143 days since the initial pause, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets return to meaningful action on the second day of the NHL’s Return-to-Play season for Game 1 of their best-of-five playoff qualifying series tonight at 8 p.m. ET (Sportsnet, NHL Network).
While the vast majority of media pundits and stats-based analysts have given Toronto the edge in their predictions for this series, many are also quick to point out that this mini-series is a true “unstoppable force meets an immovable object”-type of matchup in terms of Toronto’s offense vs. Columbus’ defense — and it’s all playing out in a highly-unpredictable set of circumstances and playoff format. We’ve already seen significant Game 1 upsets from the two lowest-seeded teams in the 24-team playoff in both the Edmonton-Chicago and Pittsburgh-Montreal series yesterday.
Both of the Leafs and Blue Jackets lineups have been constantly evolving this year due to significant injuries on both sides (Toronto was top ten in man-games lost, Columbus tops in the league), but their team-level numbers reveal a clear strength and a clear weakness — and have all season despite all of the other variables at play.
The Leafs finished their 70-game regular season fourth in xGoals/60 and eighth in Goals/60, while the Jackets were fourth-last (28th) in the NHL in both those metrics. Flip it over to the other end of the ice, and the Leafs were 18th in xGoalsAgainst/60 and 27th in GoalsAgainst/60, while the Jackets were third and fifth, respectively. There is far more to dive into with those numbers, obviously, given both the coaching change that drastically altered the Leafs‘ numbers after Sheldon Keefe took over and — again — the number of injuries both teams have played through this season, but the contrast between the two clubs’ playing styles is clear.
In the exhibition game vs. Montreal, the Leafs mostly showed the key indicators the coaching staff was looking to see in terms of their commitment to tracking back defensively and limiting chances against in five-man units, while the offense at evens wasn’t totally lights out but did score twice in addition to two shorthanded markers. The Blue Jackets, in a 4-1 win over Boston, sent a message as to their readiness for the playoff challenge by giving the potent Bruins offense next to nothing, playing above the puck all game, slowing them down through neutral ice, jamming up the slot in the defensive zone, and being opportunistic at the other end. A typical Blue Jackets game, as it were.
So much of this series is going to be determined by who plays who’s game over the three-to-five games. If the faster, more skilled Leafs can execute quickly on defense and exit the zone efficiently, traverse the neutral zone with pace, and spend a lot of their time on offense, the series is theirs — and could end quickly. If the Blue Jackets successfully cause the Leafs headaches with their forecheck, jam them up through neutral zone, and limit rush chances as successfully as they have all season, it’s going to be a long, grueling battle for Toronto.
Goaltending, as always, is a major factor in any series — let alone a five-game sprint — and there might be even more unpredictability in this series than there would be normally at the position. The Leafs have an elite talent at starter who had his worst year in four seasons in Toronto, performing well below league average from December through to February, while the Blue Jackets’ starter in net could change by the game depending on how the series plays out.
The numbers favour 25-year-old rookie Elvis Merzlikins, who didn’t start much early in the year but caught fire and started the majority of the games from December onwards — his hottest month coming in January, by far. But the Blue Jackets are going with more experienced Joonas Korpisalo for Game 1, who has played five seasons with Columbus now but has only started 116 NHL games before sharing the net with Merzlikins this season. He has worked out to be a slightly above average goalie in his 35 starts, finishing just under seven goals above replacement level compared to Merzlikins’ +11.8 in 31 starts.
That’s enough talk, though. Lord knows we’ve done enough of that for the past weeks and months. It’s game time.
Score and Venue adjusted stats and GoalsAboveReplcement from evolving-hockey.com
Game Day Quotes
John Tortorella on the decision to start Joonas Korpisalo:
I’m not explaining it. Don’t even go there. They’re both capable. We decided on Korpy.
Tortorella on matching up Dubois against Matthews and Jenner against Tavares in the regular season, and whether he is going to chase matchups:
We have never been a team that locks in on matchups. We are not going to be. I don’t remember the game and I don’t remember when we played the game against Toronto. We are going to play, and everybody is going to get an opportunity. I will make a call as we get through the game as to who is giving us the best chance.
As far as matchups, we don’t get too concerned and locked in on that.
Tortorella on needing some key players to step up offensively:
There is no question. We consider this a playoff game for us as we start tonight. It is important that our top guys do what they need to do offensively. We just can’t rely on grinding away. We need some big plays at key times offensively if we are going to have the opportunity to keep on moving.
On our team, the guys know where the responsibility lies and what needs to be done. I feel pretty comfortable as far as the mindset of the whole group.
Tortorella on whether the game plan that worked versus Tampa last year is the same one in store versus Toronto:
I am not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about it, but not really. There are always different things that other teams present to you. Again, in Columbus, we don’t change much how we play. We are going to be who we are when we start Game 1 tonight.
Sheldon Keefe on what he is looking for from his new third line of Robertson – Kerfoot – Kapanen and if he is expecting production from them:
We want production from all of our lines. We think we have the ability for that to happen. Of course, any time you can get production from your third and fourth lines, it is a bonus. S much attention is on our top two lines, of course. If it is any indication, our third line was our best line in the exhibition game the other day. That was a very positive sign for us.
Kerfoot and Kapanen were excellent. Those guys are feeling really good here now and have been good a lot of days in a row. Robertson brings a lot to that group, too. I am excited about that line, but we need everybody.
Keefe on his message to Robertson ahead of his NHL debut:
I spoke with Nick yesterday. It really is just kind of set him up for this and give him peace of mind that he is going to be playing. That is really it. We don’t want to overthink this for any of our players. We just want to go out and play.
In a situation like Nick’s, it might work out to be a bit of a benefit that there are no fans in the building. He can just go out and focus and do what he needs to do.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#88 William Nylander – #34 Auston Matthews – #11 Zach Hyman
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#89 Nick Robertson – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#73 Kyle Clifford – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #19 Jason Spezza
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #83 Cody Ceci
#23 Travis Dermott – #94 Tyson Barrie
#31 Frederik Andersen (starter)
#36 Jack Campbell
Marner – Tavares – Matthews
Robertson – Kerfoot – Spezza
Extras: Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin, Denis Malgin, Nic Petan, Calle Rosen, Martin Marincin
Injured: Andreas Johnsson
Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines
#42 Alexandre Texier – #18 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #28 Oliver Bjorkstrand
#71 Nick Foligno – #10 Alexander Wennberg – #13 Cam Atkinson
#14 Gustav Nyquist – #38 Boone Jenner – #19 Liam Foudy
#50 Eric Robinson – #20 Riley Nash – #52 Emil Bemstrom
#8 Zach Werenski – #3 Seth Jones
#44 Vladislav Gavrikov – #58 David Savard
#27 Ryan Murray – #46 Dean Kukan
#70 Joonas Korpisalo (starter)
#90 Elvis Merzlikins
Injured: Josh Anderson