The results are nearly identical, but the paths to get there couldn’t be more different.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets — seeds eight and nine, respectively, in the Eastern Conference bracket — finished the truncated 2019-20 campaign with an identical 81 points and .579 points percentage. They also split their head-to-head series, all the way back in October, when a virus was mostly something you worried about your computer getting.
Yet these play-in round foes’ paths and identities couldn’t be more distinct.
One has been cutting lottery-sized cheques to attract and keep happy some of the greatest offensive talent in the land. The other watched three of its best players, including a 2020 Hart Trophy finalist and a two-time Vezina champ, leave in free agency last summer and tried to fill that gaping hole with… Gustav Nyquist.
One pummels its opposition with high-danger offence off the rush and wields its $43 million power-play unit as an enforcer. The other ekes out low-scoring W’s by cycling and shot-blocking and forechecking its enemies to death.
One will ride or die with a bona fide NHL No. 1 goaltender who has gone 0-for-3 in playoff series since he moved to Toronto. The other runs out the tournament’s least-experienced goalie tandem and may need to put its starter on a shorter leash than a pit bull in a dog park swarming with chihuahuas.
One fired its head coach midstream and got faster and freer under a rookie bench boss who lightens his players’ spirits by cranking Travis Scott during practice. The other is run by a five-time Jack Adams finalist who doesn’t give a bleep if the microphones catch him cursing out a winger who forgets to stay above the puck.
One hasn’t won an NHL elimination series since Miracle was in theatres. The other is hot off pulling its own miracle by sweeping the 2019 Presidents’ Trophy–winning Tampa Bay Lightning the last time stakes were this high.
Offence versus defence. PP versus PK. Skill versus will.
Should be a doozy.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Maple Leafs: 52.03 CF% (6th), 50.16 GF% (17th), 91.15 SV% (28th), 8.57 SH% (11th), 0.997 PDO (20th)
Blue Jackets: 49.11 CF% (20th), 50.61 GF% (15th), 92.81 SV% (5th), 6.80 SH% (28th), 0.996 PDO (21st)
Maple Leafs: 23.1 PP% (6th), 77.1 PK% (21st), 237 GF (2nd), 222 GA (25th)
Blue Jackets: 16.4 PP% (27th), 81.7 PK% (12th), 180 GF (28th), 183 GA (3rd)
Maple Leafs: 1-0-1
Blue Jackets: 1-1-0
“It’s no secret that we’ve got really good offensive players,” says Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
Handpicked by GM Kyle Dubas to replace the fired Mike Babcock — no other candidates were interviewed for the position — Keefe is here to let the horses run. So, he’s teasing his “All-Star Game line” and experimenting with teenage sniper Nick Robertson on his third line at training camp, knowing full well the Maple Leafs need to outscore their defensive deficiencies in order to succeed.
Toronto, the NHL’s highest-scoring outfit since Keefe took the reins, can wow with its speed, drop jaws with its creativity, and strike fear with its power play. But the Maple Leafs will also tote the burden of pressure from the Royal York to Scotiabank Area. Their star players are already being paid like world champions but are 0-for-3 in elimination series and, thus, their killer instinct has been questioned.
Conversely, the Blue Jackets couldn’t be more comfortable in the plucky underdog role. The off-season departures of superstars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky have furthered their us-against-the-world scrappiness, and an influx of healthy bodies (Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, possibly Josh Anderson) has renewed confidence in a group that already stunned the hockey world by knocking off Cup favourite Tampa last spring.
Columbus coach John Tortorella has downplayed the less-than-full participation of captain Nick Foligno and Pierre-Luc Dubois at camp and is doing his damnedest to instill a mature mindset in the tournament’s youngest roster.
“It’s playoff hockey, right? You’re gonna have to fight for every inch of ice,” reminds Nyquist.
If the blue-collar Jackets are to upset the white-collar Leafs, it will be because they won the trenches. If the Maple Leafs can survive this test, however, an injection of confidence could propel them to great heights.
Maple Leafs X-Factor: Ilya Mikheyev
The last time we saw the borsht-loving rookie in NHL game action, he was skating off the Prudential Center ice as fast as possible, a frightening crime scene of blood spatter behind him. Since having his wrist sliced by a blade in late December, Mikheyev has diligently committed himself to coming back stronger, skating throughout the pause, polishing his English, and wowing rehab pal Jake Muzzin in the gym.
“He came in and worked his b– off,” Muzzin marvels. A standout at reset camp, Mikheyev has washed away concerns about Andreas Johnsson’s early unavailability and injected both the second line and a mediocre penalty kill with renewed energy. Souperman could be a late-round steal in your playoff fantasy draft.
Blue Jackets X-Factor: John Tortorella
On paper, the Jacks Adams finalist has the weaker roster, but we all know the games aren’t played on loose-leaf. An ornery motivator supreme — and one who’s already in midseason form — Torts has a track record of conjuring sum-greater-than-parts efforts from his teams, and we need only look back to 2019’s sweep of Jon Cooper’s stacked Lightning as proof.
Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe vows he’s ready for this chess match against his former coach, but Tortorella would love nothing more here than to reinforce the value of committed defence and a willingness to sacrifice individual reward for group gain.
Biggest question facing Toronto: Can they get out of their own end before it all goes to hell?
“There’s no area of our game defensively that we were satisfied with,” Keefe said at the outset of camp. “We fully expect our guys to be a lot better defensively when we come back here, and of course we’re going to need to be given what’s at stake.” Clear the zone quickly with possession, limit the Grade-A chances against, and the Maple Leafs should be able to run-and-gun the Blue Jackets into submission. Easier said than done. Columbus is one of the NHL’s best at sustaining a heavy cycle and forcing its opponents into own-zone turnovers. The less time the Leafs are forced to spend on their heels, the better.
Biggest question facing Columbus: Can they score?
Tortorella plans to inject his lineup with youth and speed — Hello, Liam Foudy! No pressure, Alexandre Texier! — in an effort to keep pace with one of the fastest teams in the East. But the young Blue Jackets have just one 20-goal forward (Oliver Bjorkstrand); Toronto has four of them. Who would you rather have as your second-line centre, John Tavares or Alexander Wennberg? The Jackets can defend all they like, but at some point the likes of Atkinson, Dubois, Nyquist, Foligno, and Boone Jenner will need to put the puck in the net.