Both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs thought they knew who they were coming into their best-of-five series. But after a decisive 3-0 win in Game 5 by the Blue Jackets, it’s clear that one team knew who they were and the other team thought they knew who they were.
The Blue Jackets were who they said they were. The Maple Leafs now have an identity crisis on their hands.
The Leafs Approach Hasn’t Worked
This was supposed to be their chance, right? The Maple Leafs had what seemed like the perfect opportunity to win a postseason series after years of falling short. They had the offensive stars. They were deemed the favorites in the series. They got to play all five games on their home ice. The stage was set for the Maple Leafs to finally win a series for the first time in almost 6,000 days.
They had the momentum too. The Maple Leafs Game 4 comeback was one for the ages. They trailed 3-0 and then stormed all the way back to tie the game and then win it in overtime. They had new life. Surely this was finally the year for a breakthrough.
But then, thud.
That sound you heard was the Maple Leafs facing the reality of an identity crisis. That wave of momentum gained in Game 4 was gone within the first few minutes of Game 5.
Zach Werenski scored to give the Blue Jackets not only a 1-0 lead, it gave them the ability to relax and know that what happened in Game 4 was done with. With an early lead, they can focus on shutting down the Maple Leafs.
Not only were the Maple Leafs shut down, their identity was shoved back in their face by a Blue Jackets’ team that knows how to handle difficult situations.
All year long, the Blue Jackets have faced numerous types of adversity. Whether it was key injuries or not being able to score many goals, something was always happening. Yet, they kept finding ways to win. Those adversities set them up well in this series. They were comfortable in the pressure. Even in a close game, the Blue Jackets remained steadfast in their identity.
Related: Blue Jackets Mentality Key to Series
The Blue Jackets held the Maple Leafs to three 5-on-5 goals the entire series. Think about that for a minute. Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner. John Tavares. William Nylander. We could go on. There are high-end stars in Toronto. But in five games, they averaged 0.6 5-on-5 goals per game.
Joonas Korpisalo had a lot to do with that. He was outstanding. He recorded bookend shutouts in Game 1 and in Game 5. His 33 saves in Game 5 frustrated the Maple Leafs all night. You could tell the Maple Leafs didn’t know what hit them.
The Maple Leafs approach looked like a good idea on paper. If you load up with offensive talent, perhaps that’s one way to make a deep run in the playoffs. Matthews played really well in this series. His line had numerous chances to score but just couldn’t do it. As a team, they shot under 2% for the series at even strength. The other lines couldn’t get anything going. Any momentum the top line got was quickly handed back to the Blue Jackets when they left the ice.
Leafs Must Look In The Mirror
So now the Maple Leafs have to take a good, long look in the mirror. They have an identity crisis on their hands. Their approach has not worked to this point. What can they do about it? Even more importantly, how much can they change given the flat cap?
These will be important questions for GM Kyle Dubas to consider. There are obvious holes that need to be filled on defense and in role situations. While Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford were players brought in to fill specific needs, it was not enough. The top line looked dead tired by the end of Game 5. There was just not enough help.
Can the Maple Leafs afford to stay the current course? How will they view shooting 2% in a five-game series in the long run? This current core hasn’t won a thing. Let me repeat that. These current Maple Leafs have won nothing despite having oodles of talent.
The Blue Jackets’ identity has revealed an identity crisis for these Maple Leafs. If the Leafs hope to finally overcome the hurdle of winning a playoff series, they better seriously consider some significant changes to their identity. They’re not setup to win a playoff series. Has the time come for an established star to go in order to bring back significant help in other areas?
After this series, the Maple Leafs have some incredibly hard decisions to make. And just how hot will Dubas’ seat be next season? It’s piping hot already. If big changes don’t come soon, he might be part of the change. How he handles this crisis could define his tenure with the Maple Leafs.
Let’s talk about key takeaways from Game 5.
- Liam Foudy was a monster. He found himself promoted to the top line alongside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alex Texier. It was easy to see why. He has a calmness and confidence in his game that is unreal to see in someone so young. He’s not even 21 yet.
- Coach John Tortorella didn’t hold back in his praise of Foudy. “He’s got balls! That’s what it is. That kid wasn’t afraid to hold onto the puck. I think he’s one of our freer, if I could use that word, offensive players. He’s willing to be in traffic, willing to make plays in traffic.”
- Tortorella went onto say that Foudy isn’t afraid of the big stage. You can expect plenty more of him as we move along. And don’t be surprised if other teams who haven’t seen him yet underestimate his speed. He will be a nightmare,
- But how did he get so wide open on his goal? Even he doesn’t know. “The rim came to me,” Foudy said. “There wasn’t anyone there. I was all alone. I’m not quite sure what happened. I picked up and looked up to see if any of my teammates were coming. I didn’t see anyone but just tried to throw a no-look on net and lucky enough, it went in for us.”
- How about Korpisalo? What a performance after being pulled from Game 3. Elvis Merzlikins was injured so it was Korpisalo’s net all the way. That hidden advantage of two goalies paid huge dividends. No matter who is in net, the Blue Jackets have a great chance to win. One of the biggest question marks of the season is now one of the biggest strengths of the team. PS. There’s more on the way. They have scary good depth in the goaltending pipeline.
- Zach Werenski went from being very questionable to hero in short order. He had an MRI Saturday and then woke up Sunday feeling good enough to play. His goal early in the game was huge for the team. It settled them down and allowed them to get into their game. Werenski told the media “(I) felt great to go this morning. I was happy I could play tonight and happy I could chip in.”
- The funniest moment of the night happened early in the game. With the puck near the blue line, Vladislav Gavrikov tried his best to wave the puck out of the zone from the bench. You have to admire his effort on this. It’s something you don’t see everyday and another reason why Blue Jackets’ fans have warmed up to him in a big way.
- Up next for the Blue Jackets is a rematch with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Game 1 goes Tuesday at 3 P.M. eastern. That’s a quick turnaround after playing to the max Sunday night. The early story to watch is will Victor Hedman or Steven Stamkos be ready? And will we see Josh Anderson at some point?
- Just how bad do the Lightning want to exact revenge on the Blue Jackets? The motivation factor will be sky high. But we’ll now see if they’ve learned their lesson from last season. They have changed their approach some. But will it be enough against a stout team?
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 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.