Photo courtesy of NHL.com
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets are completely different teams on paper.
The Maple Leafs are a team headlined with heavy offensive talent. On the other hand, the Blue Jackets are a team that flies under the radar with excellent coaching and a solid defense.
The two teams split the season series with one win apiece. The third regular-season meeting between the two teams got canceled due to COVID-19.
Toronto won the first meeting 4-1 with a three-point effort by Mitch Marner, while the Blue Jackets won the second game, 4-3. In that contest, Gustav Nyquist scored the overtime winner for the Blue Jackets off of a penalty shot.
But how exactly do these teams match up? Let’s look at the contestants:
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs come into this series as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, finishing this season with a 36-25-9 record. They finished second in the league in goals with 237. The bad news is that Toronto finished just 25th in the league in goals-against with 222.
The Leafs were off to a slow start to the season, starting 9-10-4 before firing head coach Mike Babcock. Since Sheldon Keefe took over, the Maple Leafs are 27-15-4. That’s one of the NHL’s best records since that point of the season.
Their offense is headlined by superstar center Auston Matthews. Matthews’ 47 goals was one off the league lead. John Tavares added 26 goals for Toronto — good for 28th in the league. Mitch Marner also had 16 goals and 67 points of his own, making for an insane offensive trio for the Leafs.
On defense, the Maple Leafs rely heavily on offensive defensemen. Morgan Reilly helps headline that unit along with Tyson Barrie, who finished in the top 30 in points for a defenseman. Jake Muzzin is also a solid two-way defender, but the bottom half of the Toronto defense is fairly lackluster.
In net, the Maple Leafs have Frederick Andersen. Andersen had the fourth-most wins among NHL goaltenders despite having a down year in the save percentage department posting a .909 mark. Andersen’s 2.85 goals-against average is also slightly concerning, but that comes with the holes that the Leafs have on defense.
The Maple Leafs are a very top-heavy offensive team, but the right kind of team can expose those holes. That team could be the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets came into this season with very low expectations. Columbus lost star winger Artemi Panarin to the New York Rangers, star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to the Florida Panthers, and trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene to the Nashville Predators, but new faces and the coaching of John Tortorella stepped up and brought them back to the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets finished the season 33-22-15, which was good for the No. 9 seed in the East. They were one of the best defensive teams in the league, ranking tied for third in goals against (183). Unlike Toronto, the Blue Jackets were one of the worst goal-scoring teams in the league, ranking 28th in goals for with 180.
The Blue Jackets had a next-man-up mentality this season. Columbus did fairly well despite starting goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, scoring winger Cam Atkinson, star defenseman Seth Jones, as well as many other pieces of the roster, all missing significant time. One of the players who stepped up the most was rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlinkins.
Merzlinkins finished with a 13-9-8 record. That includes a .919 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average. His play during Korpisalo’s stretch on the IR will make it tough to choose who to roll with in this series. Korpisalo had a solid season in his own right.
On offense, the Blue Jackets are headlined by the young Pierre Luc-Dubois, who had 18 goals and 49 points this season. Gustav Nyqvist, Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno are all solid players who round out the top half of Columbus’ forward core. The Blue Jackets don’t have much star power on offense, but they play well together.
The real bread and butter for the Blue Jackets is their defense, headlined by their top pair of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Werenski is a solid offensive defenseman who finished with 41 points this year. Jones holds down the fort defensively.
The defensive aspects of this team are very dangerous for a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, but is it enough to stop them?
Honestly, it isn’t. While it’s easy to love Columbus’ never-say-die attitude, there just isn’t enough there to stop the Maple Leafs’ offensive attack. We saw it in the two games they played this season. Toronto managed a total of seven goals in those two contests.
In order for the Blue Jackets to beat the Leafs, they’re going to have to outscore them. With the Leafs’ stacked offensive core, it will be hard for Columbus to hold guys like Tavares and Matthews down. The Blue Jackets just don’t have that game-breaking talent that could steal this series.
The solid goaltending can steal a game or two for the Blue Jackets in this best-of-five series. Winning three games however, will be tough.
Although the Leafs don’t have a great defense, the Blue Jackets just don’t have a good enough offense to exploit that weakness. That gives the Leafs a pretty good chance at winning this series. Ultimately, the overpowering offense of the Maple Leafs have will propel Toronto to a 3-1 series victory.