The Toronto Maple Leafs take and Columbus Blue Jackets have been preparing to face each other in a best-of-five series since the NHL announced the 24-team playoff plan in May, but after training camp and with less than 48 hours until the opening game, it is time to take a final look at the matchup and five factors that could lead the Leafs to victory.
No “October” Freddy
Frederik Andersen has traditionally struggled at the beginning of each season. With an over four-month layoff due to the league shutdown, his career numbers in October (30-19-7, 2.69 GAA, .911 save percentage) may be the best indicator of what can be expected from the Leafs goaltender. Fatigue will not be a valid excuse as it was the last three playoffs when he played 60+ regular-season games, so the pressure will be on for Andersen to be a difference-maker one year before his contract is up.
Taking Advantage of Center depth
The key to the series may be Sheldon Keefe’s ability to take advantage of his strength up the middle. John Tortorella will likely match up big center Pierre-Luc Dubois against Auston Matthews to keep him in check. If Dubois is successful in getting a draw against Matthews, Toronto will need John Tavares to decisively win the battle against either Boone Jenner or Alexander Wennberg.
Make Zach and Seth play “D”
Zach Werenski led the Blue Jackets with 20 goals, and he and defense partner Seth Jones accounted for 71 points last season. Both missed time with injuries and are now completely healthy, which means Tortorella will play his top tandem in excess of 25 minutes to help generate offense.
Toronto will need to make those minutes more difficult by harassing the top pairing with their speedy forwards forecheck. By possessing and cycling the puck in the Columbus zone, it will prevent Jones and Werenski from jumping into the attack as much and thus limit the Blue Jackets scoring chances.
Fighting through the forecheck
The Blue Jackets plan will be similar to the one they used against Tampa Bay in the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, employing a defensive structure to prevent breakouts with speed and force them to dump the puck rather than carry it into the zone. Toronto was often frustrated by teams who played this way (Boston and Dallas) and will have to be willing to deal with the Columbus forecheck without turning over the puck, and play dump and chase if Tortorella is intent on denying them entry into the zone.
Special Teams must be special
The Toronto power play showed signs of rust in the 4-2 win over Montreal, going 0-3 on the night. Depending on how the referees call Game 1 on Sunday, their best chance to break out offensively may be on the power play with the top unit of Tavares, Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie against a middle-of-the-road Columbus penalty-killing unit.
The Leafs showed a lack of discipline against the Habs with six minor penalties, but killed off all of them and scored two short-handed goals. Columbus was ranked 27th with the man advantage last season, but Toronto could be tempting fate by giving Werenski (who scored five PP goals) and Jones chances to bomb away from the point.
*******If you are interested in sponsorship or advertising your business in the Greater Toronto / Southern Ontario area on this column, please send a message for more information by clicking on the “Contact” button at the top of the page.*******