The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a team-record 4th consecutive season. They defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the deciding Game 5, 3-0. They also shut out the Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the series. The Blue Jackets will open the playoffs in a best-of-seven series against the Tampa Bay Lightning – for the 2nd straight year.
Columbus vs. Toronto was the most exciting of the eight best-of-five qualification round. Not only was it the only series to go the full five games, but it also had drama. Lots and lots of drama, including three shutouts and two games in which a 3-0 lead became a 4-3 overtime loss. There was stellar goaltending throughout (okay, maybe not for the final 3-1/2 minutes of Game 4), slick skating, passing and shooting, and an edge of physicality that may be the basis of a rivalry that could last for years.
Injuries on the Blue Line
Both teams lost key defensemen to injuries. The Maple Leafs suffered a series-ending injury to top-4 D-man Jake Muzzin in Game 2. For Columbus, it was a pair of injuries to their top D-man Zach Werenski (who scored the game and series-winning goal last night).
He could be seen on the bench in Game 1 getting a brace on his wrist, then he left Game 4 – not long before his team’s 3-0 lead fell apart. Blue Jacket Ryan Murray missed Game 4, reportedly due to injury.
Blue Jackets Roster Changes, Again
Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella mixed it up again for the series finale. With Werenski and Murray able to skate but coming off injuries, he opted to dress an extra defenseman and only 11 forwards. The 7th D-man, Markus Nutivaara, saw only 1:50 of ice time, but he was available on the bench if Werenski, Murray, or any other defenseman was injured. (The Game 4 meltdown came with only five Blue Jackets defensemen available.)
Tortorella returned to Joonas Korpisalo in goal. Korpisalo started the first three games of the series, but was pulled halfway through Game 3 in favor of backup Elvis Merzlikins. The Game 3 goalie switch reportedly was not due to any failure by Korpisalo, but rather to spark the team. That apparently worked, as the Blue Jackets then scored four unanswered goals for the overtime win.
Merzlikins played Game 4, and took a shutout into the final minutes of the 3rd period. He surrendered three late goals with the Maple Leafs skating 6-on-5, then gave up the game winner on an overtime power play. The decision to start Korpisalo in Game 5 was a no-brainer for Tortorella – Merzlikins was listed as “unable to play.” (The Game 5 backup goalie was Matiss Kivlenieks.)
Coming Up Next
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the Lightning is scheduled for Tuesday at 3 PM EST. The Maple Leafs are done playing until the 2020-21 season begins (whenever that will be). Toronto does, however, have a 1-in-8 (12.5%) chance of winning the 2nd Phase of the NHL Entry Draft Lottery this evening for the 1st-overall pick. (Also in contention are the other seven teams that lost in the qualifying round.) At stake is young potential superstar Alex Lafrenière, the consensus best player available.
Related: 2020 NHL Draft Guide – Updated
Last season, against the Lightning the Blue Jackets fell into a 3-0 hole early in Game 1, then came back to win not only that game but to sweep the series. After scoring their 4th straight goal in Game 1, Columbus did not trail again in the series. In fact, other than :54 toward the end of the 2nd period of Game 4, they held the lead through the remainder of the series.
Last season, Tampa Bay was the Presidents’ Cup-winning top seed, and the Blue Jackets were the lowly 2nd wild-card team in the Eastern Conference. This year, the Blue Jackets come in as the 7th seed (what would be the 1st wild-card team in a normal year) and the Lightning are the 2nd seed after a round-robin seeding tournament with the three other top teams in the conference.
Either way, the Blue Jackets’ physical defensive style will face a fast, high-scoring team, just like last year’s playoffs, and just like this year’s qualification round. Can Columbus handle the firepower two series in a row? We’ll find out, starting tomorrow afternoon.
Pete Bauer is both a hockey fan and player. As a columnist for The Hockey Writers, he covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, NCAA hockey, and NHL trends, statistics, and history. He is also the author of over a dozen books on photography, digital imaging, and graphics, including “Photoshop CC for Dummies.”