Is a 3-0 lead the new “most dangerous lead in hockey”? For the second straight night, a team lost a three-goal lead, then lost the game in OT. This time it was the Toronto Maple Leafs beating the Columbus Blue Jackets to force a deciding Game 5 in their Qualifying Round series. The Blue Jackets had three attempts at an empty net in the final four minutes of the game, and didn’t score.
If any one of the three empty net attempts had gone in, it would have sealed the win (we suppose) and sent the Blue Jackets to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Instead, the Maple Leafs scored three times in 3:33 – with goalie Frederik Andersen on the bench – to tie the score and send the game to OT. Ten seconds after Columbus captain Nick Foligno went to the penalty box on a look-closely-then-talk-to-me tripping penalty, Auston Matthews, left all alone, buried the puck.
Keep in mind that with the goalie pulled, the Maple Leafs were skating six-on-five. That extra skater, the man advantage, is much like a power play, but with more bodies on the ice. Let’s remember that during the regular season Toronto had the third-most successful power play in the Eastern Conference (23.1%). Prior to the Game 4 OT-winning goal, the Blue Jackets limited that star-studded group to 9% on the power play (1 of 11) for the series.
Shaky Start, Solid Middle, Lousy Finish
Blue Jackets starting goaltender Elvis Merzlikins (49 saves, 1 assist) seemed to have trouble communicating with his defensemen from the very first shift. None of the early miscues led to Maple Leafs scores, but they did create some needless excitement. Regardless of the coordination with his skaters, Merzlikins continued his shutout streak, dating to the middle of Game 3, right up to the last four minutes of last night’s Game 4.
All four of the Maple Leafs goals came after Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski left the game with an apparent injury in the middle of the third period. (There was no update on his status this morning.) The Maple Leafs star forwards accounted for all of the goals and assists in the amazing four-goal comeback:
- Zach Hyman: 1 goal and 1 assist
- Mitch Marner: 0 goals and 3 assists
- Auston Matthews: 1 goal and 2 assists
- William Nylander: 1 goal and 1 assist
- John Tavares: 1 goal and 1 assist
Blue Jackets’ Roster Changes
Coach John Tortorella made a couple of changes to his lineup for Game 4 in addition to starting Merzlikins in goal. Winger Nathan Gerbe replaced Emil Bemstrom, who had been solid but unspectacular (0 pts, 2 penalty minutes, 3 shots) in under 9 minutes average ice time per game. Gerbe skated 7:44 last night and was kept off the scoresheet, but was a contributor on the forecheck.
On defense, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara were replaced by Scott Harrington (his first game of the series) and Dean Kukan (returning to the lineup after being scratched for Game 3). Murray and Nuttivaara were ineffective in Game 3. Harrington and Kukan weren’t much of an improvement as far as stats are concerned.
The State of the Qualifying Round
Of the eight Qualifying Round series, Columbus-Toronto is the only one yet to be decided, which may be appropriate since the matchup is the #8 vs. #9 seeds. That’s not to say that there weren’t some significant surprises in other series.
- The 12th seed Montreal Canadiens (71 points in the regular season) did the nearly unthinkable in upsetting the 5th seed Pittsburgh Penguins (86 pts) in four games.
- The 6th seed Carolina Hurricanes had no problem sweeping the 11th seed New York Rangers, outscoring them 11-4 in the three games.
- The New York Islanders, seeded 7th, sent home Sergei Bobrovsky and the 10th seed Florida Panthers in four games. (Bob gave up 13 goals in the series, with a save percentage of .901.)
- The 5th seed Edmonton Oilers lost to the 12th seed Chicago Blackhawks in four games. It was a high-scoring series, with a total of 31 goals.
- In another upset, the 6th seed Nashville Predators lost in four games to the 11th seed Arizona Coyotes. The final game went to OT, with Arizona scoring to prevent a Game 5.
- The 7th seed Vancouver Canucks lost the first game in their series against the 10th seed Minnesota Wild, then took three straight (including an OT win in Game 4).
- In the other conference’s #8 vs. #9 series, the higher-seeded Calgary Flames knocked out the Winnipeg Jets in four games.
Coming Up Next
Game 5, Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, is a must-win game. The victor moves on to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the other is done until 2020-21 (but does have a 1-in-8 chance of winning the top pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft). Toronto will have home ice for Game 5, allowing coach Sheldon Keefe to match lines.
What a wonderfully crazy series! It may be the poster child for a “seesaw series.” A shutout. A shutout by the other team. A comeback from a three-goal deficit to win in OT. A comeback from a three-goal deficit to win in OT by the other team. What will Game 5 bring? More of the same? If so, which “same”? Or perhaps something totally different? We’ll find out soon.
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.”