I never thought I’d be writing an article like this in July. During a time of the year where a lot of players are usually relaxing on an exotic island or surfing waves off the coasts, they are now preparing for the most unusual Stanley Cup Playoffs in modern history. The Toronto Maple Leafs will try to take advantage of this (somewhat) home-ice advantage with the first few Eastern rounds being played at Scotiabank Arena, however, the Columbus Blue Jackets would love to take them out on their own turf.
This series is truly going to be so entertaining. Two teams that are rather unpredictable, and at times inconsistent, will get a chance to pick up where they left off. Despite the even playing field, in a best-of-five series, mistakes are more limited than ever. Let’s take a look at how the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets were faring before the season was suspended, and preview how the series will turn out.
This season has been anything but what the Maple Leafs expected when it started. With every indication saying the goal is to win the Cup, there have been many more lows than highs. A horrid start out of the gate saw the team let go of head coach Mike Babcock, and bring in Sheldon Keefe to take control. They looked great under the new bench boss for a while, going 12-4-1 heading into the new year. However, the team’s play fell off after the holiday break.
Offensively, the Leafs have been both excellent and terrible. Auston Matthews has beyond carried the team offensively throughout parts of the year. He had a career-high 47 goals, the third-most in the league. William Nylander bounced back from a disappointing year overshadowed by contract negotiations, being one of the most consistent players on the team this season. Mitch Marner struggled to fans’ dismay after a hefty payday in the offseason, and John Tavares had inconsistency at times this year also. Tyson Barrie’s 39 points in 70 games were still good for the 5th most on the team, but his play was a big disappointment. His inconsistent play had failed to live up to fans’ expectations to strengthen the Leafs’ back end.
Then we get to Frederik Andersen. The backbone of the team struggles mightily this season, which was the roughest of his Leafs tenure. A career-worst in both SV% and GAA, his play has been frustrating, to say the least. Michael Hutchinson’s lackluster play didn’t help either, so the Leafs traded for backup Jack Campbell to lighten the load. Campbell has been able to provide some solid starts for the Leafs, mostly on back-to-backs, nights where the team was often tired from the previous night.
Of course, injuries to all of Tavares, Marner, Andersen, Ilya Mikheyev, Andreas Johnsson, Jake Muzzin, and Morgan Rielly gave reasons to believe that they hampered the team. But in the NHL no one cares for your excuses. Teams throughout the league have battled injuries throughout the season, while still executing.
If we’re gonna talk about injuries, the Blue Jackets are no exception. Columbus lost both their number one D-man in Seth Jones, as well as Cam Atkinson for a period of time this year. They also lost Josh Anderson to injury, and yet, the team still found ways to be competitive.
After losing a Vezina-calibre goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky, they have found an extremely solid replacement split by both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo has been able to tie his career-best in GAA, while Merzlikins has the 6th best SV% in the entire league. If I had to predict, I would say Korpisalo will most likely play the series vs the Leafs, but Columbus has an extremely reliable backup if things start to go south.
Pierre-Luc Dubois and Gustav Nyquist have led the way for the Blue Jackets offensively, as the number 1 and 2 scorers on the team respectively. Oliver Bjorkstrand has been excellent offensively for the Blue Jackets, and he just may be the third offensive threat Columbus needs in order to win this series.
Zach Werenski and Jones both contributed on the back end offensively as well, but it’s the team’s defensive play that makes them dangerous. Columbus is tied for the third-fewest goals allowed this season.
We’re also one year removed from the Blue Jackets pulling off possibly one of the greatest upsets in NHL history, where they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning after a historic season. The Blue Jackets have made the playoffs for 4 of the 5 years head coach John Tortorella has been there. While they’ve only been out of the first round once, they are definitely a team looking to take that next step, much like the Maple Leafs are.
How Will It Play Out?
How will the series play out? It’s so hard to say. I truly believe, to the bottom of my core, that this series will go the distance in this best-of-5 play-in round. Toronto and Columbus are so evenly matched, but for incredibly different reasons. The Leafs’ offensive prowess, and the Blue Jackets’ stellar defensive abilities. If anything, I know we’re in for a fantastic 5 games of hockey.
The key to this series for the Leafs is to find offensive consistency, along with solid backchecking and defensive efforts. With months to rest and recover, most players will be healthy and ready to go. Andersen will need to find his top form for the Leafs to have a shot in these playoffs, all while something needs to be shown on the back end in order to help him get there. Key player to win: Frederik Andersen
The key to this series for the Blue Jackets will be to limit the shots on goal and control the pace. A young team like the Leafs will want to play at a high tempo and stay in the offensive zone as much as possible. They also need to stay disciplined. While they aren’t the most aggressive team, taking penalties against an offensive juggernaut like the Leafs is not what you want to do. If Columbus can stick to their defensive style, and take advantage of what Toronto gives them offensively, there’s no reason they can’t win this series. Key player to win: Oliver Bjorkstrand
Prediction: Maple Leafs in 5.
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