NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs Game 3 stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
After being shutout in Game 1, Auston Matthews scored the Leafs’ first goal of the series with four minutes remaining in the second period of Game 2. This snapped Joonas Korpisalo’s 96-minute shutout streak to start the postseason. Captain John Tavares scored on a breakaway in the third period before Morgan Rielly’s empty-netter.
With less than two minutes to play in the third period, Jake Muzzin was taken off on a stretcher after colliding with Oliver Bjorkstrand. Muzzin was down on the ice for an extended period of time before being taken to a local hospital. He was discharged overnight and returned to the team hotel but has been ruled out for the remainder of this series.
Neither team has scored a power play goal in this series, with both teams going 0-for-6 on the man advantage through the first two games. Toronto went 0-for-5 on the PP in Game 2.
WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 8 p.m. ET TV: NBCSN ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)
Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap) Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap) Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream) Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD
After three straight opening round postseason exits there is no team under more immense pressure to advance through the qualifying round than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Their current core has yet to break through in the playoffs, they play under the most intense media microscope in the league, and they were already dealing with the criticism that was coming from a sub-par regular season performance before the season was paused.
They need to win, and they need to win now.
So getting shutout and losing 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of their qualifying round series on Sunday night was probably not the start they were looking for.
For most teams this situation would not be anything to panic about. It is one game and even in a shortened series there is still time to turn things around, get back on track, and salvage the series. But given the way the regular season went and the fact this core is still looking for its first postseason series win and there is going to be no grace period here. No benefit of the doubt. No patience.
It is not just the fact they dropped the first game of the series, but the team they dropped it to.
Toronto and Columbus could not be at two more opposite ends of the NHL postseason spectrum even though their spot in the standings was virtually identical.
The Maple Leafs are the team loaded with superstars and the team that has had championship expectations. The goal is to simply not just make the playoffs, but to make the playoffs and win the whole thing.
To this point, fairly or unfairly, they are viewed as underachievers, especially after spending most of the 2019-20 regular season either out of the playoffs or teetering on the bubble.
The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, are a team that entered this season with zero expectations and have done nothing but overachieve all year.
Their roster was gutted over the summer in free agency, they were picked by most to finish near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and perhaps even the entire league, and once the season did start they were absolutely ravaged by injuries all year to some of their best players.
Despite all of that being stacked against them they still exceeded all expectations and found themselves in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Even with all of their flaws they still had a strong core thanks to defenseman Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and a couple of criminally underrated forwards in Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois. The wild card was always going to be how their goaltending duo of Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins performed. They excelled, and on Sunday Korpisalo played one of his best games of the season.
A year ago the Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world by sweeping the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
Now they are one game closer to really sending the NHL world into chaos if they can upset the Maple Leafs.
What’s the biggest thing you’ll be keeping an eye on over these three weeks of training camp?
James O’Brien, NHL writer: To me, it boils down to: which teams are closest to “full-strength.” That’s a simple thought, but it gets more complicated when you factor in a lack of transparency in the NHL. “Unfit to play” is becoming the new “lower-body injury.” Does unfit to play mean injured, infected, both? Just a day off? Good luck getting many concrete answers from NHL teams. Or, if we do, does that mean every cagey answer equates to mistruths being told?
None of this is especially fun to follow, but it’s the elephant in the room. It might even just be the entire room, elephant, furniture, backwards talking and all.
Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest thing to keep an eye on in the next three weeks is the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the NHL. I think there will be a few before the teams head into the two hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto and then it will just be a matter of controlling the infection rate among the rest of the player’s teammates. It will be more interesting once the players get to their bubble in their respective hub cities and if there are any cases after being in the bubble 14 days.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The foremost concern for me surrounds whether the 24 teams will be able to successfully transition from their home cities to the two bubbles, such that the Return to Play can proceed safely come August 1. Only time will tell there.
But in the meantime, one thing that’s got my interest early on in training camp is the young talent that, because of the hiatus and the expanded rosters, could be poised to make a big splash. Nick Robertson has made a strong impression early in Leafs camp; imagine if the 18-year-old, who scored 55 goals in junior this season, brought that offensive flair to Toronto’s lineup right away? Or if Peyton Krebs, one year after partially tearing his Achilles and falling in the draft because of it, could somehow earn playing time on the Cup-contending Vegas Golden Knights? The league is full of talented young stars, and we may get to see that list grow in this unique postseason environment.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I’m curious about how coaches facing goalie decisions will plan for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. If you’re Mike Sullivan, and you’re confident in both Tristan JarryandMatt Murray, do you think of your Game 1 starter as the one you’ll ride with or in a game-by-game situation? Since the Qualifiers are best-of-five, there’s very little room for error, so if you’re a team like the Penguins, Rangers, Flames, Golden Knights, among others, how short is the leash if your Game 1 starter struggles?
Which teams benefited the most from the four-month break?
James O’Brien, NHL writer: My first instinct was to pick the Penguins, the perennially-injured powerhouse. The health issue moves the goalposts constantly, but actually got me to thinking more broadly.
It’s not just teams that are getting healthier since the pandemic pause. It also might be helpful for familiarity.
The Golden Knights and Maple Leafs rank among teams that made midseason coaching changes, so all that time off and training camps could really help new coaches.
