The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to, finally, get underway. While the interruption of the regular season from COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s lives, it did provide a very different look for some play-in teams. The Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets, for example, will provide Toronto fans with something new. The Boston Bruins have been the opposition in the first round in each of the last two seasons. Columbus will give them a very different challenge.
These two teams have a very limited history against each other. They have never met in any head to head series or post-season play. This matchup would seem to greatly favour Toronto but Columbus surprised many after losing such key players as Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, and Matt Duchene.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets
A Classic Match-Up
Offence versus defence, attack versus defend. Once again in the postseason, we have a matchup of two contrasting styles of play. As legendary Alabama college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once said, “Defense wins championships.” Columbus will have to hope that this saying turns out to be true. With the loss of their core offence last summer, the Blue Jackets have spent the 2019-20 season as a defence first squad.
Toronto, meanwhile, has assembled an offensive powerhouse and employed the adage “The best defence is a good offence.” Going against the more traditional strategy of building from the net out, GM Kyle Dubas instead chose to build from the front back. This was partly due to the team he inherited. However, he also signed John Tavares as a UFA adding to the potent mix-up front. With the money spent on the forward positions, the Leafs have made it clear that they intend to try to score their way to a title.
The Scoring Story
The Columbus Blue Jackets lost three of their top-six forwards in the offseason. This included their franchise offensive player in Artemi Panarin. To offset these losses, head coach John Tortorella altered his approach to an even greater defensive strategy. While Columbus employs a scoring by committee approach, there are still a few threats that Toronto must remain aware of. Third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois is quickly achieving his high-end potential and veteran Cam Atkinson, despite a down year, is a capable point producer. Perhaps the biggest threat is the slowly developing Oliver Bjorkstrand. Long touted as immensely skilled, it wasn’t until this year that he broke out scoring 21 goals and 36 points in 49 games.
Even with the emergence of Bjorkstrand, Columbus only managed to score at a rate of 2.57 goals per game on average. Ranking them tied for 28th this season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the complete opposite. With an intimidating one-two punch down the middle with Auston Matthews and Tavares, they also have Mitch Marner driving play on the wing. Combine that with the scoring prowess of William Nylander along with the grit and character of Zach Hyman and you have one of the best top-six groups in the league. Add to the mix players such as Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, and rookie Ilya Mikheyev. These are the bottom six players on Toronto who would likely be on many other teams’ top two lines. Toronto will be coming at Columbus in waves and the Blue Jackets are going to have to be at their very best to contain this group as much as possible.
Toronto scored an average of 3.39 goals per game. This record, good third-best in the league, will certainly put the Columbus defence to the test.
The Back End
Tortorella employs a strict team defence approach anchored by Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. This pairing can easily be argued as among the best top two combinations in the league. The all-around high-level game of Jones combined with the scoring of Werenski makes them a feared pair. Much of Columbus’s offence is run through this pairing.
Behind the top pair are Ryan Murray and David Savard. Murray, a former second-overall pick in the 2012 draft has struggled with injuries. This season he only dressed for 27 games but is currently healthy and can be incredibly effective if he avoids any further setbacks.
The Blue Jackets allowed a miserly average of 2.61 goals against per game this season, good for the 4th best record in the league.
Toronto, on the other hand, seems to have a defence core that is constantly a work in progress. With little money allocated to the position, the Leafs usually rely on Morgan Rielly and his bargain contract as the anchor on defence. However, Reilly’s time on ice down this season due to injuries. As such the defence leaders in time on the ice were Tyson Barrie, Justin Holl, Cody Ceci, and Jake Muzzin.
With Reilly back from injury, expect to see those numbers change. Easing the load for the rest of the back end will likely result in better performances from those who were playing more minutes than they should be.
Toronto allowed an average of 3.17 goals against per game this season, ranking 26th in the league. This was partly due to Reilly first playing hurt and then being out with injury. The extra ice time his injury gave some players resulted in them being overused out of necessity.
In Between The Pipes
The hardest part of many play-in series this year will be how goaltenders respond. This could be more true in this series than most others.
Columbus went into this season with no clear starter. Most pundits predicted that Joonas Korpisalo would take the reins but it was Elvis Merzlikins who stole the show. Merzlikins went winless in his first ten-game over the first three months of the season. In December, however, he exploded with a 10-2 record and a stellar .948 save percentage.
His January was not as good as he posted a 4-7 record and a .911 save percentage.
With a season save percentage of .923 and has posted five shutouts in 22 games since the start of December, it is highly likely that Merzlikins is the Game One starter.
In Toronto, the slow starts of Frederik Andersen have become a yearly source of angst among the fan base. Adding to the question marks is that, aside from a stellar November, Andersen’s campaign this year has been incredibly sub-par. From December through the end of February, he posted a terrible .894 save percentage. Andersen did post a shutout and a 2-1 win in his two March starts before the season was suspended.
Jack Campbell has proven to be the reliable back-up that Toronto needs after losing Curtis McElhinney to free agency in 2018. Campbell, who was acquired on February 5th from the Los Angeles Kings, posted strong numbers immediately with a .915 save percentage. The team responded well to his presence and the stability he provided in the backup position.
With Andersen the undeniable starter for Game One of the play-in series, the question becomes, in such a short series, can he hit the ice with his A-game? And if he struggles, is there any point in which Keefe will go to Campbell as a starter in games two or three?
Summary And Prediction
With a win and an overtime loss against the Blue Jackets this year, Toronto will be in a tough series. At their best when allowed to free-wheel, the Leafs tend to struggle against constant defensive pressure and physical play. Both of which are hallmarks of the Blue Jackets.
With an overwhelming advantage upfront and an obvious disadvantage defensively, this series is going to come down to who gets the better goaltending. If Merzlikins steps in and looks like the rest has him back in midseason form Toronto could be in trouble. Likewise, if Andersen can start strong and play up to his talent, then this series could be over very quickly.
The Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets series could be one of the tightest of the play-in round. The Leafs offence will carry the day over a hard-fought and tight series.
Toronto in 5
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