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Mark Masters



Nick Foligno believes coaching will be key when the National Hockey League resumes with a best-of-five qualifying round.

"It's huge," the Columbus Blue Jackets captain said. "In a shortened series I think the coach that knows his team best and knows how to get the quickest performance ​out of his team, you know, is going to have an advantage. The team that gets their minds to their identity is going to have an advantage. I'm sure Torts is dialled into that. He already has been. He's a big part of why we've had the success we've had."

Torts would be head coach John Tortorella, who guided the Jackets to a shocking first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring while trumpeting an us-against-the-world messag​e.

Tortorella, a Stanley Cup winner with Tampa Bay in 2004, has done another excellent job this season. Despite losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky among others in free agency and then dealing with the most man games lost due to injury in the regular season, Columbus was still in the thick of the playoff race when the league hit pause back in March. 

"He's been dialled in and direct all year," said Foligno. "We could have easily strayed with the injuries we faced and the question marks going into the season, but he did a great job and we followed suit. Now, that belief is in the locker room. When you have a coach like that who can coach off emotion, but also practicality, that's a huge benefit for us."

The stingy Jackets, who allowed the third fewest goals per game, are slated to battle the highly-skilled Toronto Maple Leafs, who scored the third most goals per game, if the 2019-20 season is able to resume. The clubs finished with the exact same number of points (81) in the same number of games (70) so this series will likely be tight and Columbus hopes Tortorella will give them an edge. The Leafs will be led into the series by Sheldon Keefe, who is in his first season as a bench boss in the NHL. 

But there are other reasons why Foligno believes his upstart club can repeat last year's playoff success against an offensive juggernaut. The left winger, whose father Mike once played for the Leafs, spoke with TSN this week from his home in Sudbury, Ont. Foligno made the case that, when healthy, Columbus has one of the best blue-lines in the business. He also explained why a lack of NHL playoff experience won't be an issue for goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

What has been the reaction from family and friends to the possibility of a Leafs-Jackets series?

"I'm split down the middle. I think I'm going to be disowned by some family once that series comes around. They are die-hard Leafs fans, especially in the Sudbury area, so it's pretty funny."

Early-season games tend to be looser and higher scoring, which would seem to favour the Leafs. Will it be tough to establish a structured, tight system after a long layoff?

"Yeah, I think so. If you look at the start of the year it's kind of Wild West in the sense that everyone's still trying to figure out their systems and their play and you have some crazy scores. So, it is a little harder to dial that part in, but that's where our mental toughness has to come in ... Everyone feels that with the way things went this year we want to see this job through."

Will it be harder to play a physical style without fans in the building to feed off of?

"It's a great question, because you definitely love the oohs and ahhs when you see a big hit. It's the same as a great play to score a goal, but the goal is the end result so you feel good about it no matter what whereas a hit can sometimes change the tide of a game just by the crowd's reaction. But that's who we are, it’s on our DNA, we're a physical, hard-working, relentless team and that can't change. We're pros and when we step on the ice and you got five great players barrelling down on you the competitiveness will come out of us, I think, no matter what. With everything we’ve gone through this year I think we understand who we are as a team and what's going to give us success."

Tortorella is considered a master motivator. In what ways does he motivate you guys?

"There's so many. [Coaches] sometimes try to play mind games a little bit too much, but with Torts it's never mind games ... His motivation comes from how well he reads the room and I respect that about him. He knows when to push the gas and when to pull off a little. He trusts us and that trust has been built now for a few years ... You can go back to the video before the series in Tampa and that speech he gave and that's exactly how all of us were feeling. He was dead on, because nobody was expecting anything out of us and we all felt slighted so he was right in there with us and saying, 'We don't take a backwards step to these guys, we go right at them,' and that's a big reason why we had the success in that series."

Merzlikins and Korpisalo played well this season, but neither has NHL playoff experience. What have you learned about those guys that makes you think they can handle the heat?

"They're just gamers, man ... experience is important, don't get me wrong, but they're just gamers. They thrive being put in those situations. Korpi loved the fact that he finally got a chance to prove he can be a No. 1 and had an all-star year. He was an All-Star candidate. And then Elvis gets thrown into the fire, Korpi goes down, and we're treading water and things could've gone a different way, but he played outstanding to keep us in the fight and got his career on track after a shaky start. So both of them, when they're thrown into this type of environment, this is where they thrive. They're so young, they don't know any different ... Korpi has paid his dues and is a guy who's worked hard to get where he is and I'm sure he'd like a taste of it first, but with either one of those guys going in, we have full confidence in them."

You guys haven't played the Leafs since October when you faced off twice. Auston Matthews scored in both games and finished one off the league lead in goals. What challenge does he present?

"He's a player that's going to find his looks, but you're hopefully going to give him the B option, the C option and not the A. That's what we'll have to focus on and not just with Matthews, but with [John] Tavares, [Mitch] Marner, the list kind of goes on with that team and the weapons they have. We have a lot of respect for those guys. We respected the Tampa Bay Lightning, but we knew what was going to give us success against them and we'll try to do the same thing against this team ... I think we have one of the best defensive cores in the league so that gives us a lot of confidence."

