It’s finally here. Gameday.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs open their postseason Sunday night in Toronto in what should be an outstanding matchup. But who has the upper hand? Who will come out victorious in this best-of-five series?
While I’m not going to predict a winner, I will share five specific things that I will be watching in this series. How these things transpire will go a long way in determining who advances to the round-of-16 and who will get a 1 in 8 shot at drafting star Alexis Lafreniere.
On the surface, this series is a contrast of styles between the high-potent Maple Leafs offense and stingy Blue Jackets defense. But a closer look suggests there’s a lot more to look out for. It turns out the Maple Leafs defense could be better than they’re being given credit for. It also turns out we might be underrating the Blue Jackets offense some. Let’s dive right in.
5 Specific Things to Watch For
1. Different Types of Goalie Pressure
The outcome of this series will heavily be influenced by goaltending. But we have a tale of two different situations and two different kinds of pressure.
On one side, the Blue Jackets tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have zero postseason experience under their belt. Korpisalo has been a backup in the playoffs but has not seen any action. While each goalie has had a nice season, they have never been on this stage before. The pressure doesn’t get any higher.
What I’ll be watching for here is how they handle momentum on short notice. Recall earlier in the season that Korpisalo lost his cool in the heat of the moment. It happened on multiple occasions. He got by those outbursts and has been good since. But he needs to maintain his cool no matter what’s going on around him.
Imagine the Blue Jackets are winning and then the Maple Leafs score consecutive goals in short order. How Korpisalo or Merzlikins handle this adversity will be key. You are not going to completely shut down the Maple Leafs. So focus and attitude will be a huge factor. If Korpisalo has another outburst like he did in Philadelphia or Colorado, he won’t be in for very long. He must keep his emotions in check. Same goes for Merzlikins. Their actions in net will have a direct influence on the confidence level of the team in front of them.
As for the Maple Leafs, Frederik Andersen has a different kind of pressure on him. He needs to win a postseason series. The question will be which Andersen shows up to the series. He is an infamously slow starter. He even has a nickname “October Freddy.”
I’ll be watching how he reacts if the Blue Jackets get to him early. The reality is all of the pressure in this series is on the Maple Leafs. They have the stars. They get the series at ScotiaBank Arena. If Andersen struggles early, how will the team respond?
Andersen didn’t have the kind of season he had hoped for. Now he must prove he can rise to the occasion and help the Maple Leafs get to their ultimate goal. If they lose this series, serious questions will need to be asked.
There’s different kinds of pressure in play. Which goalies will navigate through the best?
2. Maple Leafs’ Power-Play Zone Entries
The matchup of the Leafs power play and the Blue Jackets penalty kill will be fun to watch all series. A star-studded man advantage against a stout penalty kill who looks for offense will be the ultimate chess match.
The thing I will be watching for specifically is the entries at the blue line. In talking with some Maple Leafs folks, if there’s one area where they need to improve on, it’s their entries. This starts will Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
It will be up to Matthews and Marner to setup quickly in the zone. The Blue Jackets need to focus on Marner as he is usually the puck carrier in this situations. They need to make life as miserable as possible for him.
In their exhibition game against Montreal, the Maple Leafs did not score on the power play. But what stood out on tape was the denied entries. The Canadiens loaded up in the neutral zone and were able to disrupt Matthews and Marner as they tried to attack. The Blue Jackets will depend on a stingy approach to gain similar results. They might even get a shorthanded goal out of it given their desire to create offense.
If the Leafs get easily setup in the zone, it will not bode well for the Blue Jackets. They must defend their blue line if they hope to advance to the next round.
3. Attacking Seth Jones
Seth Jones is an all-world player who will be in the Norris Trophy conversation for years to come. He is the engine that makes the Blue Jackets go from the blue line.
But with all that said, there is a weakness in his game that I’ll be watching for. Jones is especially effective using his body and reach to defend. But where he can be beaten at times is when a team with speed goes directly at him.
The Maple Leafs have the speed to do this. I’ll be watching the approach the Maple Leafs take in attacking both Jones and Zach Werenski. Sunday’s Game 1 will be Jones’ first meaningful game since February, almost six months. He said his skating feels good. But he did have a significant ankle injury. Will his skating be at the level it was before the injury?
The reason this is important is his defensive approach. Teams have had success with entries on his side on numerous occasions. But most of the time, his size and reach can bail him out. The Leafs have speedy wingers that can put pressure on him to react. I’ll be curious to see if the wingers go away from him or try to attack him knowing he can be a little loose sometimes. It all points to the neutral zone. Whoever wins the neutral zone will have a huge leg up in this series.
4. Don’t Sleep on the Blue Jackets’ Offense
We know their defense. It’s one of the best. But don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets’ offense. They might not be household names to those outside of Columbus, but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous.
Here are two specific names to keep in mind. Oliver Bjorkstrand. Emil Bemstrom. Bjorkstrand is on the verge of stardom. Before his injury, he was the best forward on the team. The growth in his game especially away from the puck has been very noticeable for a long time now. He is a legitimate offensive threat that might surprise Leafs’ nation.
He can score in a variety of ways. He can snipe when necessary. But he can also score from in tight. His type of game fits well to the playoff style. If the Blue Jackets comes out on top in this series, don’t be surprised if Bjorkstrand is the leading scorer on the team.
As for Bemstrom, his confidence grew as the season went on. He finished his rookie season with 10 goals. But it’s how he scores that stands out. He has a lethal shot and can get open to take his shot. He’ll play on the bottom six but will also see power-play time. The Maple Leafs better not leave him any time or space. If they do, it’ll be in the back of the net.
The Blue Jackets are expected to start Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois together on one line. Nick Foligno, Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson will compose another line. Then Gus Nyquist, Boone Jenner and Liam Foudy will make a third line. With Bjorkstrand, Atkinson and Nyquist on different lines, this is a balanced attack.
The Blue Jackets struggled to score during the regular season. That was in part due to their massive injury list. Now with most everyone back, their offense is primed to surprise some people. They will need depth scoring to keep up with the Leafs but they are in position to get it.
5. Don’t Overlook the Maple Leafs’ Defense
There is a narrative out there that suggests the Maple Leafs’ defense is a weakness and can be exposed. While it’s true they have had shaky moments as a unit, having Morgan Rielly back is huge for them. This is why they cannot be overlooked.
While they don’t play the Blue Jackets’ style in terms of in your face, hard-hitting defense, the Maple Leafs’ defense does excel in puck movement. That begins with Rielly.
When you have stars up front, the defense just needs to get the puck to them. Rielly will be at the center of this. So will Tyson Barrie. I’ll be watching to see how the Blue Jackets can disrupt the Leafs’ puck movement throughout the series. Puck possession can be an effective way to defend since the other team won’t have the puck.
Whoever can play their style and impose their will in this series will win. Can the Blue Jackets make the Maple Leafs forecheck? Will the Maple Leafs get the Blue Jackets into a track meet? There are lots of questions. But we’ll finally start to get some answers come Sunday night. Enjoy the series everyone.
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.