Maple Leafs’ task gets tougher with Muzzin out for Blue Jackets series

Jake Muzzin stays down behind the play after an awkward collision that has him falling head first into Oliver Bjorkstrand's leg. Despite moving all his extremities and appearing conscious, he would leave the ice on a stretcher as precaution.

TORONTO — When Jake Muzzin broke his foot blocking a P.K. Subban shot earlier this season, he didn’t stay down on the ice afterwards.

In fact, he intentionally chose not to take his skate boot off during the intermission, played another 14 minutes in the game and walked to the bus at Prudential Center in dress shoes before spending the next 33 days recovering.

“At one point on the bench he said ‘I think I broke my toe,”’ teammate Justin Holl said at the time. “So he kind of knew, but he gritted through it. He’s a warrior.”

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You can imagine then how it must have felt for the Toronto Maple Leafs when Muzzin went down in the corner Tuesday and couldn’t do anything more than sit up. Someone with his mentality, in the middle of a playoff series, is going to do absolutely everything he can to leave under his own power in that situation.

But he couldn’t, and he wasn’t permitted to even continue trying after telling the medical staff that he didn’t have full feeling in his extremities. Hence the scary quiet 10-minute scene where he was loaded onto a stretcher late in Toronto’s Game 2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

So the news Muzzin had been discharged from hospital early Wednesday and returned to the Royal York to serve a five-day quarantine in his hotel room was actually positive because his condition could have been more critical.

His neck twisted awkwardly when he crashed into Oliver Bjorkstrand’s leg after being knocked off-balance by a Pierre-Luc Duboic cross-check.

“That was the first time I’ve ever seen him need medical attention on the ice,” Kyle Clifford, a teammate in both Toronto and Los Angeles, said Wednesday. “Bit of a scary moment.”

Muzzin is a central figure in what the Leafs are and hope to be, and can’t truly be replaced. He handles difficult minutes on the shutdown pairing with Holl, kills penalties, effectively breaks up the cycle in his own end and gives opponents reason to think twice when they skate up his side because he’s one of the few Toronto players likely to deliver a monster bodycheck.

On top of all that, he’s got Stanley Cup credentials and serves as an off-ice conscience of the group.

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe urged Muzzin to take on an even greater presence in the dressing room after signing a $22.5-million, four-year contract extension in February — noting that it removed any question about his standing within the organization.

The next day, the 31-year-old spoke candidly with reporters about what was holding the Leafs back from becoming the kind of Stanley Cup contender they hoped to be.

“The core of the team needs to take a jump consistently,” he said before a Feb. 25 game in Tampa. “We can’t have it one night and not the next. That’s everyone and that’s bringing along the younger core as well. We have to give them no option but to come with us.”

The way the Leafs played in Tuesday’s 3-0 victory over the Jackets suggests they’ve grown in the intervening months. It was arguably their most complete performance of the season, with a decided edge in even-strength shot attempts (61 per cent), expected goals (67.3 per cent) and high-danger scoring chances (75 per cent).

Most importantly, they limited the Blue Jackets to just 20 shots against.

Replicating that effort in Thursday’s Game 3 will be difficult without Muzzin, who will have his duties split in pieces. Martin Marincin enters the lineup primarily to take on penalty killing duties, something the utility-man does effectively with a long stick and his big body.

Travis Dermott will be trusted with Muzzin’s 5-on-5 minutes alongside Holl, something he did effectively before the COVID-19 pause while Muzzin was out with a broken hand. That duo actually played nearly 300 minutes together at even strength this season, posting a slightly lower expected goals against per hour rate (2.17) than Muzzin-Holl (2.24).

That’s why Keefe has qualms about elevating Dermott in this situation, saying he learned the 23-year-old “can handle it when called upon.”

There isn’t much time to make contingency plans with Games 3 and 4 scheduled back-to-back on Thursday and Friday, followed by a potential series-deciding Game 5 on Sunday.

Perhaps this will serve as a rallying point for the Leafs.

Muzzin is an incredibly popular teammate, the kind who quietly organizes team-bonding events and leads even without having a letter sewn on his sweater.

“He’s a mentally strong guy,” said Clifford. “He’s a big tough kid, so we’re just hoping for a speedy recovery.”

There had to be some relief among the players in finding out that his injury wasn’t season ending, or worse, especially after the shock of seeing him stretchered off.

Now the Leafs have to find a way to win enough games without him in order to give Muzzin a chance to return to the lineup.

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