NHL Qualifying Round Playoff Preview: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

It's offense versus defense and finesse versus grit when Toronto and Columbus meet for what should be a close play-in matchup.
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Toronto Maple Leafs – By Matt Larkin

Seven skaters who suited up for Toronto’s Game-7 loss to Boston last April no longer play for the Maple Leafs. It’s remarkable, then, that this team’s identity is virtually unchanged entering the 2020 playoffs.

Same old Leafs. This team still possesses superb scoring talent capable of highlight-reel goals every game and, under new coach Sheldon Keefe, Toronto’s best offensive weapons get more ice time and compile even better numbers. Auston Matthews finally has the elite goal-scoring stats to match his elite advanced metrics. William Nylander has realized his potential as a top-end scorer now that he has a coach who lets him take a regular shift with other great players. John Tavares and Mitch Marner remain two of the league’s best offensive weapons even though they played on separate lines much of the season. Even Zach Hyman has reached a tier of production nobody knew he had. The Leafs ice the NHL’s No. 3 offense and No. 6 power play despite having played a large chunk of the season without top puck-moving blueliner Morgan Rielly.

The good remains, but so does the bad. This team still defends at a below-average level. The Leafs do rank in the top half of the league in shot-attempt suppression, but they sit in the bottom half in scoring chances and high-danger attempts allowed at 5-on-5, and they’re one of the weaker penalty-killing teams in the NHL. They’ve actually improved almost across the board in their defensive play this season despite enduring injuries to Rielly and Jake Muzzin, but they allowed the sixth-most goals in the NHL thanks to terrible goaltending. Frederik Andersen stumbled through the worst season of his career. He graded out 41st among the 54 qualifying goalies in 5-on-5 goals saved above average per 60 minutes. Keefe has insisted Andersen is “our guy,” but if he struggles in the early going, Toronto could turn to insurance policy Jack Campbell.

X-factor: Getting Muzzin back from a broken hand for the playoffs matters most, but don’t sleep on the impact of Ilya Mikheyev. His rookie debut was a smash before he sustained a freak cut on his wrist from a skate in December. Among 334 forwards with 500-plus minutes at 5-on-5, he sat 13th in assists per 60 minutes, 33rd in points per 60 and 24th in shots per 60. His 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame, good speed and responsible two-way play present a package that could make a difference. The Leafs have struggled to win puck battles during their three straight first-round playoff defeats. Mikheyev can help.

blue-jackets-maple-leafs-series-preview

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – By Ryan Kennedy

The team that many thought was destined for the basement was actually very competitive this season despite a slew of devastating injuries that included all-world defenseman Seth Jones and former 40-goal man Cam Atkinson. Surviving adversity is something these Blue Jackets have covered off easily.

In terms of strengths, Columbus has been masterfully led by coach John Tortorella, and the Blue Jackets are more than happy to keep things tight: they led the NHL in one-goal wins this season. While the team was bottom-five in offense, it was also top-five in
defense, so if Columbus is playing the way it wants and imposing its will, there isn’t going to be a lot of goals on the board.

Given how playoff hockey tends to go, that is definitely an advantage for the Blue Jackets. They’re a heavy, physical team – even without power forward Josh Anderson, who isn’t expected to return until next season – and that style has proven to be successful of late when you consider the makeup of last year’s finalists in St. Louis and Boston. Pierre-Luc Dubois is the type of two-way center who can really make an impact in the post-season.

For a team that lost a marquee netminder when Sergei Bobrovsky left for Florida as a free agent last summer, Columbus has actually been golden in the crease. Joonas Korpisalo did the heavy lifting early, even earning a nod for the All-Star Game before a knee injury held him out. In his place, Elvis Merzlikins took off, nabbing five shutouts in his first 24 appearances. The confident rookie proved to be an instant fan favorite.

The Blue Jackets are not a great possession team, the penalty kill is merely OK, and the power play is ugly, so this Columbus outfit certainly has its warts. But if you’re looking for a team that can use “Nobody believed in us” as motivation, this is your best candidate out of the Eastern Conference.

X-factor: No doubt the Blue Jackets need more scoring punch, and as the regular season wound down, they may have found some in rookie right winger Emil Bemstrom. Elevated to the top line with Pierre-Luc Dubois, Bemstrom put up most of his offense in the final month or so before the season was paused, using his quick shot and great instincts. A December rib injury likely delayed his NHL development, but the potential he showed off during his breakout SHL campaign last season is becoming quite evident. Can the slight-framed rookie make an impact in the rugged NHL playoffs? The Blue Jackets will be a lot better off if he can.

Season series

Oct. 4, 2019: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 1
Oct 21, 2019: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)

Schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2, 8:00 p.m.: Blue Jackets at Maple Leafs
Tuesday, Aug. 4, 4:00 p.m: Blue Jackets at Maple Leafs
Thursday, Aug. 6, TBD: Maple Leafs at Blue Jackets
Friday, Aug. 7, TBD: Maple Leafs at Blue Jackets *
Sunday, Aug. 9, TBD: Blue Jackets at Maple Leafs *

(All games listed in eastern time)

THE HOCKEY NEWS’ SERIES PICK: Blue Jackets in five games

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