Nick Foligno

Maple Leafs force Game 5, stay alive thanks to unbelievable comeback

2 Comments

The Toronto Maple Leafs were four minutes away from being completely buried.

Four minutes away from having the longest offseason this core of players had ever had to deal with in terms of criticism and scrutiny.

Four minutes away from maybe dealing with the possibility of major changes coming to a team that — to this point — has been unable to get over the hump in the postseason.

That is when the madness started.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just 24 hours after blowing a three-goal lead to lose in overtime, the Maple Leafs flipped the script and erased a three-goal deficit with four minutes to play in regulation to force overtime. It was there that they completed one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history when Auston Matthews scored a power play to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win.

And with that, everything comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday for the right to advance to the field of 16 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It really cannot be understated as to how insane all of this was, and the perfect confluence of events that needed to happen for Toronto to win this game.

For 56 minutes the Maple Leafs were unable to solve Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and when Boone Jenner scored with under seven minutes to play in the third period to give his team a three-goal lead everything seemed over in Toronto.

But with Frederik Andersen pulled for the extra attacker, Toronto started to chip away.

William Nylander started the comeback with 3:57 to play when he scored a goal that — at the time — seemed to be pointless window dressing.

When John Tavares scored less than a minute later to cut the deficit to one, things really started to get interesting.

Even then Toronto needed some extra help to go its way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Game 3 hero for Columbus, had an opportunity to put the game away with an empty-net sitting in front of him, only to have his shot hit the outside of the net. Just a few moments later, Gustav Nyquist failed to gain the red line with the puck when he could have taken a shot at another empty net and gave the puck away, giving Toronto another chance.

The Maple Leafs did not waste the chance. With just 23 seconds to play in regulation Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Matthews scored midway through the period, capitalizing on a Nick Foligno tripping penalty.

During their late third period comeback Toronto had the same combination of players on the ice: Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

With that, Toronto now has a chance to salvage what could have been a disastrous postseason appearance. And who knows, if they lose Game 5 on Sunday all of the things mentioned up at the top (the criticism, the scrutiny, the potential changes) could still happen. This is, after all, a team that is supposed to compete for a Stanley Cup. Losing in the play-in round after three straight Round 1 exits would be awful for the perception of this core. But this win gives them a chance to fight another day and change the narrative around this team. If they do manage to do that and go on a postseason run from here, those four minutes are going be talked about for years.

As for Columbus, well, this has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.

They had this game — and the series — all but won. If you go buy the win probability stat, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning this game with five minutes to play.

All they had to do was avoid a meltdown, and they would have been a giant slayer for the second year in a row. But the meltdown happened.

The Blue Jackets were never supposed to be in this position this season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency, and then dealing with a season-long run of injuries. No one would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they badly regressed or fell off the map. If they are unable to bounce back in Game 5 on Sunday this is going to be the game that will be impossible for them to shake. It was right there. They had it.

Now it all comes down to Sunday.

Honestly, it is the perfect game — and perfect series — for the unpredictable mayhem that the 2019-20 season has been.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 [OT] (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 [OT]
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs even series with Game 2 shutout; Muzzin stretchered off

maple leafs muzzin
Getty Images
Leave a comment

[UPDATE: Muzzin is out for the remainder of the series.]

For most of the opening 40 minutes, it looked at if Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo was going to steal another one against the Maple Leafs. After his 28-save Game 1 shutout, he followed that up by stopping 36 shots in Game 2, but the Columbus offense failed to provide any support.

Auston Matthews broke the goalless tie late in the second period as Toronto evened their best-of-five series with a 3-0 victory. Frederik Andersen, who wasn’t tested all that much, finished with 20 saves.

The Maple Leafs dominated across the board. They controlled possession (62%-38%), outshot the Blue Jackets at even strength (27-10) (via Natural Stat Trick), and benefited from the Blue Jackets handing them five power plays. But Korpisalo stood tall. Matthews finally provided the breakthrough after redirecting a Zach Hyman pass to finish a give-and-go.

Columbus’ penalty parade continued into the third period. Nick Foligno handed Toronto a power play just 53 seconds in. The Maple Leafs’ didn’t capitalize, going 0-for-5 on the day. The Blue Jackets were still clinging on to hope in finding a tying goal, but an offensive zone breakdown ended with an out-of-reach scoreline.

As the Blue Jackets pressed for an equalizer, all five skaters got caught in deep. That allowed Travis Dermott‘s clearance to go off the side boards and to an unmarked Tavares for a breakaway.

Said John Tortorella: “Toronto was really good. We sucked.”

Game 3 is Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Muzzin leaves on stretcher

With just under two minutes to go, Jake Muzzin had to leave the game on a stretcher. A cross-check from Pierre-Luc Dubois put the Maple Leafs defenseman off-balance and his head collided with Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s knee.

Muzzin was moving his extremities and communicating as he was being checked out.

“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with Jake Muzzin,” said Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski. “No hockey game is as important as someone’s health so we’re thinking of him right now.”

“Very tough to see, especially with just how much you love that guy,” said Tavares afterward.

Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said Muzzin was taken to a local hospital and was responsive.

When Muzzin is ready to return, the Toronto Hub Medical Director will decide quarantine/testing protocols before he’s allowed to re-join the Maple Leafs.

