The Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets have engaged in a war of conflicting styles. For two games they have pitted offence against defence and both games have been completely different in style and result. While both games provided different questions, in a surprise twist the quality of goaltending, a complete x-factor at the start, has become a major storyline.
Goaltending Shining For Both Teams
Before the series began there were many questions facing both the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jackets. Frederik Andersen, known for his slow starts in October was an unknown commodity in a short series. Columbus did not even have a clear picture of who would start for them. Joonas Korpisalo was more experienced but rookie Elvis Merzlikins had delivered a superior regular-season performance.
All questions were answered as both Andersen and Korpisalo hit the ice and immediately looked to be in peak form. Each goalie made highlight-reel saves with almost no mistakes as they traded shutouts in Games One and Two. Cam Atkinson was the only Blue Jacket to beat Andersen in Game One. Auston Matthews‘ perfect tip in front and a John Tavares breakaway were the only shots to beat Korpisalo in Game Two.
Both goalies appear to be locked in at a high level and this series looks to be a low scoring affair, likely going the distance.
Will The Real John Tavares Please Stand Up
Toronto acquired John Tavares to provide a number of things. First on the list was leadership and veteran experience. Toronto was very young and in need of a larger veteran presence. Secondly, it was to provide the team with a one-two offensive punch down the middle to rival such teams as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals.
Tavares is still capable of being a game-changer. However, through Game One he appeared lethargic and slow — almost disengaged from the game. While he was far from the only one on Toronto to put in a lackluster effort, more is expected from a player of Tavares’ stature — particularity when he was acquired for his drive and leadership.
Game Two was a completely different story. Tavares was noticeable and dangerous every time he stepped on the ice. He was the player the Leafs need if they intend to make any kind of deep run this year. And if history has shown us anything about Tavares, this is who we will see the rest of the way.
Defence Is Key
The Columbus back end is anchored by the two pillars of Zack Werenski and Seth Jones and both are showing they are elite. Both logged over 25 minutes in Game One and over 28 minutes in Game Two. Playing in all situations and against the opposition’s top talent every game, they are arguably the best defensive pairing in the league. In the Columbus win, both completely shut down every Toronto forward with the exception of Matthews. Fortunately for Columbus, Korpisalo and the goalposts kept him off the board.
In the first meeting, the Toronto defence had multiple breakdowns and looked porous and overwhelmed by the Columbus forecheck. If not for the goaltending, it could easily have been an even worse loss. In Game Two, Toronto abandoned the attempt to play cautiously and their offence took the pressure off the back end, resulting in an overall stronger game.
The Best Defence Is A Good Offence
Toronto started Game One with a very puzzling approach. Coach Sheldon Keefe took Mitch Marner off of Auston Matthews’ wing and replaced him with William Nylander. Before the pause, both Marner with Matthews and Nylander with Tavares were proving to be incredibly efficient. Keefe combined these lines with a focus on team defence.
It showed immediately that this approach was doomed to fail with Toronto. Playing tentatively to limit mistakes only resulted in a forward group that, aside from Matthews, appeared unprepared and listless. Often the entire team seemed to be unsure of where to go or who to check. Columbus used this to their advantage, running over the Toronto back end and generating many high-quality chances.
Keefe recognized the mistakes and immediately corrected them for Game Two, going to the offence-first game plan that had gotten Toronto to the post-season originally. Keefe also re-united Marner with Matthews and Nylander with Tavares which showed immediate chemistry with both lines coming at Columbus in waves. Only Korpisalo playing the best hockey of his young career prevented this game from being a complete blowout.
Columbus played a perfect Game One while Toronto stumbled and had to readjust. Having done so, Toronto has shown their strength to Columbus. Do not expect the Leafs to make the same mistakes again. They have reaffirmed to themselves the game they have to play.
Columbus employs an outstanding head coach in John Tortorella. Expect him to make adjustments to address the different style of play from Toronto as he did against the Tampa Bay Lightning last year. They will close the gaps that Toronto exposed and continue to have Jones and Werenski do everything they can to shut the Toronto guns down.
Both the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jackets have shown they have what is needed in net. Expect to see a continued display of goaltending excellence in low-scoring games going forward. Andersen is full value and Korpisalo is staking his claim as a playoff performer.
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