It all comes down to this.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs will play Game 5 of their Stanley Cup Qualifer series Sunday night. This marks the first time in Blue Jackets’ franchise history that they are playing in a true elimination game. They’ve never played in a Game 7 before. What are we watching for?
1. Zach Werenski & Ryan Murray
The Blue Jackets do have some good news. Both Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray are in the Game 5 lineup. While that’s a huge sigh of relief, questions do remain.
The biggest question is just how healthy are they? Werenski had an MRI Saturday after missing the last half of the third period and all of overtime in Game 4. There’s obvious discomfort but it’s not severe enough to keep him from playing. It will be interesting to watch how he reacts to certain plays. How will he take or give a hit? Will his shot be altered in anyway?
As for Murray, he missed Game 4 and Tortorella confirmed it was injury related. Recall Murray has had nagging back issues but we don’t know what kept him from playing. What we do know is that the extra days of rest helped and he is ready to play. But will he be limited? Watch his skating early on. That should give us enough of a hint.
2. Joonas Korpisalo Regains the Net
After being pulled in Game 3, Joonas Korpisalo will start in Game 5. While Tortorella did not elaborate on the decision, it’s clear that the end of Game 4 seemed to have an impact.
Elvis Merzlikins played great for just over 56 minutes. Then when the Maple Leafs pulled Frederik Andersen, they scored three times to tie the game. It appeared Merzlikins was a little rattled at what just happened. He came back in overtime making a couple of good saves before Auston Matthews won it with a power-play goal.
Tortorella has the luxury of picking from two good goaltenders. This is a chance for Korpisalo to make amends for how the beginning of Game 3 went. He didn’t play poorly but the team needed a spark. Now they need him to play the best game of his life in order to advance. Korpisalo is also the fresher goalie of the two. That could come into play especially if the game goes past regulation.
UPDATE: Tortorella told radio voice Bob McElligott that Merzlikins is injured.
Related: Blue Jackets Hidden Advantage
3. Confidence Remains High
The Blue Jackets are saying the right things. Outside of the last three minutes of the third period in game four, they played their game. Tortorella echoed that sentiment on Sunday.
“Oh, we’re fine. We’re fine,” Tortorella said. “We feel we have the momentum no matter what happened there. Momentum’s a funny thing. If you want to give it back to them, you lose it. If you don’t want to give it back to them, you keep it on your side.”
The Blue Jackets won’t change who they are just because of the outcome of the last game.
“We’re not changing. We thought we played a good game,” Tortorella said. “You know, we pissed it away on a couple of bad plays and just within a couple of minutes. We thought we played a good same. We’re going to go play the same way.”
4. The Penalty Box
Although the Maple Leafs are just 2/12 in the series on the power play, the Blue Jackets must stay out of the box simply because of the threat of that power play. Captain Nick Foligno knows this and addressed what the team must do to keep the game at 5-on-5.
“Obviously, they thrive on the power play,” Foligno said. “They’re always looking to get calls and that’s kind of the engine of their team. (We need to be) making sure we’re good on the forecheck and when we have chances to close out we do and we get going the other way. It’s amazing what can happen when you’re forcing them to play without the puck so that’s going to be the focus.”
The Blue Jackets must stay out of the penalty box. This is where the mental part of the game will be key. Given what happened on Friday, can they keep frustration out of their game and not take the dumb penalty? If they allow four or more chances again, their chances of winning start shooting down.
5. Where Are You, Oliver Bjorkstrand?
In Game 1, Oliver Bjorkstrand had four shots and played 19:38. He was at least noticeable. Since then, he has barely been seen.
Here are Bjorkstrand’s numbers in Games 2-4:
- Game 2: 15:14 TOI, 0 SOG.
- Game 3: 17:12 TOI, 1 SOG.
- Game 4: 16:19 TOI, 1 SOG.
Just to give you some perspective, Cam Atkinson played over 30 minutes in Game 3. Then in Game 4, Liam Foudy played almost as much as Bjorkstrand at 15:36.
Prior to his injury, Bjorkstrand was the Blue Jackets’ best forward. But at least so far in this series, he hasn’t looked like himself. He hasn’t been able to get things going like we normally see.
Bjorkstrand needs to find his game on Sunday. He has game-breaking skill and could put the Blue Jackets over the top of a closely-contested elimination game. Even if he doesn’t score, he needs to be at least noticeable. His limited minutes of late just show how much of a struggle it’s been thus far.
Bjorkstrand is on the verge of stardom. If he finds his game on Sunday night, a star could be born on the national stage.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.