Can you believe it's finally here?
It's game day, folks. One that counts. It's postseason hockey. We made it!
As the Columbus Blue Jackets take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 tonight in a best-of-five playoff qualifying series, there are a few outstanding questions to be answered.
Our crew took our best (and boldest) cracks at them.
We’re about to witness the most peculiar postseason in the history of the NHL. No fans, a five-game play-in series, all games “on the road”. For the Blue Jackets specifically, do any of these factors hurt or help them, or are they in the same boat as everyone else?
DAN DUKART, STAFF WRITER: For Columbus, I’m not sure it makes any difference at all. I actually think the bubble helps the Maple Leafs more than any other team. The pressure is squarely on Toronto, and win or lose Game 1, they’re literally in a bubble away from the media circus, which should allow them to reset/stay focused.
JACOB NITZBERG, STAFF WRITER: I think they’re in the same boat as everyone else, save Toronto. They’ll miss the home fans at Nationwide Arena (and the cannon), but the fewer distractions may provide an easier path to focusing and executing the game plan. However, it is unfortunate that they’re playing the only team in the East with a distinct home advantage.
ROB MIXER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: The fact that everyone’s in the same situation would seem to help their cause. There are a lot of variables in this situation, of course, but the Blue Jackets have been pretty good at eliminating the noise under John Tortorella. I actually like their game more when they’re on the road, too.
CHRIS PENNINGTON, ASSOCIATE EDITOR: I’m a believer that the Blue Jackets have always struggled when expectations are put on them; when they have nothing to lose, that’s when they’re the most dangerous. So honestly, not having to play in front of home fans, and being the underdogs in a quick series might just benefit them.
What about the Blue Jackets gives you confidence in this series, and what about them makes you nervous?
DD: Not a ton makes me confident. Last year’s series sweep over Tampa Bay gave this team a blueprint to follow (stay disciplined, stifle with a 1-2-2) but they also don’t have Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to lean on for easy offense. If I can point to anything, it’s Toronto’s mediocre defense/inconsistent goaltending. I think if the Blue Jackets can establish their forecheck and get a lead, they’ll play with confidence and that should lead to positive results. What makes me nervous? Toronto’s forward group is dynamic. If we were drafting playground-style, Maple Leafs players would make up the first three picks, minimum. If the Blue Jackets let the Maple Leafs score early and often, this series will be over in a hurry.
JN: The biggest thing giving me confidence is that the Blue Jackets have the experience now. Last year, they went in with a plan and executed it, not knowing how things would play out. Now, they have a lot of guys with winning playoff experience. The thing that makes me nervous is heading into the playoffs with one rookie goaltender and one goaltender who has shown flashes of excellence, but whose resume is quite average. Who gets the nod in Game 1 is a difficult decision for Tortorella to make, and it will undoubtedly have a huge influence on how the series plays out.
RM: What makes me confident is they know how to play. They know how they’ll need to play, especially against a team as talented and potent as the Maple Leafs. It’s not a carbon copy of last year’s blueprint that helped sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it’s damn close. The Blue Jackets’ confidence makes me confident, I’ll say it that way. What doesn’t give me confidence is no clear-cut No. 1 goalie. Yeah, they’ll have their nominated No. 1 guy who starts Game 1, but the fact neither Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo made it an obvious decision before the actual decision gives me some pause. They’re going to need goaltending to be a big factor in this series if they have a chance to win it.
CP: What gives me confidence in them is they have the best defensive unit in the NHL. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski up top is already laughably unfair, and then when you’re benching guys like Markus Nutivaara (and even Scott Harrington and Andrew Peeke) because they’re not good enough to crack the top-six - that’s amazing. Toronto would kill for anyone that can skate on their blue line aside from Morgan Riley and Cody Ceci. What worries me is the other end of the ice - they just can’t score and it’s embarrassing at times, especially when they’re outshooting their opponent almost every game. With the Maple Leafs, you can’t fight fire with fire. You’ll get burnt.
If the Blue Jackets win this series, it will be because of...
DD: Elvis Merzlikins. I gave a lot of thought to Seth Jones or Pierre-Luc Dubois, but when push comes to shove, a goalie has so much impact on the outcome of these games. If the Blue Jackets are able to keep the high-scoring Maple Leafs offense to one or two goals per game, it’ll be in large part to superb goaltending. Since Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach, this Toronto team leads the NHL in goals per game. Yeah, give me the goalie.