“I’m not certain exactly what the protocol is in these situations,” said Keefe. “Our focus is and always will be on his well-being and that he’s okay.”

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

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

‘Luck in disguise’: Layoff helps Blue Jackets get healthy

2 Comments

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

Getty Images

With a Qualifying Round best-of-five looming against the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets got mostly positive injury news lately. Seth Jones highlights the good injury news, while Josh Anderson is the most significant letdown.

Jones headlines good injury news for Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets activated Jones and fellow defenseman Dean Kukan off of IR on Thursday.

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.

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.

Wherever Jones ranks in the stratosphere, he’s important to the Blue Jackets. So is Bjorkstrand and Atkinson, as this Evolving Hockey GAR Chart reinforces:

Blue Jackets injury news GAR
via Evolving Hockey

[MORE: Previewing Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs and other East Qualifying Round series]

Players Blue Jackets might not have in the lineup

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.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Anderson is unlikely to be available until at least September (sub required).

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:

Cam Atkinson, Emil Bemstrom, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, Liam Foudy, Nathan Gerbe, Boone Jenner, Jakob Lilja, Ryan MacInnis, Stefan Matteau, Riley Nash, Gustav Nyquist, Eric Robinson, Devin Shore, Kevin Stenlund, Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg.

When you stack that group up against the firepower Toronto boasts in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and others, you can see why every Anderson-type helps.

Out of context, the eighth-ranked Maple Leafs probably shouldn’t be big favorites against the Blue Jackets.

Look at the difference in firepower, then consider very different levels of media focus. Put that together, and Columbus is likely to be framed as heavy underdogs.

That’s just the way John Tortorella & Co. like it. With Jones looking good to go, they might just have a shot at making a run.

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.

NHL post-quarantine: Recapturing team chemistry a challenge

2 Comments

Claude Giroux’s Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL back when hockey was still being played.

That was more than two months ago and their next game could be two more months away. He can’t predict how things might go if the season resumes.

“I don’t know,” Giroux said. “Right now, everything’s unknown.”

Among the unknowns about the NHL returning amid the coronavirus pandemic is what the on-ice product might look like. In a team sport that demands rhythm and chemistry, players will have to quickly adapt after so much time apart to recapture what it takes to jump right into the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.

“We want to see great hockey played,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “It’s not an exact science. It’s something we’ve never dealt with before, and we want to make the best and most conscious decision we possibly can to obviously make sure not only guys stay safe, but that the quality of hockey is extremely high.”

Unlike basketball, where one player can dominate a game and carry a team, hockey is predicated on players being in sync, knowing where teammates are — and will be going next — for tape-to-tape passes. Timing as a unit is an essential ingredient to success, and it’s that timing that could be missing early because of so much time off the ice.

With the exception of a handful of players who were rehabbing injuries, living in Sweden or somehow able to find an open rink, most haven’t skated since the season was halted in mid-March. Recapturing that skating stride and building back up to avoid injuries will be a big part of voluntary workouts before the anticipated start of training camps in July.

Some players have expressed concerns about their individual game skills, like Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine expecting himself to be “terrible” after so much time off. Many goaltenders don’t even have their gear with them, and getting back into a groove will take some time.

Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang thinks informal workouts limited to six players on the ice at a given time should be about all that and building up conditioning levels. He sees training camp as the time for coaches and players to do some team rebuilding.

“The skating and everything comes back pretty quick,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “It’s the team mindset, the system play again, where you need to be — that feel. That’s the only stuff you can really get when you’re doing the reps over and over and over again.”

Knowing full well he won’t have a month to work with players before games resume, Edmonton coach Dave Tippett dug up his notes from the abbreviated training camp he oversaw with the Coyotes going into the 2013 lockout-shortened season.

“It’s different because you know the players already,” Tippett said. “It’ll be a little bit like the start of a season where you’ve got to get up and going pretty quick.”

Absent the usual drills to practice rushes, the power play or penalty kill for months, players will have no choice but to acclimate to each other quickly. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said he isn’t worried.

“I think players adapt,” MacLellan said. “Timing and speed and systems play usually takes a few weeks. It’s no different than a training camp coming in, except it’ll be ramped up – the intensity part – quicker. I think players will adapt to it. I think might be scrambly at first, but it’ll be accelerated because of the seriousness and what’s at stake if you’re playing for a championship.”

Even though teams are expected to play a couple of exhibitions before games that count, rediscovering chemistry quickly could make all the difference, especially for those in best-of-five qualifying round series to get to the final 16.

“We’re going to have to find a way to feel good but also get to our team game, get the fundamentals down that way again,” said Foligno, whose Blue Jackets would play Tavares’ Maple Leafs. “The team that can get to their game quickest is going to have success.”

Florida GM Dale Tallon considers it a benefit to have all teams on a level playing field going into a 24-team playoff. But the newness of the situation adds a layer of unpredictability and could make this one of the most competitive chases for the Stanley Cup in history.

“There’s going to be some teams that are going to disappoint because they lost their momentum, there could be injuries in the training camp period of time if we rush too fast to get these guys up to speed,” Nashville GM David Poile said. “It’s going to be like nothing we’ve done before.”