Ever since the NHL hit pause on its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, each team, whether it be deep in a playoff position or in the race for one, has looked to finish a season built on blood, sweat, and tears.
With the announcement of a return-to-play postseason format that will include 24 teams instead of the typical 16 teams, more teams than ever have a chance to take home the Stanley Cup.
One of the many matchups that come with the 24-team format and the eight different play-in series matchups includes two teams that have never met in the postseason before: the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Both teams met twice in October out of three scheduled meetings with the Leafs, taking the first game in Nationwide Arena by a score of 4-1. The Blue Jackets returned the favor back at Scotiabank Arena with a 4-3 overtime win capped by a penalty-shot goal by Gustav Nyquist. Both teams couldn’t play the third matchup in March because of the NHL’s pause.
The play-in series comes just before the official first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and has a format of a best-of-five series, rather than the ordinary best-of-seven series. This gives each team less time to find the stride in their game, which could effectively and quickly decide the series.
Advantage: Maple Leafs
When going down the roster for the Maple Leafs, what jumps off the page is their outstanding group of top-six forwards with the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares. The Leafs had a total of 237 goals in 70 games this season, second in the NHL only behind the Tampa Bay Lightning’s impressive 243 goals scored.
With the emergence of the goal-scoring dominance of players at the top of the lineup like Matthews and Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen, and Ottawa Senators legend Jason Spezza, this forward group has shown that it can quickly overpower any team with a blink of an eye.
On the other side of the matchup, the Blue Jackets have many capable scorers, although they are young, improving, or coming off of injury-riddled seasons. The question for the Blue Jackets will be can they score in a postseason setting without the likes of Matt Duchene or more importantly Artemi Panarin?
Pierre-Luc Dubois has found his footing as a No. 1 center. Oliver Bjorkstrand has started to live up to his junior scoring prowess with 21 goals in 49 games. Young players in the bottom part of the lineup have stepped up in a big way like Eric Robinson, Emil Bemstrom, and even 5-foot-4, 176-pound forward Nathan Gerbe has added something to the Blue Jackets up front.
However, there is just as much uncertainty as there is hope and positivity for the Blue Jackets. Cam Atkinson had just 12 goals in 44 games after a 41-goal campaign in the 2018-19 season. Alexander Wennberg has continued to struggle to produce offense at a high level since his breakout campaign of 46 assists and 59 points in the 2016-17 season and Josh Anderson could still be out of the lineup after shoulder surgery in early March.
With the amount of certainty and firepower on one side and the uncertainty — but opportunistic scoring — on the other, the edge in the forward group goes to the Leafs. The Blue Jackets will have to perform a similar natural zone trap to slow the quick-striking transition game of a well-known, high-powered Leafs offense.
Advantage: Blue Jackets
The origins of good, solid defense in Columbus can be traced back to a number of key decisions, but none bigger than the hiring of head coach John Tortorella and the arrival of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski as a dynamic, game-changing first pair.
Not to mention the 5-6 defense that round out of the other two pairs in David Savard, Vladislav Gavrikov, Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara, Dean Kukan, and young Andrew Peeke. This Blue Jackets defense has a lot of bodies that are willing and able to plug in and play a tight, defensive, and shot-blocking game.
The Maple Leafs have some star power of their own on the blue line with Morgan Reilly, Jake Muzzin, and Tyson Barrie, but lack the depth to compete with the likes of the Blue Jackets’ defense. If the Leafs are looking for a series win, then they’ll need some players to emerge on the back end such as Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, or even talented rookie Rasmus Sandin.
Like the Maple Leafs have a sizable edge in the forward group, the Blue Jackets have just as big of a gap of talent and depth on the blue line. It will be interesting to see if the Maple Leafs can get that offensive flow early and take it to the Jackets or if the Jackets find their defensive footing before the Leafs can get the puck into the net.
Advantage: Maple Leafs
In recent memory, there have been
It isn’t that Andersen isn’t a good goaltender because he and Jack Campbell have given the Maple Leafs some good options between the pipes. Also, he has shown with his career .917 save percentage during his time with the Leafs and the Anaheim Ducks that he is an above-average goaltender in the NHL.
The question remains for Andersen if he can get it done in the playoffs, when the moments are brightest and biggest. He has been passed the first round just once out of six attempts, and the only exception was with the Ducks in the 2014-15 season where he was bested by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final.
Although Andersen may not have a lot of experience going past the first round of the playoffs, the Blue Jackets goaltending has none. Neither Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins have started a playoff in any round.
Even with the loss of Vezina trophy winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to the Florida Panthers in the offseason, goaltending wasn’t an issue in the regular season for Columbus. The Blue Jackets were tied with the Arizona Coyotes for third in goals against with 183, just behind the Dallas Stars and the Boston Bruins.
The Blue Jackets relied heavily on their defensive structure and great goaltending from both Korpisalo and Merzlikins to stay in the playoff race, but the uncertainty of how to handle goaltending in the series might be the downfall. Do they go with the All-Star goaltender in Korpisalo? Or do they go with the streaking and electrifying Merzlikins?
Based on experience, the goaltending matchup should favor Andersen and the Maple Leafs. Although he has trouble getting out of the first round with the Maple Leafs, he faced experienced perennial playoff contenders like the Bruins and the Washington Capitals. There is a possibility that one of the Jackets’ goaltenders could get hot very quickly, but the edge goes to Toronto.
Advantage: Blue Jackets
The matchup between the benches for the Leafs and Jackets can be described as a young, up-and-coming coach against a veteran that has over 650 career wins in the NHL, as well as two coaches that have won championships as head coaches in multiple different leagues.
Sheldon Keefe has won championships with the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the CJHL and the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, while John Tortorella has accomplished the feat with Virginia Lancers of the ACHL, the Rochester Americans of the AHL, and the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL in the 2003-04 season.
The 39-year-old Sheldon Keefe was hired in late November taking the place of Mike Babcock. Since taking over, he has led the Leafs to a record of 27-15-5 in 47 games. Although the change seemed to reinvigorate the Maple Leafs’ lineup, there have been some major bumps in the road and none bigger than losing to the Carolina Hurricanes’ emergency backup goaltender and Scotiabank Arena Zamboni driver David Ayres.
Meanwhile, ever since being hired by the Blue Jackets in 2015, Tortorella has found a quiet place to “go about his business” in Columbus. Also, with the injury-riddled season that the Blue Jackets have endured, he will have more ammunition to motivate the group and push them to new heights, just as they did against the Lightning in a historic playoff sweep in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
The edge in coaching should go to Tortorella and the Blue Jackets. He has the experience of taking his team deep into the playoffs countless times and has a Stanley Cup to prove that pedigree.
Tight, Hard-Fought Series
This series promises to be one of the closest matchups during the play-in round and the regular-season standings tell a similar story with each team with 81 points in 70 games. Each team has strengths and weaknesses in different areas, which should make for a
The Maple Leafs have the high-flying offense, while the Blue Jackets have the stout and disciplined defensive game. While the Maple Leafs might have the edge in goaltending, the Blue Jackets have the edge behind the bench. Both teams evenly split the season series by small margins.
Expect a long, tight, and hard-fought series that will go the distance and should promise to be one of the most entertaining of the play-in round and maybe the entire playoffs. The question with the long layoff will be: Which team will get to their game quicker?