Maple Leafs tie series, but Jake Muzzin’s health more important

Auston Matthews and John Tavares scored to give the Toronto Maple Leafs a 3-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 2.

TORONTO — In a moment like that you think only of the father, the son, the husband and the friend.

The quietest Stanley Cup Playoffs in history fell silent in those 10 minutes from the moment Jake Muzzin fell awkwardly to the ice until he was removed on a stretcher. You could hear absolutely everything inside an empty building, including medical personnel that were able to communicate with an alert Muzzin while instructing him to lie back and remain still.

Then there was the clank of sticks on the ice and boards from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, who still had nearly two minutes to run off in a 3-0 Toronto victory on Tuesday afternoon that squared up their qualifying round series.

“It was nice to close it out for him,” said captain John Tavares, who delivered his most memorable performance yet as a Leaf. “But certainly tough to see, especially just how much we love that guy.”

Muzzin is an easy guy to love. There’s an unassuming quality to the way he goes about his business that turned him into a dressing room favourite almost immediately after arriving via trade with Los Angeles in January 2019.

And until there’s a more definitive word on his condition — Muzzin was alert and moving all limbs while being transported to hospital, according to the Leafs — it’s difficult to put the situation in proper perspective.

He was injured on an awkward play. Muzzin was skating behind the net when he got cross-checked by Pierre-Luc Dubois and crashed head-first into Oliver Bjorkstrand. The veteran defenceman initially tried to stand up, but never got back on his skates.

The delay in getting the stretcher out to the far corner of Scotiabank Arena and loading Muzzin on to the spinal board gave everyone a little too much time to think.

“I was beside him there when he did go down and stayed down,” said Leafs forward Mitch Marner, a good friend. “Obviously it’s a little worrisome when you see the stretcher come out, you know a lot of things run through your mind.”

There was certainly a pall cast over a performance the Leafs had good reason to be proud of. They were smothered in Game 1 by Columbus and delivered on their objective to create better opportunities in the offensive zone, controlling more than 60 per cent of even-strength shot attempts and eventually breaking through Joonas Korpisalo’s brilliance in net.

Even if the scary nature of Muzzin’s exit turns out to be precautionary, the Leafs may need to finish this series against the Blue Jackets without him lining up on their matchup pairing with Justin Holl.

Games 3 and 4 go Thursday-Friday and a series-deciding Game 5 would be played Sunday, if necessary.

We are still getting a feel for how things work in this rapidly unfolding playoff tournament. Muzzin had to be removed from the NHL’s secure zone to go to hospital and it’s unclear exactly what kind of quarantine, if any, he’d face in the event he’s able to return inside the Toronto hub.

Protocol dictates that the NHL Event Medical Director has final say on that, although a source suggested that public health authorities would ultimately make the call based on how long he was gone, where he went and how much coronavirus risk he was exposed to.

Playing without Muzzin would rob Toronto of its safest 5-on-5 defensive option and a key penalty killer, not to mention a steadying presence in an emotional time. He’s one of two players in the dressing room already in possession of a Stanley Cup ring and has quietly taken on a leading role behind the scenes, organizing a team trip to a Buffalo Bills game, for example, at the end of training camp.

The 31-year-old was initially unsure about his move to Toronto — “I was living in a hotel with three dogs and a pregnant wife,” he said earlier this year. “Yeah, there was a lot of s— going on” — but wound up signing a $22.5-million, four-year extension with the Leafs back in February rather than pursuing free agency.

He’s started making a home here. And he spoke during the COVID-19 pause about the silver lining of spending more time with one-year-old daughter Luna and wife, Courtney, which is the kind of thing you remember when they bring the stretcher out in an empty arena.

“There’s a lot of bigger things than hockey, especially outside this world,” said Leafs forward Mitch Marner. “His family’s definitely a major priority and you’ve got to make sure you’re able to play with your kids.”

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