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Everything you need to know about Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs

A fascinating series welcomes Columbus back to the ice in the NHL bubble

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

In the most unexpected postseason the NHL has ever seen, the Blue Jackets have been given one of the most intriguing matchups in the team's playoff history. 

Columbus and Toronto are a lot alike on paper as they get ready for their best-of-five series that begins Sunday night. Both had 81 points in 70 games, both are among the youngest teams in the playoffs, and both dealt with and overcame injuries all season long.

Yet they took very different roads to get where they are. The Maple Leafs were powered by offense, riding superstar players and a dominating power play to become one of the top scoring teams in the league. On the other hand, Columbus' identity was its defense, as Blue Jackets rode hot goaltending, a deep blue line and a team commitment to checking to becoming one of the hardest teams to score against in the NHL. 

Add in their respective standing in the league -- Toronto the NHL's marquee market in its hockey-mad home country, Columbus one that has continued to fight for respect on and off the ice -- and the storylines couldn't be more intriguing. 

But for the Blue Jackets, the key to the series comes down to one thing -- finding their identity and playing the style of hockey they need to play to be successful. 

"It's a mind-set. It's a willingness to do it," head coach John Tortorella said. "You look at Toronto, they're filled right through their lines with offensive people, very similar to our first-round opponent last year in Tampa. We have got to decide to have the right mind-set and do the dirty work and the mental part of it as far as being above the puck all the time. 

"We talk about it every day. If we get lazy and cheat a little bit and stay under the puck and hope we get it back in the offensive zone and score those types of goals, we're going to be in trouble because this team is too good offensively that we're playing against that will capitalize on those types of things. It's not a physical skill, it's a mental skill, and that's what they bought into last year against Tampa and hopefully they will buy back in this year." 

For the second year in a row, as Tortorella said, the Blue Jackets will face one of the highest scoring and most talented teams in the league to open the playoffs. Toronto finished third in the NHL with 3.39 goals per game, with a power play that scored 23.1 percent of the time.  

Auston Matthews was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2017 draft by Toronto. John Tavares also went No. 1 overall in 2009 to the Islanders before signing with the Leafs before last season. Mitch Marner was picked fourth overall in 2015, and Toronto tabbed Nylander eighth overall in 2014. 

That largely homegrown core is one reason why Toronto became one of the top scoring teams in the league, with each of those players topping 59 points on the season. Matthews' 47 goals finished one behind Alexander Ovechkin and David Pastrnak for most in the league, while Nylander added 31 tallies. Marner added 67 points in 59 games while Tavares had 60 in 63 games, right on pace with his just below a point-per-game career average. Add it all up and those four players had a combined 266 points in 260 games.  

On the other hand, Columbus got as far as it did this season because of its ability to prevent goals. The team's defensive focus from last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs has continued into this season a year in which the Blue Jackets allowed 2.61 goals per game, good for third in the league. In a 28-game stretch from Dec. 9 though Feb. 10, Columbus allowed just 48 goals in 28 games, an average of 1.71 per contest. 

Goaltenders Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo led that charge along with a team dedication to checking and playing smothering hockey. The phrase "above the puck" has become a constant directive from Tortorella, meaning the Blue Jackets have stressed not getting caught chasing the play, with a focus on taking away the middle of the ice and not allowing odd-man rushes. 

That focus was on full display in the team's exhibition game Thursday, a 4-1 victory in which Boston's big guns couldn't get going.  

"I think the thing we talked about before the game, we just wanted to concentrate on some checking as far as playing away from the puck," Tortorella said. "It's awfully tough to get your players to do that in scrimmages. We really wanted to try to use this game to work on that, and I thought we did a pretty good job. 

"It's being above the puck and just filling that neutral zone and trying to control them, their speed coming through. I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight." 

In a best-of-five series, Columbus won't have time to waste and must be on that game from the very beginning. Tortorella has said he's not going to hesitate to throw big minutes to his best players, with little margin for error. 

It's a fascinating series in perhaps the oddest of times, with teams quarantined in Toronto, no fans in the building and hockey taking place in August. But when the puck drops, the same trophy that players have chased for more than 100 years will be on the line, with intensity to match. 

"You don't know how many chances you're going to have at it," Bue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. "Hopefully I play a lot longer, but nothing is guaranteed to get to the postseason. So when you have a chance in the postseason, you have to make the most of it."  

3 Storylines 

Who starts in net for the Blue Jackets? 

This might be the biggest piece of intrigue for the Blue Jackets going into the series. Only one player can get the start in Game 1, and there are two good options -- behind door No. 1 is Joonas Korpisalo, the All-Star who came into his own this year while posting a 2.60 goals-against average, and behind door No. 2 is Elvis Merzlikins, who shook off a rough start to his CBJ tenure to post a scorching finish, including a .923 save percentage that placed fifth in the league among goalies with at least 20 appearances. 

