Sunday evening the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-0 to take the first game of their best-of-five Qualifying Round series. As predicted (by many, including me), it was a matter of which team could impose its style of play. The Blue Jackets are a physical, forechecking pressure, defense-first team. The Maple Leafs are a swift, skilled, offensive bunch.
Several things stood out for me as I watched the game (mostly on the edge of my seat). Before I get to the teams’ play and players’ performance, I’d like to say kudos to the league — the ice was so much better last evening than it was when the Blue Jackets played their exhibition game against the Bruins last Thursday. I also thought the referees and linesmen did a very good job (except for Gus Nyquist’s seemingly legitimate beef about an icing call). Little “almost penalties” were ignored, while actual calls were made. The refs let the players decide the game, sending only the truly deserving to the box.
You might not have noticed the post-game 10-minute misconduct to Kasperi Kapanen for a check to the head of Ryan Murray. It happened with less than 14 seconds to play in the game and there was no whistle. No word yet on any supplemental discipline by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Noteworthy: 10 seconds later, with the game already decided, Blue Jackets’ Riley Nash had Maple Leafs’ Cody Ceci lined up along the boards but turned away rather than finishing his check with less than four seconds remaining in a 2-0 game. Nash made the correct decision.
Blue Jackets Defense and Forecheck
The Blue Jackets did much better in the face-off circle than they did against the Bruins in the exhibition game. That’s not to say they did great, just better, winning some key draws. However, they did not have an answer for John Tavares (who won 15 of 17 faceoffs) or Auston Matthews (11 of 17). Blue Jacket Boone Jenner was the only center to win over half of his draws (8 of 15), with Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alexander Wennberg, and Riley Nash a combined 9 of 21.
Joonas Korpisalo got the start in goal — yes, I admit that I guessed wrong on that one — and looked like he deserved it. He had a lot of help (18 blocked shots, five by David Savard), but he made the tough saves when needed. The best save: stealing a clean look from Matthews, who found himself all alone in the slot for a one-timer that had serious heat on it. Korpisalo’s glove probably got a few scorch marks on it from that one. Last night marked the first ever Blue Jackets postseason shutout.
The sixth defenseman debate was settled (at least for that game), with Dean Kukan getting the call over Markus Nutivaara. He skated 17 shifts, totaling just over 13 minutes of ice time, recording 4 shots, 1 hit, and a takeaway.
The Blue Jackets looked substantially bigger and heavier than the Maple Leafs. That didn’t take away from their skating, however. It was a great combination of size, strength, and speed. It turns out, by the way, that “bigger” isn’t actually accurate. The players skating for the Maple Leafs last night average 73.16 inches and 199.33 pounds, while the Blue Jackets average 72.89 inches and 200.44 pounds.
Dubois was relentless in his pursuit of the puck. He wasn’t credited with any takeaways and only one hit, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a major disruption on the forecheck.
The Blue Jackets did a great job shutting down Toronto’s big guns. Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe put a lot of eggs in a couple of baskets, keeping Matthews on the ice for 22:25 (the most of any Maple Leaf, and second only to Blue Jacket D-man Seth Jones’ 23:10). William Nylander earned 19:39 ice time, with Zach Hyman only a minute behind. Tavares clocked 17:30.
Keefe also complimented the Blue Jackets’ defensive pairs of David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov/Jones and Werenski (sort of). “Gavrikov and Savard are tough defenders just the same. We’ve already talked about [Werenski and Jones]. It is a tough matchup for [the Tavares-Marner line].”
Blue Jackets Offense
There’s no doubt that Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen would like another chance on Cam Atkinson’s goal — however, overall he looked good in net. Atkinson’s goal was a sniper’s shot, about 14 inches off the ice, far side, over the leg pad and under Andersen’s blocker.
The second and final goal was an empty-netter by Alexander Wennberg on his second chance at the empty net. He attempted to pass on the first try, and if you watch closely he actually had to try the pass — he didn’t have a shot.
Including the empty-net goal, the Blue Jackets totaled 35 shots on goal. And the Maple Leafs were credited with 14 blocked shots. In addition to Kukan, Oliver Bjorkstrand had four shots. Twelve of the 35 shots came from the defense.
Interestingly, according to NaturalStatTrick.com, the Blue Jackets had more individual rushes than the speedy Maple Leafs (6-0). Other than Atkinson’s goal, Dubois’s breakaway was the most spectacular. Blowing past everyone, he put the puck off the crossbar — it would have had every fan in the stands on their feet, if they were there.
The kids are alright: Both Liam Foudy (16 shifts, 13:19 time on ice) and Emil Robinson (13 shifts, 9:32 time on ice) looked like they belonged. They provided speed and tenacity on the forecheck and the backcheck. And speaking of rookies, Maple Leafs forward Nick Robertson (16 shifts, 12:28 ice time) is the youngest player to make his NHL debut in a postseason game since Jarome Iginla in 1996 for the Calgary Flames.
Coming Up Next
Game 2 of the series will be Tuesday, Aug. 4 at 4 p.m. EST. I imagine, based on what we saw last night, that Korpisalo and Andersen will be in goal. The lines may be tweaked a bit by Keefe and Columbus coach John Tortorella, and ice time may be distributed differently, but I expect to see more of the same from each team. Tortorella, in his postgame press conference, seemed to indicate he was happy: “It is nothing special we are doing. We are just trying to play the game the right way.” For Torts, that might be considered a rave review.
Pete Bauer is both a hockey fan and player. As a columnist for The Hockey Writers.com, he covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, NCAA hockey, and NHL trends, statistics, and history. He’s considered the go-to guy for info on the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL Players’ Association and other hockey-related legal mumbo-jumbo. He’s a frequent guest on a variety of podcasts. You’ll find all of his THW columns here. Pete is also the author of over a dozen books on photography, digital imaging, and graphics, including “Photoshop CC for Dummies.”