So incredibly close. So vastly different.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets awake Thursday as would-be Round 1 opponents under the NHL’s proposed (but not yet approved) 24-team playoff format, and the matchup pits two clubs operating with opposite styles but similar results.
Toronto (36-25-9) and Columbus (33-22-15) both finished an incomplete 2019-20 regular season with 81 points and a .579 points percentage. They also split their head-to-head games with one win apiece, but both of those tilts were held way back in October — when jogging pants and band T-shirts were a treat, not my work uniform.
They both battled through tumultuous campaigns ravaged by injuries to key players, and both had frights with unstable goaltending that appeared to be sorted out by the pause.
That, however, is where the similarities end and the differences begin in what is arguably the most compelling of the eight proposed play-in brackets.
Why the Maple Leafs would totally win the series
Goals, goals and more goals.
How’s this for a stat? The Maple Leafs have four stars with a minimum of 59 points. The highest-scoring Blue Jacket, Pierre-Luc Dubois, is stuck at 49.
The Leafs wield the third-best offence in the league, while Columbus’s is the fourth worst overall and the least frightening of all 24 teams that will be invited back to play. Toronto also boasts one of the best power plays in hockey, at 23.1 per cent; Columbus’s 16.4 per cent power play is the least effective of all 12 Eastern Conference teams standing.
There is no wondering about identity here. This is a classic offence-versus-defence showdown.
And Toronto’s firepower will only be jolted by the healthy returns of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Ilya Mikheyev. (Winger Andreas Johnsson will not be ready to play this summer.)
“Everyone is going to be sloppy,” said Brad Marchand, whose Bruins could face the winner of this series. “I honestly think the teams that are going to come back and look good are the really young teams, teams like Toronto or Tampa, really high-end skilled teams.”
Besides offensive skill, the other advantage the Leafs should have is in net. Columbus goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins each enjoyed breakout seasons and earned juicy pay raises as a result, but that tandem has a combined zero games of NHL playoff experience.
Meanwhile, a happy and rested Frederik Andersen has zero load-management worries.
“I’m pretty open to pretty much anything that could be done to salvage the season, finish the season and get a Stanley Cup champion,” Andersen said.
Why the Blue Jackets would totally win the series
They’re finally (mostly) healthy, and they will structure and grind you to death.
Who cares if the Blue Jackets only had a 27.6 per cent chance of making the post-season on March 12 (to the Leafs’ 78 per cent chance)? That was the old reality.
The new reality is No. 1 defenceman Seth Jones healthy and eager, top goal scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand fully recovered from his March 3 ankle surgery and back skating, Cam Atkinson ready to roll, and possibly Josh Anderson, too. (Anderson was given a rehab timeline of four to six months after undergoing shoulder surgery March 2.)
In addition to rolling out the league’s fourth-stingiest defence and a better penalty-killing unit than Toronto’s, the Blue Jackets are built and conditioned to play a traditional playoff brand of hockey.
Block shots. Churn away relentlessly below the dots. Finish checks. Squeak out wins in low-scoring affairs. Just ask the 2019 Presidents’ Trophy–winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
With Sheldon Keefe still unproven, we’ll also give Columbus the edge behind the bench. Stanley Cup ring aside, few coaches milked more out of less in 2019-20 than John Tortorella, with his roster ravaged by free agency and injuries, and his goalies still feeling their way into the NHL spotlight.
Further, since their Round 1 upset last spring, Columbus now has the mental edge of knowing it can knock off a team that looks more talented on paper. The Jackets love being the scrappy underdog with nothing to lose. Between the ears, the pressure will be much greater on Toronto.
“[We’re] really focused on being above the puck, winning our battles, having good roles,” Jones said.
“If we’re all healthy hopefully we can just bring that to another level, surprise people again.”
The Blue Jackets would push this thing to the limit, but offence and skill wins out. The Maple Leafs survive in five, win their first playoff series in more than 16 years… and only have four more rounds to go.