"We're not in the bubble if we don't get the play from our two goalies that we did this year," Tortorella said. "We're not even close." 

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen has maintained that if it's called a problem to have two deserving starters who each carried the team at times this season, it's a good problem to have -- and he's right. But at the end of the day, only one goalie can start the first game, and that's a decision that can have an outsized impact on any series let alone a short one.  

So how will the Blue Jackets make it? Tortorella said he'd be in discussions with goaltending coach Manny Legace, and the breadth of the goalies' performance - all season, in camp scrimmages and in Thursday's exhibition game vs. Boston - will go into the decision. 

"We've had a number of conversations during this camp and since Manny has been with us," Tortorella said before the team left for Toronto. "We're always talking about what we're looking at. He brings up some points that I don't even think about. And they're interesting points as far as how a goalie thinks. I don't know how a goalie thinks. He does. He's played the position. So it's been a really good relationship." 

Even though they know only one goalie can start the series, both goaltenders said they've embraced the competition the past three weeks have provided. Next up comes the pressure of a situation neither has experienced before -- the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

"I know myself," Merzlikins said. "I am in the playoffs. I know that I am capable of handling the pressure really good. Obviously it's the NHL, it's different. It's again going to be something new. But even if the pressure is going to be heavy, I know what I have to do to handle it." 

"I feel really good, and it's not up to me," Korpisalo said after the Boston game. "I'm not making the decision, so I hope for the best, but I feel really good." 

How will the CBJ youth play? 

Consider this. 

Liam Foudy will enter the series against Toronto with just two NHL regular-season games under his belt. Emil Bemstrom will have played 56 games, all this year. Alexandre Texier has played just 38 regular-season games, though he did make an eight-game playoff cameo a year ago. And Eric Robinson has played in 64 regular-season games and zero playoff games. 

That's a full one-third of the team's expected forward corps for Game 1 that has less than a season of NHL experience under its belt. And while Tortorella has made it clear he's going to ride his veterans, especially in a short series, it's also fair to say those young players have to be ready to go. 

They say they are. 

"I know what to expect," Texier said. "It's going to be a tough game. It's going to be physical. I am ready for that. I think we're all ready. That's a good thing." 

If the lines from Thursday's exhibition hold, Texier will be in an important spot, joining Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand on the top line. Despite his relative inexperience, Foudy will be given a chance to play with veterans Boone Jenner and Gus Nyquist. Robinson and Bemstrom will be tasked with providing speed, energy and perhaps some scoring touch from the fourth line with Riley Nash. 

Columbus enters the tournament with a postseason roster that is an average age of 26.1 years old, tied with Toronto as the third youngest team in the restart. Sunday night's projected lineup is even younger with an average age of 25.7 years old. 

Yet Tortorella seems excited to see what the young players can do, and from Chris Kreider to Gabriel Carlsson to Texier a year ago, he's not afraid to throw young players into the fire. 

"Over the years, as I've watched it both ways, I'm not sure which one is best as far as being young and stupid and not even knowing what is going on around you when it comes to playoff hockey versus a grizzled veteran that has been in it and played in some big games," Tortorella said. "The experience is very important, but sometimes it adds a little bit more (pressure) to that player.   

"As I've seen the game grow, it's changed dramatically from the early years I coached to where it is right now, just as far as coaching and just letting the kids play. The youth has been a very important part of us trying to get there and trying to be that team to win a Stanley Cup. I'll err with youth. I like guys that just go out and play."  

There is a fair bit of excitement among the young players, and all have earned their spot. And they'll be ready -- if a bit nervous -- come Sunday night. 

"The nerves will always be there," Foudy said. "I think that's a good thing. If you're nervous, you care, right?" 

Yes, the Blue Jackets are healthy 

As Columbus fans know, the list of Blue Jackets players to see significant time on the shelf this year could rival Santa's list. 

An NHL-best (worst?) 419 man-games were lost to injury, and those injuries included such notables names as one of the league's best defensemen (Seth Jones), the team's top goal scorer on the season (Oliver Bjorkstrand), the second-best goal scorer in franchise history (Cam Atkinson) and much more. 

Those players as well as Texier, Dean Kukan, Nathan Gerbe, Josh Anderson and Brandon Dubinsky were on the shelf for the last game the Blue Jackets played March 8 in Vancouver, and all but Anderson and Dubinsky are ready to go now (and Anderson could be soon, as he is with the team in the bubble while rehabbing from March shoulder surgery).  

Having nearly everyone on hand will be important against a Maple Leafs team that also had its fair share of bad injury luck during the season, but Tortorella is most excited to see Nos. 3 and 28 back on the ice. The Blue Jackets were in the midst of a 19-2-5 run through early February when Jones suffered a broken ankle in a Dec. 8 game vs. Colorado. Columbus won just three games over the next month, and it didn't help when Bjorkstrand went down with the same injury 12 days later. 