So now I lean toward the Penguins (if they can shake off their outbreak) and the Maple Leafs, who were both unhealthy and dealing with tumultuous times. Of course, both the Penguins and Maple Leafs could get bounced during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, so we’ll see how much any of that matters.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’m in agreement with everyone else regarding teams that have had the opportunity to get healthy. So to offer another perspective, I’m going to off the board and say Florida. For starters, they faced an uphill battle to make the top eight in the East, so for a talented team with plenty of expectations, the new format obviously gave them a break. And perhaps the hiatus gave two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky the opportunity to move on from what had been a highly disappointing year. His GAA in the regular season was 3.23 – fourth-worst in the league. Bob is capable of shaving a full goal off that, but even with a more modest improvement, the Panthers would still become a much bigger threat. If he gets hot, watch out.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The Blue Jackets were already going to be underdogs against the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers round. We know how much John Tortorella loves to play that card any time he can. Now, with a four-month break, Columbus is just about healthy, though they will miss Josh Anderson. Getting Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand back will help both sides of the ice, as will Cam Atkinson, who dealt with an ankle injury during the regular season.
Columbus-Toronto was already was one the series I was most looking forward to, and a healthy Blue Jackets roster will help move this matchup into the “potential upset” column.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Considering they are about to resume the season amid a pandemic, the Columbus Blue Jackets are healthier than they’ve been in a long while.
When the NHL halted play in mid-March because of the coronavirus, injuries to top players had piled up, and coach John Tortorella had started to fret that the youngsters he plugged into the lineup wouldn’t have the steam to carry the Blue Jackets to the playoffs.
All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and top goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand were out with broken ankles. A long list of others had missed games with various injuries, including the two top goalies.
“When Oliver goes out — and he was our best player at that point in time — when Jonesy goes down, we were swimming upstream big time,” Tortorella said after opening practice this week ahead of a five-game playoff qualifying series against Toronto set to begin Aug. 2.
“I’m not sure where we go without those two for another 12 games we had to play,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to say we weren’t going to get in, but it was a struggle.”
Jones and Bjorkstrand are healed and back at full speed. So is veteran Cam Atkinson, who had struggled with a high ankle sprain. Goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, both of whom excelled at different times this season, are healthy and will compete to start in the net against Toronto.
Jones, who had surgery Feb. 11, called the forced layoff “luck in disguise.”
“It’s so nice to see the guys healthy, especially the big-minute players on our team that have been such as asset to us,” captain Nick Foligno said. “I think we felt really strongly about our group even with all the injuries we had, but to add those players it’s an instant boost to your team and your morale. We’re getting back our leaders.”
The season was unusual for the Blue Jackets even before the coronavirus. The team was struggling in early December before a winning streak helped it climb into contention in the Metropolitan Division.
As regulars went down to injuries, Tortorella summoned players who had started the season at the team’s top minor league club in Cleveland. The Blue Jackets stayed in it, and when the season was paused on March 12, they were above the wildcard line in the Eastern Division. When the league decided to go straight to a 24-team postseason upon resumption, Columbus was seeded ninth in the East based on points percentage and drew a matchup with the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs in the play-in round.
Some of those young players, including forwards Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy and Eric Robinson are expected to contribute even with the team back to near full strength.
Columbus will face a potent Maple Leaf attack led by stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Toronto’s 237 goals were second in the league to Tampa Bay’s 243 when the season was suspended.
“Essentially, we’re all starting from zero, right?” Atkinson said. “So it doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season, what teams were hot, the injuries and what not. We’re just all healed up and ready to go.”
Tortorella said safety is the priority as the team travels to Toronto to enter the “playoff bubble.”
“We’re going to go through all the precautions and do it the right way,” said Tortorella, who on Wednesday was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for the league’s top coach. “There is a point — and I talked to the team — I don’t want this to be a bunch of drama, either, talking about the virus every day. We’re going to protect the players, the league is going to protect the players, we need to get ready to play hockey also.”
Matthews, Toronto’s star center, said Monday he tested positive for COVID-19 last month in his home state of Arizona but was largely asymptomatic and has fully recovered. Columbus has reported no cases.
Mixed Blue Jackets injury news for NHL Playoffs: Jones in, Anderson out
This capture the bigger picture: that the Blue Jackets should have quite a few key players back if that Qualifying Round series happens against Toronto. Jones joined Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and basically the kitchen sink on the injured list this season.
NHL top 5 teams, man-games lost to injury and illness.
Jones, 25, scored six goals and 30 points in 56 games before injuries derailed his season.
By certain measures, Jones might not be quite the Norris Trophy-level defenseman many believe. His possession numbers are closer to solid than dominant, although some of that might boil down to playing more than 25 minutes per night.
You may look at that chart above and believe that Anderson isn’t much of a loss. In the framework of the 2019-20 season alone, that’s probably fair.
In the grand scheme of things, it likely is not fair, though. He’s been a useful player for Columbus for some time now. Anderson also boasts the sort of size and physical play that can make him difficult to handle in a playoff format. He was a handful at times for the Lightning during that shocking sweep during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
That’s a big blow, although it does leave the door open for a return during the postseason — if the Blue Jackets made an even better underdog run than in 2018-19.
A lack of Anderson hurts because, frankly, the Blue Jackets figure to struggle to score — even while healthier. With expanded rosters in mind, look at Portzline’s guesses for the forwards Columbus will have on hand: