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GAME 1 PREVIEW: Blue Jackets are back Sunday night vs. Toronto

Coumbus begins its quest for the Stanley Cup against the Maple Leafs

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com
(9) BLUE JACKETS vs. (8) MAPLE LEAFS 

Game 1; Series tied 0-0 

Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, Scotiabank Arena, Toronto (FOX Sports Ohio, NHL Network, CBJ appFOX Sports app97.1 The Fan

It's been 148 days since the Blue Jackets last played a competitive game, a March 8 victory at Vancouver. 

It's been 144 days since the NHL paused its season because of the coronavirus pandemic, the same day the Blue Jackets had been scheduled to host rival Pittsburgh in Nationwide Arena. 

It's been 69 days since the NHL announced its plans to restart its season with 24-team battle royale for the Stanley Cup, and 56 days since teams were cleared to begin voluntary workouts in their buildings to begin preparations for this tournament. 

And now, it's finally here for the Blue Jackets. Tonight, they'll take on Toronto in the first game of a best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifying series. More than four months after last seeing the ice while battling for a playoff spot, now Columbus gets a chance to restart its injury-plagued but impressive season tonight. 

"It's going to be awesome," center Alexander Wennberg said. "I mean, obviously you've been sitting at home, you've been waiting for it to happen. For it to finally be here, being in the bubble, we had a preseason game here against Boston (on Thursday night) and got a little bit of a taste of being back playing, but right now when it really matters, you're so excited to be out there playing." 

It wouldn't be a surprise to head coach John Tortorella to hear Wennberg's words about being excited to play. For the past week, since the team arrived in the Toronto hub city, Tortorella has said there's only so much the team can do to prepare and noted that his players -- and likely everyone else's -- were getting antsy to actually play the games that matter.  

"I think all of the teams here, I think they're just itching to play," Tortorella said after Saturday afternoon's practice. "We've gone about our business, we've gotten our tape work done, finished that up today. We had a good, quick practice, and now it's time to play.  

"Sooner or later, you've got to do something here where it counts. Now it falls to them and I just think they're ready to go as far as playing a game that means something." 

It will be perhaps the most unique NHL postseason ever, with all 12 Eastern Conference teams in a "bubble" in Toronto, created in an effort to keep the players healthy and the coronavirus out. Games will come fast and furious, and they'll be staged without crowds in an arena set up to resemble a stage. The very fact that the game will take place in the month of August shows how different things are.

But when the puck drops, Wennberg knows it'll still be the kind of playoff hockey Columbus fans have gotten used to as the team makes its fourth straight postseason appearance. 

"It's still playoff hockey," Wennberg said. "You don't hear the sound of the crowd, obviously. Maybe it's going to be a little different, but it's still two teams going out there and doing whatever it takes to win. I think it's going to show on the ice."

Know the Foe  

When it comes to the on-ice style of the teams, Toronto is in many ways the antithesis of the Blue Jackets, which is partly what makes this such an interesting series. 

While the Blue Jackets excel defensively, placing third in the NHL in scoring defense (2.61 goals per game) and 12th in penalty kill (81.2 percent), the Maple Leafs are one of the best offensive teams in the league, placing third in scoring with 3.39 goals per game and sixth in power play at 23.1 percent 

Even the weaknesses are opposites, as the Blue Jackets are just 28th in scoring with 2.57 goals per game and 27th in power play at 16.4 percent, while Toronto is 26th in the NHL in scoring defense allowing 3.17 goals per game and 21st in penalty kill at 77.7 percent.  

The firepower up front for the Leafs includes four offensive standouts who all brings different things to the table. Auston Matthews finished with 47 goals this year to place third in the NHL, one goal away from tying for the top spot, and the American standout is one of the top goal scorers in the league. Mitch Marner is an excellent playmaker who posted 16 goals and a team-best 51 assists for 67 points in 59 games, while John Tavares is one of the league's top centers with a 26-34-60 line this year in 63 games. William Nylander also had a bounce-back year, with 31 goals among his 59 points. 

A year ago, Morgan Rielly led the NHL with 20 goals, but injuries kept him to a 3-24-27 line this year. Tyson Barrie led the blue line in scoring with five goals and 39 points, while up front, Zach Hyman had a breakout season with 21 goals, while Kasperi Kapanen added 13-23-36. Ilya Mikheyev was also off to an impressive start as the Russian import had eight goals and 23 points in 39 games before suffering a skate laceration that ended his season. 

In net, Frederik Anderson has been a consistent starter throughout his NHL career, but the 30-year-old Danish goalie had a bit of an off year with a 29-13-7 record but a 2.85 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Jack Campbell was acquired to be his backup midway through the year and in six games with Toronto had a 2.63 GAA and .915 save percentage.  

3 Keys to the Game    

Find identity: Toronto likes to run and gun and scored at a commensurate rate this season, but the Blue Jackets were adept at stifling opposing teams' attacks throughout the year. Whichever style dictates play will likely determine a winner. 

Start fast: Tortorella has talked often about how in a five-game series vs. a seven-game series, the team has no time to wade into action. He'll not be afraid to shake things up if the team struggles early. 

Be opportunistic: The Blue Jackets put up 19 goals in a four-game sweep of Tampa Bay to begin last year's postseason, riding a hot power play and jumping on the Lightning's mistakes caused by the CBJ's hard checking. For everything written about the Maple Leafs' firepower, a healthy Columbus team should be able to score too.  

Of Note    

Rielly (20 goals in 2018-19) and Columbus' Zach Werenski (an NHL-best 20 goals in 2019-20) are the only NHL blueliners to reach the 20-goal plateau over the past two seasons. … Both teams' NHL restart rosters have an average age of 26.1 years old, third youngest in the league. … Cam Atkinson has 18 career playoff points (7-11-18 in 27 games), tied with former teammate Artemi Panarin for the most in franchise history. … Seth Jones is the Blue Jackets' all-time leader in postseason assists with 12. … CBJ captain Nick Foligno's father, Mike, played in 18 playoff games for the Leafs in 1993. … The teams split the regular-season matchups, both in October, as Toronto beat the Blue Jackets by a 4-1 score in their season opener Oct. 4 in Columbus, but Gus Nyquist's overtime penalty shot goal felled the Leafs in a 4-3 final Oct. 21 in Toronto. 

Projected Lineup 

(Subject to change) 

Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Cam Atkinson 

Alexandre Texier - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand 

Gus Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Liam Foudy 

Eric Robinson - Riley Nash - Emil Bemstrom 

Zach Werenski - Seth Jones 

Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard  

Ryan Murray - Dean Kukan 

Joonas Korpisalo

Elvis Merzlikins  

Scratches: Josh Anderson (injury), Nathan Gerbe, Stefan Matteau, Devin Shore, Kevin Stenlund, Gabriel Carlsson, Adam Clendening, Scott Harrington, Markus Nutivaara, Andrew Peeke, Matiss Kivlenieks 

Roster Report: Tortorella named Korpisalo his starting goaltender and is set on this 18-man group of skaters. Gerbe skated as an extra forward and Nutivaara as the seventh defenseman on Thursday as the team could dress two extra players, but they are expected to be scratched against the Maple Leafs. 

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