Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifier Preview

The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups. In this case, it’s Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets: TV schedule, start times, channels

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, TBD
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD

Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series

Will “underdog” theme work as well for Columbus as you’d expect?

John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets memorably swept a historically good Lightning team in the First Round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky gone, Torts’ group once again slips into the underdog role against the expensive, star-studded Maple Leafs.

While the Maple Leafs stumbled in ways the 2018-19 Lightning rarely did, the styles, on paper, would behoove Columbus once again.

How many times have we seen a defensive-minded underdog clamp down on a high-powered favorite, at least in the NHL? It’s a theme of the sport, and sometimes a polarizing one.

From a sheer pressure standpoint, one could picture a still-fairly-young Maple Leafs team “start to grip their sticks a little tight” if they struggle to break through against the Blue Jackets. The media won’t be kind to Toronto if they fall short during this best-of-five series against Columbus.

That said … there aren’t fans there to trot out Bronx Cheers. If there’s anything to the feeling that nervousness can build among fans, that might not be much of an issue.

Could that soothe some of the anxiousness? Or will that lack of nervous energy make it that much tougher to create offense versus a potentially smothering Blue Jackets system?

Blue Jackets Maple Leafs 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers preview John Tortorella
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Can the Maple Leafs play adequate, NHL playoff-level defense?

One other thing that short-circuits some “underdog” talk is just how much the Maple Leafs struggle in certain areas of the game. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe acknowledged the elephant in the room a few weeks ago.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that we got to be a lot better defensively,” Keefe said in mid-July, via TSN. “There’s no area of our game defensively that we were satisfied with. We’re not kidding ourselves here. We know there’s a lot of areas we need to look at and frankly it’s every area. From all three zones, everything that we’re doing there, we’re either tweaking it and making changes structurally to how we were playing or we’re having more focused intensity and commitment to the habits and detail within it.”

This could very well be a battle of strength vs. strength (Maple Leafs’ offense vs. Blue Jackets’ defense) and weakness vs. weakness (the two teams’ other units). If that holds true, then it could be a wash.

Either way, it sure seems like Morgan Rielly will be a busy man for … as long as the Maple Leafs can go.

[2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule / NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Maybe Andersen needed a break …

When a team allows too many goals, you encounter a chicken-and-the-egg question. How much should you blame a goalie giving up soft goals versus a defense hanging that netminder out to dry?

During most of his time with the Maple Leafs, Frederik Andersen bailed out his teammates time and time again. In 2019-20, however, that chicken-and-the-egg situation’s been a bit more rotten for all involved.

Andersen managed a mediocre .901 save percentage over his last 31 games of 2019-20, and was only slightly better overall (.909 over 52 contests). Just about every modern goalie deals with hot and cold streaks, but the Maple Leafs need at least above-average netminding to make everything fit together.

Perhaps fatigue was an issue for Andersen, though?

Since 2016-17, Andersen sits tied with the most games played in the entire NHL (244, with Connor Hellebuyck). Considering how adventurous those Maple Leafs games can be,* one cannot blame Andersen if he was tuckered out.

* – Andersen leads all goalies with 7,798 shots faced since 2016-17. Only two other goalies (Hellebuyck and Sergei Bobrovsky) faced at least 7,000 shots in that same window.

Will the Blue Jackets’ goalies handle playoff-style pressure — and the Maple Leafs’ attack?

To the delight of all pun-loving hound dogs, Elvis Merzlikins delivered beyond our wildest expectations with a chart-topping .923 save percentage. Considering that he played in 33 games, Merzlikins might deserve a little more Calder Trophy attention.

After years of disappointing play, Joonas Korpisalo played OK in a heightened role, too.

Theoretically, Tortorella’s smothering system could make life easier for these young goalies.

That said, these are two inexperienced netminders at playoff-level hockey. And, for all of their warts, the Maple Leafs can give defenses and goalies fits. Even the best of the best.

One would think that the Blue Jackets will need excellent goaltending to upset the Maple Leafs. It’s anyone’s guess if that part will work out for Columbus.

Who’s out, Who might return for Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs?

Blue Jackets: It’s unclear if Josh Anderson will be available for Columbus. Considering their need for some firepower, a reasonably healthy Anderson would be a nice boost. Brandon Dubinsky‘s long-term future seems murky, but he’s definitely unavailable for 2019-20.

Maple Leafs: Both Andreas Johnsson and Timothy Liljegren have been banged up, earning the “unfit to play” moniker. We’ll have to keep an eye on the health of both valuable supporting cast members.

More on 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, NHL Return to Play series:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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