When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a stoppage in the NHL season, many wondered if a return was even possible. However, the league came out with a plan to move closer to resuming the season by heading straight into the playoffs.
Commissioner Gary Bettman laid out a 24-team playoff format, where teams outside of the top-eight (top four in each conference based on points percentage) will need to win a best-of-five, play-in series to move onto the round of 16.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. While it’s not the same Blue Jackets team that shocked the hockey world by eliminating the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning last season, they will still provide an excellent series.
This series is crucial for the Maple Leafs to make some playoff progress after three seasons of failed attempts to make it to the next round. What do they have to do to win the play-in and go deep in the playoffs? Let’s tackle that right now.
Forbes: Maple Leafs Will Beat Blue Jackets If They Have a Balanced Attack
There will be a number of aspects to the Maple Leafs’ game if they are going to beat the Blue Jackets in their best-of-five play-in series. But for me, one of the biggest things the team will have to focus on is having a balanced lineup – both in their end as well as the offensive end.
While the focus will be on stopping the Maple Leafs’ top two lines, a balanced attack will give them a strong advantage – especially with the speed they have in their bottom six. They had some key players step up throughout the season from their third and fourth lines that really added to what they were able to do following the coaching change – when Sheldon Keefe took over.
When the season came to a halt, the Maple Leafs had six players with double-digit goal totals. Four of those players had over 20 goals and two finished with 30 or more. On top of that, Alex Kerfoot and Jason Spezza both had nine goals, and Pierre Engvall, Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev all had eight while having dealt with injuries.
With the extended break, the team should get some of their injured players back by the time the next phase starts in the NHL’s Return to Play program which will benefit the team heading into their series with the Blue Jackets.
That said, the Blue Jackets will be in the same position as some of their players will return from injury, and that alone won’t benefit the Maple Leafs. Instead, Toronto will have to find a way to boost the offence from their bottom six.
An all-around four-line effort will be the key to the Maple Leafs beating the Blue Jackets. They will need to focus on discipline, as fewer penalties will give their bottom six more ice time and more opportunity to get involved in the scoring.
As history dictates – and a couple series against the Boston Bruins over the past couple of seasons – the Maple Leafs can’t simply rely on Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to get the majority of the scoring done. Guys like Engvall and Kapanen will have to step up, while others like Zach Hyman and William Nylander will have to continue to play to the level they were during the regular season.
A series win is more than a possibility for the Maple Leafs who look stronger on paper, but if they want to advance and see where this interesting season takes them, they’ll have to rely heavily on a four-line effort in all aspects of their game.
Baracchini: Maple Leafs Will Beat Blue Jackets if Frederik Andersen is in Top Form
There’s no doubt that Andersen is essential to the Maple Leafs’ success. He’s been one of the best and busiest goaltenders in the last four seasons. He leads the league in shots against with 7,798 and saves with 7,142 during the regular season. Among players with 200 games played, he ranks in the top-10 in save percentage with .916.
However, this season Andersen hasn’t been the same stalwart in net. When he was relied on during tough times (early-season struggles and injuries), he was inconsistent. This season, his 2.85 goals-against average is his highest as a Maple Leaf, and his .909 save percentage is his lowest. While he hasn’t been himself, it’s not fair to solely place the blame on Andersen’s shoulders, as he didn’t get a lot of help from the defense in front of him.
If the Maple Leafs are going to have any success, Andersen is going to have to put a rough season behind him and move forward. Terry Koshan of The Toronto Sun mentioned that Andersen has used this time off to prepare and stay “mentally in the game” for when the season resumes, (from ‘Early traction on part of Andersen could give Leafs a leg up in series versus Columbus’, The Toronto Sun – 5/31/20).
That focus is the perfect mindset for him to provide the goaltending that any team needs to win the Stanley Cup. During the last three playoffs, Andersen has been the backbone in every series making crucial stops to give his team a fighting chance. Including this spectacular save on David Pastrnak from two years ago.
It’s unjust to pin the last three playoff losses on Andersen when the team in front of him failed to provide any defensive support. The Maple Leafs were a young and inexperienced team against the Washington Capitals in 2017. In 2018, they collapsed in the third period against the Bruins. When they faced them again a year later, they had an abysmal effort in Game 7. They didn’t get anything going when Andersen was making save after save, eventually losing 5-1.
Andersen is heading into this matchup with the edge in net. He’s gone head to head against Braden Holtby and Tuukka Rask in the last three years. This time, it could be either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins, who have proven to be solid in net for the Blue Jackets this season. However, they lack the playoff experience that Andersen has even it did result in losses.
The Maple Leafs are going to need him to be at his very best. We’ve all seen him when he is, he can come out on top of goaltending matchups and be the difference-maker. With a new chapter on the season about to begin, Andersen’s focus and mentality will be key if the team is going to have any success in what could be an interesting postseason run.