If the season resumes, Columbus will get plenty of players back from injury, including Seth Jones. I imagine he'll be back with Zach Werenski. When those two are together and clicking, what stands out?

"Just the way they command the ice. Jones can eat up as many minutes as you want to give him. Zach's proven that he's not only an offensive threat. I mean, 20 goals this year in a shortened season, but his defensive game has come to life. He had to focus on that when we lost Seth. I think he's buoyed a lot by the solid play of David Savard. And [Vladislav] Gavrikov stepped in and did a great job. Those two have been a great shutdown pair and that's allowed those other guys to elevate their game even more and take more chances, because Savy and Gavy are going to eat those minutes for us. Our third pair has been a revolving door, but all those guys are fit to play. They all stepped in and did a great job. Ryan Murray, I don't even know if you can call him a third-pair guy, he's an outstanding defenceman. If we can get him back and healthy, I mean, it's incredible the amount of talent and experience we can have on the back end. Seth and Z tend to get all the credit and rightfully so, they're outstanding players, but those other guys allow them to really be who they are and it's a reason why our D corps is so dangerous."

The Leafs have Matthews and Tavares down the middle, what progression have you seen from 21-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois that makes you think he's ready for the challenge of facing those guys?

"He welcomes that challenge. Luc is at his best when he sees somebody across the way that he has to be better than. He likes that. He almost gets mad. He's like a racehorse that you're holding back sometimes. He wants those minutes and I appreciate that about him. It's just him learning how to use his body still and understanding how he can dominate games. You know, just because your age is a certain number doesn't mean you can't take over games with your skill-set and I think he's learning that about himself. He's just gotten better and better and now he's learning the leadership side a little bit too. Being in that No. 1 position as a centre you're relied upon a lot in a lot of different ways and I think that was something this year he wasn't quite ready for. He learned on the go ... realizing that as he goes, we go. That's why No. 1 centres are so important, they're not allowed to have a lot of nights off … you're looked at to lead a lot of nights and he's understood that and wants that challenge now. And these kinds of environments are the best for Luc. He's so, so competitive, one of the most competitive guys on our team. I think this will bring out the best in him."

You have three kids. Your daughter was born with a heart defect. From a health and safety standpoint, what is the biggest question or questions you need answered before feeling comfortable returning to game action? 

"Is it safe to return? Are we pushing the envelope too much? Are we not respecting what's going on in the world? And that's quickly kiboshed in a sense, because of all the work that's being done by the union, by the league. I really do respect that they've done their due diligence in looking into it and asking experts and making sure that that the No. 1 priority since Day 1 is safety ... The next part is testing and stuff like that. As long as we're not taking away from anyone that needs it right now, the front-line workers or anyone who needs it, then I think we owe it to ourselves to try and get back and bring some normalcy into the world if it’s safe to play. If somebody's saying, 'Guys, you're good to go, you can play,' then I think everyone will jump at it, jump at the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup ... and then it's, okay, how's it going to work? Are we going to be able to see our families? We all know there's going to be sacrifices in this format and we're all okay with that, I think, to some degree, but it's just got to make sense on a lot of fronts ... we'll continue to wait and see how it goes."

Whatever happens, it seems like there will be some element of risk in returning. If some guys don't feel comfortable playing, how will that be received? Will something be built into the return-to-play rules?

"It has to, because that's just human rights. If you don't feel safe returning then I think there needs to be some sort of way for those guys not to be vilified and no one's going to look [down] on you for not wanting to go back. If you don't feel safe, because of the conditions or just a belief, then you have every right as a human not to return to play until you feel comfortable ... I would respect anyone who doesn't feel comfortable coming back. And I also respect the guys who do want to come back if they feel safe enough and are good with the answers they're given. I look at both sides. I'm sure there will be something built-in to at least respect some guys who don't feel quite as comfortable and we'll support those people all the way."

Your wife just created @TheHeartsPlaybook account on Instagram, a platform to see how your family works and navigates obstacles. What was the inspiration for the project?

"She's kind of nervous about how it will be taken and it's a big step for her. We're not really very public people. My wife, I probably shouldn’t release this, but I'll say it anyway, she has a book coming out that she wrote in honour of our daughter, a children's book that will be coming out in a little bit, and there's a lot of things coming. The trials and tribulations that we've gone through as a family, we hope to inspire people through them. We're not saying we have all the answers, we're just trying to use this platform to try and help people. We noticed, going through it, how many people are stricken with certain things and just because you're not in the spotlight doesn't mean you don't go through some hardships and we want people to know it's okay. If there's something we can say or do to inspire them whether it's through health and wellness, the mental state, we just feel it's our job in some sense to try and give back ... We've learned so much from going through some of the things we've gone through with our daughter, the amount of people we need to thank [is huge] and you just realize so much is out of your hands sometimes ... we've just been humbled by that whole process and learned so much and would love to pass that on to anyone who's willing to listen."