Disaster strikes again for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Columbus Blue Jackets snatched a 3-2 series win over the Maple Leafs after the Leafs stole Game 4 with an improbable come-from-behind win in overtime. For a team with such high expectations, and an even higher cap hit, many fans have been wondering why the Toronto Maple Leafs qualifying round saw an early exit. There are obviously many factors into why a team wins or loses a playoff series, but the Blue Jackets were an almost perfect team to match up against the Leafs.
Toronto Maple Leafs Qualifying Round Matchup was Bad
Defense Wins Championships
We’ve all heard this phrase before. It was repeated by youth sports coaches encouraging us to play defense and not just look to score. In professional sports, it’s not quite as simple as that, but the Blue Jackets seem to have taken this phrase to heart. In many defensive statistics, they are better than the league average. They allowed the third-fewest goals in the league this season with only 187, allowed eight fewer goals than expected, and gave up 17 fewer goals than the league average. They also had 27 fewer high-danger chances against them than the league average and had seven fewer high-danger chances converted to goals than the league average. Their top pairing of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones is arguably the best defensive pairing in the league. The other four defensemen are also extremely capable of shutting down high-powered offenses.
But certainly a talented Maple Leafs offense could work around this stellar defense, right? Surely the combination of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner could break through and score a couple. But here lies why the Blue Jackets are a nightmare matchup for the Leafs. Against the Jackets, a team cannot have just one or two incredible lines if they want to score. They need to have three or four if they want to get past the stone-wall defense. Columbus’ defense is so deep that John Tortorella feels comfortable with any defensive pairing out on the ice. This means every line has significant ice time, and the star players can be rested more. So when the third period rolls around and the Maple Leafs offensive talents are tired, the defensemen for Columbus still have energy, and can shut down offensive chances.
The numbers don’t lie. Matthews led the Toronto Maple Leafs Qualifying Round in points with only six, while William Nylander and Marner only had four each. Tavares only had three. None of the Leafs got a point in Game 1 or Game 5, and even with better showings in Game 2 and Game 4, the Leafs were hopeless offensively past the halfway mark of the second period. Their fourth line did not have a point in the entire series, and the third line only had three. For such an offensively talented team, their lack of depth really came to light. To beat the Blue Jackets, all four lines needed to be offensively involved, and that just never came to fruition for the Leafs.
Motivator vs Babysitter
Coaching is where the Blue Jackets have an advantage over most teams. However, that advantage grows even larger over the Maple Leafs. John Tortorella, a Jack Adams finalist, is one of the greatest motivators in the game. How else did Columbus sweep the red-hot top-seed in the Tampa Bay Lightning last year? How else did they beat a much more talented Maple Leafs team? Tortorella uses motivation and players’ own intrinsic drive to succeed to push his team to be better. He pushes everyone to be better, including his star players. He gave a heated speech to Pierre-Luc Dubois in Game 2 on the bench. Then, in Game 3, Dubois scored a hat trick, including the game-winning goal in overtime. It’s possible this is a coincidence, but it’s much more likely that Dubois took Tortorella’s advice to heart, and proved it on the ice the next game.
On the other hand, Sheldon Keefe is just a babysitter. He takes care of the star players, but in the end, requires them to play well for the team to play well. This works for most regular-season games where long-term strategies are ineffective. But in a series, coaching can be the difference-maker. There didn’t seem to be the same drive to win within the Maple Leafs’ squad as the Blue Jackets. Every player wants to win, but if the coach doesn’t match and increase that energy, that drive soon fades. It seems the Leafs’ players are playing for themselves, while Columbus’ are playing for each other, a much stronger bond. This difference in coaching techniques meant the difference in who moved on to the round of 16.