With a 2-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday night, it goes without saying that Game 1 did not go according to plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs. A low-scoring, low-event, tight-checking game is exactly what John Tortorella and the Blue Jackets drew up, and the Maple Leafs seemed to fall right into the trap.
It’ll be difficult for the Maple Leafs not to improve on their offensive effort in Game 1, given that it was just the second time they were shut out all season. But on the other hand, it may be just as difficult to crack Columbus’ defensive code. We know that Toronto has more than enough firepower to get the job done, but what changes will they have to make in order to even the series?
Scoring First Is Key
Game 1 showed us that the Blue Jackets are confident in their lockdown style: they limited the Maple Leafs to just 10 high-danger scoring chances, a measly 1.87 expected goals, and most importantly, a goose egg on the scoreboard. With the game knotted at zero for over 40 minutes, Columbus was more than happy to continue with their game plan of keeping the Maple Leafs’ offensive weapons at bay. They bided their time, played simple hockey, got pucks on net, and it eventually paid off when Cam Atkinson broke the deadlock for the Blue Jackets early in the third period.
To be fair to Toronto, they played relatively well defensively, matching Columbus almost step-for-step at their own game. The problem is that a low-event, low-scoring game couldn’t be further from the Maple Leafs’ strength, which is up-and-down, fast-paced hockey. They want to trade chances because odds are that Auston Matthews and company will outscore anyone given enough opportunity.
So how do the Maple Leafs open up the game and get Columbus to participate in their track meet? Well, the simplest way would be to score first. Easier said than done, but if Matthews or one of Toronto’s other stars can create some magic early on and put them ahead, the Blue Jackets would be forced to come out of their shell at least a little bit. Now I certainly can’t see Tortorella completely opening things up, but if the Maple Leafs can take the lead and dictate the pace a bit better, they’ll surely be able to generate a few more chances of their own.
Generate Offence off the Rush
With so much speed and skill, rush offence is a huge part of the Maple Leafs’ game, but they were completely neutralized on Sunday as Columbus held them to zero attempts off the rush. Other than the Blue Jackets’ commitment to defence, a big reason for the lack of rush chances was Toronto’s insistence on circling back in the neutral zone to maintain possession. While it’s often smart to regroup and hold the puck, the Maple Leafs might have shot themselves in the foot with this tactic as it just gave Columbus even more time to get players back and set up their neutral and defensive zone structures.
What’s the alternative then? Even if there’s no clear lane to the net, the Maple Leafs may be better served to play a little dump and chase hockey. Though it’s not their bread and butter, this Toronto team certainly has the speed to cause some mayhem in the offensive zone with well-executed dump-ins, and the more direct style of attack may catch Columbus off guard with fewer bodies back.
Other than that, the Maple Leafs do have one more trick up their sleeve: the stretch pass. You may recall that during the Mike Babcock era, the long bomb was one of the team’s favourite play calls. And it often worked to great effect.
Though hard to execute perfectly and sometimes frustrating to watch, the stretch pass may just be the Maple Leafs’ best response to Columbus’ tight defensive game. Not only will it spread out the defence to give talented puck carriers like Morgan Rielly more space, but it can also catch the defence flat-footed, leading to quick-strike chances off the rush.
If Toronto can threaten with the stretch pass early on, Columbus will have to respect it, and it may just open up the game a bit more for the Maple Leafs’ young guns.
Punish Columbus on the Power Play
The Maple Leafs went 0-for-1 on the man advantage in Game 1, but to be frank, that’s not totally on Toronto. They have historically drawn very few penalties over the past several seasons, ranking 23rd this year and dead-last in 2018-19. It’s clear that for whatever reason, officials put their whistles away when the Maple Leafs are in the building, and Sunday night was no different.
There’s not a ton that Toronto can really do other than play their game and hope to get calls, but when they do, they must make Columbus pay. With a conversion rate of over 23 percent on the season, the Maple Leafs may have to rely on their power play to give them the edge in this series.
Regardless of what head coach Sheldon Keefe chooses to do, it’s clear that there needs to be a change heading into Game 2: a new breakout, a new mentality, any new wrinkle that might through Columbus off their game and sway momentum back in Toronto’s favour.
Tuesday’s afternoon affair may as well be a must-win game for the Maple Leafs. And one of this group’s biggest challenges yet.
Stats from http://naturalstattrick.com/