh?Could it make abold and blue statement in the first round for everyone to see?
Let Dubinsky tell you this time.
"We're going to play like we belong, I promiseyou that," he said. "We've played this team enough thisyear, we've had success enough. I don't expectus to beat them (7-1), but we beat them (7-1) here,we beat them in overtime here again and wehad some close ones there. We know we canplay with this team. No doubt about it."