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Blue Jackets have plenty of time to focus on Maple Leafs

Columbus in unique situation of knowing their restart foe for months

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The Blue Jackets found out May 26 that if all goes well and the NHL season resumes as planned later this summer, the next game -- and at least two after that -- would be played against the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Columbus is scheduled to resume play as the No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference against the eighth-seeded Leafs in a best-of-five qualifying series for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now, almost a month later after finding out their fate, things are happening - players have reconnected in Columbus for on-ice workouts, others are flying in from across the world, and the league continues forward as part of its return to play plan. 

But one thing remains constant -- the matchup with Toronto beckons.  

"It's different, you're right," defenseman Scott Harrington, himself a native of Ontario, said recently. "It being such a short series and us obviously playing Toronto, I think it's going to be a good challenge for us." 

For teams around the NHL, knowing that foe leaves them akin to a college football team pointing everything toward opening its schedule against a big-name opponent. While Ohio State often schedules a big-name foe for week two or three of its schedule, it did face Virginia Tech over Labor Day weekend in 2015, and that opening weekend always includes a few noted intersectional clashes (for example, Michigan vs. Washington and Alabama vs. USC are on the docket for the the first weekend this year, should games go on as scheduled).  

Those games can often be make-or-break clashes for teams, but rarely in hockey do teams have such a long-term focus on a narrow foe. The first opponent of an 82-game season is fun to know but largely irrelevant with six months of games to follow; meanwhile, the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs gives teams only a few days to prepare for that first series. 

A year ago, the Blue Jackets finished the regular season on a Saturday, took Sunday off, staged a practice Monday and then flew to Tampa ahead of its Wednesday playoff opener against the Lightning. That was a four-day turnaround for a playoff series, while this preparation will extend at least two months.  

Head coach John Tortorella often has said he doesn't want to overload his players with information about the opponent going into games, especially during the regular season when the foe changes on a nightly basis. The Blue Jackets usually focus on a few key attributes of the opponent, in particular how it likes to operate its power play and penalty kill with the hope of winning the key special teams battle in a game.  

With months to prepare for a high-powered Toronto attack, assistant coach Brad Shaw -- one of the most cerebral coaches in the game -- said his focus will be on shutting down the Leafs' power play while also coming up with a few key places for the Jackets to focus defensively.  

"It doesn't change much," Shaw said of the prep work. "It gives you more time to do it. I don't think I'm going to try to look into their game much more than what I would normally do for a playoff series anyway.  

"For me, I need to know their power play frontward, backward, inside out. I need to know how they're trying to create chances and goals and trying to be dangerous, and then it's about trying to find ways to counteract that. I think the prep gives you the ability to talk about every element of the team and answer every question that you can predict for your players, and that's the value of it." 

For Columbus, as Shaw said, the big focus will be on slowing down an offense that sits third in the league with 3.39 goals per game and sixth in power-play percentage at 23.1 percent. The Leafs boast Auston Matthews, who is third in the league with 47 goals and ninth with 80 points, as well as Mitch Marner (16-51-67 in 59 games), John Tavares (26-34-60 in 63 games) and William Nylander (31-28-59 in 68 games) among others. 

As such, the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs series has been billed as one of the top offenses in the league facing one of the top defenses, something the Blue Jackets players are aware of. 

"They have a ton of skill up front, and I think after such a long layover like this, it's gonna be very important for us to make sure that we're going to be prepared to play structured, tight defensive hockey and be ready to go," Harrington said. "Whenever you're playing hockey in the summer or pickup or whatever, it's obviously a lot more offense-based and I think it's just human nature to be a little looser defensively. 

"We're not going to have much time to make any mistakes defensively. We're going to have to be real tight from the get-go." 

But with months to prepare for one team, there is almost too much time to spend it all thinking about the Maple Leafs. Right now, those who are on the ice in Columbus are preparing mostly to get back into playing shape, with the focus on the opponent coming down the line.

"I guess it is good to have a format set," forward Gus Nyquist said. "There's no secret, we'll play Toronto if we do get going here, but I think that's something we'll get into more after a few days of camp after we get our legs going. I think that's No. 1, then we'll worry about Toronto."

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