After the announcement of a 24-team playoff Stanley Cup Playoffs last week, the focus of each of the 16 teams involved immediately turned to their opponent for the play-in round that will take place in late July or early August in one of the two hub cities. The Toronto Maple Leafs finished with 81 points and in third place in the Atlantic Division, but due to the standings being based on points percentage, the Leafs are ranked eighth in the Eastern Conference and will face the ninth-placed Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series (which will be determined by the NHL and Players Association in the next few weeks).
Now that the series is set, we can start to break down the two clubs by position, special teams, coaching, and playing style to determine who has the advantage in the upcoming series. We will start today with the matchup of the Leafs goaltending tandem of Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell vs. Blue Jackets duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
Andersen is always one of Toronto’s most important players since the Leafs defensive issues always put more of a burden on him to play at a high level. The Leafs starter is traditionally a slow starter and struggled in October but bounced back in November and December with a 14-6-2 record, a 2.50 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
A combination of injuries to the blueline and the club’s mediocre defensive play factored into Andersen’s struggles in January and February (3.54 GAA, .889 save percentage) and a neck injury caused him to miss nearly two weeks, but he returned to form just before the season was paused in March.
Campbell was acquired from Los Angeles in early February to solidify Toronto’s chronically bad backup goaltending and went 3-0-1 while Andersen was out injured and was not at fault for losses to San Jose and Anaheim during the Leafs disastrous West Coast swing.
The Jackets were expected to have issues in goal following the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky to Florida via free agency. Korpisalo had been a capable understudy for four seasons in Columbus, but it was unknown whether he could handle the starting duties. The 26-year-old Finn went 19-12-5, with a 2.60 GAA and .911 save percentage in 37 games for a club that was plagued by injuries.
Merziikins was drafted in 2014 and played six seasons with Lugano in the Swiss League before signing with the Jackets. The 26-year-old Latvian was primarily responsible for keeping Columbus in the playoff race after Korpisalo was lost for two months with a torn meniscus and going 12-5-4 in his place and finishing with a sparkling .923 save percentage in 33 games.
Toronto will undoubtedly depend on Andersen to be at his best (something that has not been the case in playoff losses to Boston in 2018 and 2019), and the fact that he will be well-rested will be in his favor after 60+ game workloads each of the last three seasons. The concern for the Leafs has to be the big Dane’s tendency for early struggles and the fact that such a long layoff will be akin to a summer break in-between seasons.
The dilemma for Jackets head coach John Tortorella will be which goalie to go with as his primary starter. Based on the fact that Korpisalo resumed the bulk of the work after returning from injury, it is likely he will get the nod to start the series, but if the Jackets lose early, Torts may opt to go to Elvis.
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