Another year and another Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff collapse. The only positive to come from this one is the fact that it wasn’t in an elimination game and the Maple Leafs have less than 24 hours before they can try to put this one behind them.
That said, it will come down to the Maple Leafs stringing together two straight wins – in Game 4 and Game 5 – if they hope to make it to the first round of the playoffs. And following their 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night, that could be a heavy task for a team that simply said – can’t close out games.
Regardless, we watched. We discussed. And here’s what we took away from Game 3 between the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jackets.
Dermott’s Effectiveness Questionable
It was said prior to the game – and written about by THW’s Chris Faria – the hole left by Jake Muzzin on the Maple Leafs blue line was going to be a big one. In stepped Marincin – a poor man’s Roman Polak – and up stepped Travis Dermott who was expected to see more ice-time in Muzzin’s absence.
Now, Dermott wasn’t horrible. But he’s also not the shutdown defenceman that Muzzin is for the Maple Leafs and it showed. Dermott played almost 25 minutes in the loss, had two giveaways and finished the game minus-two. But aside from the numbers, the young blueliner had a couple of real questionable plays – including reverse passes in his own end that were picked off and pinches in the offensive end.
That said, his play during overtime was nearly flawless. He made crisp passes and found ways to exit the defensive end effectively – things the Maple Leafs simply couldn’t do in the stretch of the third period in which the Blue Jackets tied it up.
In no way is Dermott a bad player. In fact, I would argue that he’s quite effective at times. But in the role they needed him in – the spot that was once occupied by Muzzin – he just isn’t the guy to fill those shoes. He came. He tried. But he far from conquered it. With that, the Maple Leafs will need to find an answer quickly with the turnaround and Game 4 less than 24 hours away.
Maple Leafs’ More Effective Period
You guessed it. After the first and second periods that they had, all they had to do was shut it down. The third period started and just 10:49 in, the Maple Leafs once again had blown a 3-0 lead.
While the team seemed to pick it up in the latter half of the third period, it’s safe to say that the Maple Leafs’ most effective period was overtime. Their ability to possess the puck inside the Blue Jackets’ end gave them a number of chances in the extra frame, but they couldn’t seemed to get that one break they needed to end it.
Even though they lost the game, the goal that Pierre-Luc Dubois scored in overtime came off an opportunity after the Maple Leafs had hemmed the Blue Jackets into their own end on a number of different occasions. It came down to one slightly questionable decision from Morgan Rielly and a nice move by Dubois on the partial break that handed the Blue Jackets the 2-1 series lead.
Dubois: The Hero
Speaking of the Blue Jackets’ stud, he earned every bit of ice he got on Thursday night. While some questioned his hit on Muzzin at the end of Game 2, Dubois came to play in Game 3 and it showed in every chance the former third overall pick had.
After Dubois seemed to get into it with head coach John Tortorella in a heated exchange during Game 2, Dubois came out flying in Game 3. He played 27:30, including 3:35 on the power play and tallied three goals on six shots. On top of that, he had three hits and got involved physically which seemed to just drive his game up to the next level.
The 22-year-old capped it off with the overtime winner on a deke that had Frederik Andersen going one way before he backhanded it up and over the glove of the Maple Leafs’ goaltender.
He became the first Blue Jackets’ player to record a hat trick in postseason history – still a remarkable stat even though the franchise is fairly young.
Maple Leafs’ Defensive Pinches
Part of what led to two of the Blue Jackets’ goals – both of which were scored by Dubois – were poor decision making on the part of the Maple Leafs’ defence. The first was on the tying goal after Dermott pinched at the blue line along the boards. The Blue Jackets were able to get it past him and Dubois did the rest.
In a 3-2 game, with the opponent buzzing, it would’ve been better for Dermott to play it safe and back up. The fact is, the Maple Leafs didn’t have the third man back covering in case the puck did get past Dermott which it did.
The second questionable pinch that was noticeable because it led to a Blue Jackets’ goal was on the overtime tally. Rielly began creeping in from the blue line as John Tavares tried to get the puck on net. Unfortunately, the puck was poked away from Tavares and it was turned back up leading to an odd-man rush and – once again – a Dubois goal.
That is the problem with an all-offence mentality which seems to be oh-so-prevalent with the Maple Leafs’ backend. The Rielly pinch was unnecessary – especially considering where they were at in the game. All it took was on bad break and the game was over.
The Tortorella Tactics
The final note from Thursday’s game is about coaching – the decision making of both bench bosses and how they affected the outcome of the game. For most of the game, the advantage seemed to be with Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs.
But I want to focus on a couple decisions made by John Tortorella throughout the contest. First, his timing in pulling goaltender Joonas Korpisalo was almost perfect. Whether it was because of Korpisalo or used to get his team motivated, it worked.
The Blue Jackets started shutting down the Maple Leafs in-zone offence and reeled off three goals to come back from a three-goal deficit for the first time this season.
Now, rewind for a second to his post-game press conference following Game 2 and his quote that stated the Maple Leafs were good and that his team sucked. Call it reverse psychology or whatever you’d like, it was a Tortorella form of motivation and I’m sure it played into how much fight the Blue Jackets had late in this game.
Finally, Keefe’s decision to call a timeout in overtime. Sure, it gave his guys a chance to get rested, but it also allowed his opponents to get a breather. Moments later, a bad pinch, a great defensive play by the Blue Jackets and the Maple Leafs are down 2-1 in their play-in series.
Also Worth Noting…
Overshadowed by the loss, was the fact that Nick Robertson scored his first NHL goal for the Maple Leafs. The 18-year-old tallied the third goal for his club off a one-time shot from the slot that got by Korpisalo – exactly how he dreamt it up, I’m sure.
The real hero in this game might actually be Alex Texier. The young forward played nearly 26 minutes in the game and came up with the defensive play that stopped Tavares’ shot from getting through in overtime and turned the puck back up ice for the Blue Jackets’ leading to Dubois’ overtime goal.
Elvis Merzlikins came in and played 49:35 of the game in relief of Korpisalo. The young goaltender faced 21 shots and stopped all 21 to not only get the win, but put the Maple Leafs within one loss of being knocked out of the playoff for a fourth straight year in round one.
Now, it’s not over yet for the Maple Leafs and it is a quick turnaround for the team which could prove beneficial to help them put this one out of their minds. That said, the Maple Leafs need to win two games in a row if they hope to move on – otherwise, they are looking at a 12.5% chance at picking Alexis Lafreniere first overall at the 2020 NHL Draft.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.