Blue Jackets Must Rely on Defense to Get Past Maple Leafs in Qualifying Round

By Chris Pennington on July 8, 2020 at 8:05 am
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev (65) shoots the puck against Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones (3) at Scotiabank Arena. Columbus defeated Toronto in overtime.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Fighting fire with fire won't be necessary here. Or possible.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the best scoring offenses in the NHL, ranking second in goals for and sixth in power play percentage. Our Columbus Blue Jackets on the other hand are 28th in the league in goals and 27th in power play percentage. 

This isn't the only difference between the two clubs. One team has one of the best defensive units in the NHL (the good guys, with the third-least goals against in the league) and the other is bottom-of-the-pack (seven-most goals against). One team (the good guys) has two nearly all-star level goaltenders (Joonas Korpisalo with .911 SV% and 2.60 GAA, Elvis Merzlikins with .923 SV% and 2.35 GAA) and the other team has just one (.909 SV%, 2.85 GAA for Frederik Anderson). 

These two teams are laughably different. And for that reason, the Blue Jackets should play to their strengths, and not try to play keep-up with the Leafs. Because they won't win that way.

Why? Well, the Toronto Maple Leafs have four players who were scoring at an elite level this season. Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander all had at least 59 points this season (80, 67, 60, 59, respectively, even with ten games total being missed between the four), and the Blue Jackets pale in comparison to that. 

Pierre-Luc Dubois is the leading point-getter for the Blue Jackets, with 49 points through all 70 games played this season. Next up is Gustav Nyquist with 42, and then defenseman Zach Werenski with 41. I make the subtle jab to Werenski being a defenseman and also being that high on the Blue Jackets' scoring list only because who knows how sustainable this will be in the playoffs (especially when Werenski ought to be focusing more on his own zone against a juggernaut Toronto offense)?

Now, the Blue Jackets had plenty of injuries this season, dampening their individual forward statistics this year, and this should be taken note of. But, even if every injured Columbus player played in every game possible, none of them would've hit 59 points (if we're going off of the pace they were on outside of injury).

OK. We get it. The Blue Jackets can't score, the Maple Leafs can, and so the Blue Jackets shouldn't try and be a team that they're not. They don't have the firepower of a year ago, or two years ago, or even three years ago. What they do have though, is the ability to shut down teams like Toronto and win 1-0 and make everyone in Ontario pull their hair out.

Play to your strengths. Play your game. It's almost always good advice. As mentioned, the Blue Jackets had the third-least goals allowed this season, all the while having Seth Jones, Markus Nutivaara, Dean Kukan and Zach Werenski all missing an extended amount of games due to injury. This, and Merzlikins was a rookie goaltender getting his feet wet for a while, and Korpisalo was learning how to be a prolific and consistent NHL starter. The fact that they still were able to lock down opponents on a consistent basis is wild.

So, when (if) the qualifying round arrives, all Blue Jackets' defensemen will be healthy and ready to go, and we will have a confident and all-star caliber Merzlikins and a literal all-star in Korpisalo between the pipes. They should lean on these skillsets, then, and focus on shutting down the high-powered Maple Leafs' top-six forwards.

Force the likes of bottom-six forwards in Denis Malgin, Kyle Clifford and Jason Spezza to fill the net, and take Matthews, Tavares, Nylander and Marner out of the game. Now, this is easier said than done, as the Blue Jackets did allow 11 points from that group in the two meetings between the teams this season, but Columbus also does have a recent history of shutting down opposing superstars in the playoffs (The whole Tampa Bay Lightning series last season and at least the first three games against the Boston Bruins).

That's it. Simple enough, right? Defense wins championships, or can at least get you through the qualifying round, so let's hope the boys in blue stick to what they do best and win a few one-goal games for us.

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