TORONTO — The biggest surprise, if we can call it that, is that there were no surprises.
Even in a cavernous soundstage in the middle of summer, this had the intensity and battle level we’ve come to expect from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And there again were the Columbus Blue Jackets clamping down on a highly talented opponent skating around with big expectations.
Taught, tight and tense — at least until the Toronto Maple Leafs blinked.
Cam Atkinson fooled Frederik Andersen off the rush and Alexander Wennberg scored into an empty net to seal Sunday’s 2-0 victory by Columbus. The Leafs managed just one shot on Joonas Korpisalo in the final seven minutes of regulation and it came from 50 feet away.
“We expected it to be hard,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “We expected it to be uncomfortable.”
After nearly five months between meaningful games, the Leafs are already in one. Down 1-0 in a best-of-five qualifying series that will unfold in eight days or less, and facing questions about how they’ll break through a sea of determined defenders.
Just ask the high-powered, 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning of 2018-19 about how challenging that task is.
It starts with the defensive pairing of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, who boast a combined cap hit below each of Toronto’s three highest-paid forwards and managed to smother those stars in Game 1.
Auston Matthews saw a little less than half of his even-strength minutes against that duo and didn’t back down from the physical challenges they sent his way. But his best chances to score came during the brief periods they were resting on the bench — a wrist shot he sent off the crossbar 18 minutes in and a glorious look from the high slot Korpisalo gloved late in the second period, after Matthews created a soft spot in coverage by drifting high in the offensive zone and then circling back to the slot area.
Had either of those gone in the game might have played out differently. That’s how close the run of play was. But for the Leafs this was a look at how much tougher life can be on this side of the regular season, with only four rush chances and 11 slot shots generated against Korpisalo.
“They obviously play a really structured defence and they make it hard on you to get on the inside,” said Matthews, who generated a game-high six shots on net. “I think we’ve just got to do a better job of maybe shooting more pucks and have guys coming down on it.”
They will also need more from the Ilya Mikheyev-John Tavares-Mitch Marner line, which fell a little flat after some good early sequences. They saw heavy doses of the Vladislav Gavrikov-David Savard pairing and could single-handedly minimize the Werenski-Jones effect by winning those minutes on the scoreboard.
However, it should be noted that this is the kind of autopsy we can perform following any tight playoff loss. It’s a dangerous game. For example, the Leafs gave 18-year-old Nick Robertson his NHL debut on the third line and nearly saw him score on his first shift, breaking free at the top of the crease to get a good shot on Kasperi Kapanen’s pass from behind the net.
“Just got the toe of the goaltender there and obviously that was a big moment that could have put us in a real good spot,” said Keefe. “It was good to see him get into that position, available to get the shot.”
And no one would have identified Atkinson’s chance as the difference-maker before the goal light went on. He fired the puck from distance coming up the right wing and left Andersen shaking his head in disbelief.
It somehow found its way above the goaltender’s right pad and below his blocker — giving Columbus the only window of opportunity it would need to grab early control of the series.
“They play playoff hockey. This is playoff hockey,” said Leafs forward Zach Hyman. “I thought we had our chances, we just couldn’t capitalize. You’re not going to win any games if you don’t score any goals. They got one and we couldn’t get on the board.”
There will be film work and a day of practice before Game 2 goes Tuesday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena. The focus on Toronto’s talented forwards will ratchet up.
Even under these unique circumstances, with teams sequestered behind fences and games played with no fans in the building, there’s something familiar to all of that. On Sunday morning, Keefe was asked what he could be certain of entering this once-in-a-lifetime tournament.
“I think there is a certain level of uncertainty in terms of how the games play out, of course. That’s the beauty of sports,” he said. “I would say there’s probably a little bit more uncertainty just because your team hasn’t played a lot of games to get to this point.”
Then the puck dropped and the Jackets were exactly who we thought they were.
History tells us that might not be good news for the Leafs.