"Let's face it," Tortorella said. "We went through a ton of injuries. When Oliver goes out, he was probably our best player at that point in time the way he was playing. When Jonesy goes down, we were swimming upstream big time. I'm not sure where we go without those two for the other 12 games we had to play. I'm not saying we weren't going to get in (the playoffs), but it was a struggle." 

Atkinson had expected to return when the Blue Jackets played March 12 vs. Pittsburgh, the first game canceled by the coronavirus pause, but he admits he's much closer to 100 percent now than he would have been then. Add in the returns of such players as Texier and Kukan and the Blue Jackets are getting a boost.  

"It's so nice to see the guys healthy, especially the big-minute players on the team that have been such an asset to us," Foligno said. "I think we all felt really strongly about our guys, even with all the injuries we had, but to add those players, it's an instant boost to your team. We've become such a solid team when those guys are back in the lineup." 

3 Things About The Leafs 

Defense is the question: While Toronto is known for its high-scoring attack, the Maple Leafs have been susceptible to giving up goals this season. 

The Leafs allowed 3.17 goals per game, 26th in the NHL. There were a number of reasons for this, including a penalty kill that ranked 21st in the league; inconsistent goaltending both from starter Frederik Andersen (.909 save percentage) and backup Michael Hutchinson until Jack Campbell was acquired; a banged-up defensive corps; and a defense that was prone to the occasional breakdown. In all, Toronto gave up five or more goals 19 times this season. 

Hired midway through the season, head coach Sheldon Keefe has said the team knows it needs to be better at preventing goals.  

"I don't think it's any secret that we got to be a lot better defensively," he said during the team's training camp. "There's no area of our game defensively that we were satisfied with. We're not kidding ourselves here. We know there's a lot of areas we need to look at and frankly it's every area." 

Season results: The Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs played twice this season, with both of the games coming in October. They met in the season opener Oct. 4 in Columbus with Toronto pulling away to a 4-1 win. Marner and Cody Ceci gave Toronto a 2-0 lead before Atkinson's power-play goal got one back, but third-period goals by Marner and Matthews finished off the game. 

Video: Condensed Game: Maple Leafs @ Blue Jackets

Just 17 days later in Toronto, the Blue Jackets took an early 2-0 lead then rallied from a 3-2 deficit to take a 4-3 victory in overtime on Nyquist's penalty shot goal. An early shorthanded goal by Nash followed by a Dubois tally gave Columbus the lead in the first six minutes, but Kasperi Kapanen, Matthews and Nylander made it 3-2 after two. In the third, Alexander Wennberg's power-play rebound goal tied it, and Nyquist beat Frederik Andersen with the first-ever penalty shot goal in overtime in CBJ history. 

"I'm sure that doesn't happen often," Nyquist said. "That was a fun moment, especially against Toronto up there, for sure." 

Video: Condensed Game: Blue Jackets @ Maple Leafs

A coaching tie: The Maple Leafs are one of the many NHL teams who made a coaching change during the season -- an astounding eight teams chose to make a switch this year -- with longtime coach Mike Babcock being let go in favor of NHL newbie Sheldon Keefe, who was in charge the Leafs' AHL team in Toronto. 

Which led to an immediate storyline for this series, as Keefe's NHL career consisted of 125 games from 2001-03 in Tampa Bay -- where his head coach for much of that time was Tortorella. 

While Tortorella led the Bolts to a Stanley Cup in 2004 and is one of the most decorated NHL coaches of all time, Keefe started coaching in the junior ranks in 2006 before joining the Marlies in 2015. Under Keefe, Toronto was 27-15-5 in 47 games this year. 

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy as far as how he played," Tortorella said. "He's one of the most competitive players I've coached. I didn't coach him a lot of games, but when he played he knew one way, and that was to play hard. 

"I wish nothing but the best for that guy, other than this series here." 

Schedule 

Game 1: Sunday, 8 p.m., Fox Sports Ohio, NHL Network 

Game 2: Tuesday, 4 p.m., Fox Sports Ohio, NBCSN 

Game 3: Thursday, TBD, Fox Sports Ohio, TBD 

Game 4 (if necessary): Friday, TBD, Fox Sports Ohio^, TBD 

Game 5 (if necessary): Sunday Aug. 9, TBD, Fox Sports Ohio^, TBD 

^unless an exclusive national broadcast 

Follow Along 

BlueJackets.com and our social media channels will have plenty of coverage as the series goes on, with previews and recaps of each game as well as feature stories, gameday coverage and postgame analysis pieces, plus video highlights, Jody's Take, interviews and more. Also be sure to check out CBJ Radio's daily #CBJin30 podcast with Bob McElligott as the voice of the Eldorado Scioto Downs Blue Jackets radio network has interviews and analysis from the series. 

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