Maple Leafs’ Keys to Success in Game 3

While the Toronto Maple Leafs had an overall good performance in Game 1, it wasn’t the result they wanted as they fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-0. They were smothered by the Blue Jackets’ defensive structure while also facing the stellar play of goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

In a short series like this, there is very little time to make the necessary adjustments after a loss. However, the Maple Leafs did that for Game 2. They were able to address their issues, which allowed them to break free from the Blue Jackets’ defensive pressure. Their attention to detail and execution was a big factor and they were noticeably the better team in this game.

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With a victory under their belt, the Maple Leafs need to shift their focus to Game 3. The Blue Jackets are expected to push back, so they have to find a way to not be complacent and play the way they did in Game 2. Here is what the Maple Leafs need to do in order to repeat their success for Game 3.

Get to Korpisalo Early

If there’s one thing that the Maple Leafs did in Game 2 that wasn’t quite evident in Game 1, it was getting into the offensive zone and making Korpisalo work. They were hampered by the Blue Jackets’ pressure style of defense in both the offensive and neutral zone, leaving them very little to work with in terms of generating any type of offense. When they did, Korpisalo was there to shut the door.

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That changed in Game 2. The Maple Leafs were able to learn from the game tape and found a way to penetrate the Blue Jackets’ stifling defense and made them pay for it. While it took five periods for them to finally score a goal, they were flying out of the gate and didn’t ease up on Korpisalo. Good things come to those who are patient.

Offensively it was definitely a better performance for the Maple Leafs, generating shots from all over the ice, getting grade-A opportunities, one after another. The team did a better job of getting to the centre of the ice instead of staying stagnant and shooting from the outside.

Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets Game 1 Heat Map. Image from Natural Stat Trick.
Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets Game 2 Heat Map. Image from Natural Stat Trick.

In all situations, the Maple Leafs did generate chances in front of the net in Game 1. In Game 2, they were more aggressive in that area as it became a hot zone, resulting in two goals. The Maple Leafs held a considerable advantage in terms of Corsi For in all situations, 71-48 with a percentage of 59.66%. They even had the advantage in High Danger Corsi For, 17-8 (68%). The Maple Leafs even limited the Blue Jackets’ shots against to fewer than 10 each period.

If the Maple Leafs need any tips on how to beat Korpisalo, it’s get to him early and pummel him with shots. While none of the goals were a result of crowding the crease, there were instances where they were able to get bodies in front of Korpisalo and apply the pressure down low in order to get more of the chances in the high-danger area. If someone is in the right spot at the right time, the goals are bound to start coming.

Quick Stretch Plays in Transition and Support

This ties in to the above point, how were they able to get to Korpisalo? The Maple Leafs couldn’t beat the Blue Jackets when they were getting in on the forecheck and had bodies back to not allow anything go through their defense.

The trick was they didn’t give the Blue Jackets time and space to even get their forecheck set up. They had bodies back and pressured the opposition, breaking up plays and providing a more physical element that worked in their favour. They kept them to the outside for most of the game while getting the support they needed to make quick transitional breakouts to get by the Blue Jackets’ defense.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Both of the Maple Leafs goals by Auston Matthews and John Tavares were a result of the Blue Jackets getting caught in the offensive zone leading to odd-man rushes going the other way. And this is where the Maple Leafs transition game will play a big factor with their speed and skill.

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On the first goal, Zach Werenski was caught way down low, leaving Oliver Bjorkstrand as the second defender back. The Maple Leafs countered swiftly with bodies going the other way and took advantage of that match-up. Zach Hyman was able to find Matthews in the middle of the ice for a tip, giving the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead.  

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A similar situation happened on the second goal. Werenski got a shot down low, but there was no support from the Blue Jackets as all five players were below the face-off circle. The puck came out of the zone and Tavares had a clear breakaway, scoring to make it 2-0. The Maple Leafs did a great job of exposing the Blue Jackets’ weakness and getting in behind their defense with speed, and pursuing the puck with an aggressive nature.

They should not stray away from this game plan for Game 3. There’s no doubt that the Blue Jackets are going to push back, but they need to know they can’t be intimidated. They proved that their offense can break apart even one of the best defenses in the league.

Power Play Needs to Get Going

The Maple Leafs’ power play was lethal during the regular season, ranking sixth overall at 23.1 percent. Through two games, they are 0-for-6. Even though they didn’t score, they showed how lethal they can be with the man advantage. They found those lanes to Matthews for a big shot, had great puck distribution and their cycle game was on point.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Mitch Marner celebrates with teammate Morgan Rielly (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill)

However, there were times where they couldn’t generate a whole lot. Whether it was due to the Blue Jackets laying the body down to block shots, poor zone entries and even getting caught on a shorthanded odd-man rush. If the Maple Leafs are going to have any success, the power play needs to click and fast.

You’re not going to score on every power play you get, but these are the crucial opportunities to take advantage of. Yes, they generated a lot more on the man advantage than in Game 1, but you need to capitalize on those chances. They can be the difference-maker in a playoff series where it’s a tight checking game like the one they’re already in.

How Will Muzzin’s Absence Affect the Maple Leafs?

The team’s dominant win came with a cost.

When Jake Muzzin lay on the ground after an awkward collision with Bjorkstrand, the stretcher was called out and everyone held their breath. Muzzin tried to get up on his own power while talking with the medical staff, but they went with the safe approach and stretchered him off. He was taken to hospital and was alert, which is a really good sign. Tavares even said things were positive.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Since Muzzin had to leave the bubble, he would have to self-isolate and test negative four times as a result of the NHL’s Phase 4 protocol. There is some good news as he was discharged from the hospital and is now in quarantine, expected to return when he has recovered.

There’s no doubt that Muzzin is an essential player for the Maple Leafs as he brings a physical element and earns a lot of minutes. It’s most likely that Martin Marincin (much to fans’ dismay) could enter the lineup or even Rasmus Sandin. No matter who is in, the Maple Leafs need to repeat their Game 2 performance for the rest of the series now that Muzzin is out of the lineup.

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This is where a team’s true character starts to show, especially when they faced adversity all season. From here on out, everyone needs to step up in his absence. It’s tough to replace a player like him, but the Maple Leafs have played without Muzzin when he suffered a broken foot and a broken hand. While it was hard, the Maple Leafs pulled through and they’re going to have to do it again.

Statistics and images from Natural Stat Trick.