JN: Oliver Bjorkstrand. The Blue Jackets have been great defensively all year, but they’ve struggled to find the back of the net. A strong blue line and goaltending tandem can only get you so far, and that’s where Bjorkstrand comes in. If Bjorkstrand returns as the dynamic scorer that he was during the regular season, the Blue Jackets will be in good shape.
RM: Seth Jones. The Blue Jackets are giving every indication that he’s going to be a busy guy in this series, from loading up that No. 1 power play unit to keeping him and Zach Werenski together at even strength. He’s going to play a lot, and he’s going to see a lot of the Maple Leafs’ stars like Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s not to say he’s the only guy who can stop the Toronto attack, but the Blue Jackets need Jones to be one of their best players, if not the best player.
CP: Gimme a little PLD. When Pierre-Luc Dubois is on, the Blue Jackets are lethal. He is an absolute horse offensively - generating plays, bullying opponents in the corner and wreaking havoc in the crease. For him to step up this series and lead by example will be monstrous for the Blue Jackets’ success.
Who do you think should start in net Game 1, and who do you think will?
DD: I think Merzlikins should start Game 1 because he has the higher ceiling of the two netminders. His shutout rate far and away led the NHL. You don’t have to take my word for it, the Blue Jackets said they agreed when they paid him more than Korpisalo during the pause. I think Tortorella will start with Korpisalo in Game 1, though he’ll have a short leash. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Maple Leafs win Game 1 and Tortorella make the change to Merzlikins for Game 2.
JN: There’s no question in my mind that Elvis Merzlikins should be the Game 1 starter. He was phenomenal during the regular season (albeit, once he got his bearings in the NHL), and I think he can become a star for the Blue Jackets. Korpisalo is less reliable, but he does have more NHL experience, which is why I think that John Tortorella will choose him to be the Game 1 netminder. Like Dan said above, I also wouldn’t be surprised if Tortorella pulls the plug on the Korpisalo experiment if Game 1 goes awry.
RM: Elvis Merzlikins should and will start in Game 1. That’s how I feel right now. His body of work has been stronger and, while the bulk of that work came because Joonas Korpisalo was injured, it was still better. Merzlikins was the better of the two throughout Phase 3 and he looked sharp again in their exhibition win over the Bruins. I think he’s the guy
CP: I think Tortorella will start Merzlikins, and I would agree with him. In a short series, you need someone who can catch fire (which Elvis can do). Merzlikins’ stats across the board were also generously better than Joonas Korpisalo’s - and they ended up playing in nearly as many games as one another. Tortorella might have a song-and-dance about it being a tough decision, but I think he knows what he has to do. If it's a seven-game series, maybe it's Korpisalo, but in this context, I think it'll be Merzlikins. (Edit - well, don’t I feel like an idiot!)
Okay - let’s table the netminders. You get to make one decision for John Tortorella (outside of naming the starting goalie). What is it?
DD: I’d flip Emil Bemstrom and Liam Foudy in the lineup. The Nash-Robinson-Bemstrom fourth line is trying to do three things at once: Play defensively, play fast, and provide a spark of offense. The problem is, there isn’t enough of any of those elements to actually be effective. A Foudy-Nash-Robinson line would give Tortorella a checking line that could forecheck like crazy. This would also put Bemstrom in a better spot to finish chances, playing with someone with better creating-power, maybe alongside Gus Nyquist on the third line.
JN: Put Seth Jones and Zach Werenski together on the first power play unit. They’ve got chemistry, it’s worked in the past, and the puck movement when those two share a power play unit is outstanding.
RM: Use that fourth line more than your gut tells you to. Riley Nash was a useful player in last year’s playoffs and he’s now got two capable young players on either side of him, in Emil Bemstrom and Eric Robinson.
CP: Put Emil Bemstrom on your first power play unit. The kid averaged the least amount of ice time amongst forwards all season, yet was tied for first on the team with power play goals with five. He has some ironing out to do with his five-on-five play, but the Columbus man-advantage needs a spark.
Give us your game-by-game prediction:
DD: I hate to do predictions like this because, really, who knows, but if you insist… I think the Maple Leafs will win Game 1. Tortorella will start Korpisalo in Game 1 and then make lineup adjustments, including playing Merzlikins. The Blue Jackets steady the ship with a Game 2 win. This one goes back and forth but the Maple Leafs win the decisive Game 5. Not a game-by-game prediction, either, but it wouldn’t surprise me if at least one game was a blowout. Give me a 4-0 game in there somewhere.
JN: I think the Blue Jackets will win in five games, with the boys in blue taking games 2, 4, and 5. It’s just a hunch, but I think the lines may need some time to gel.
RM: I’ve got the Blue Jackets in four games, winning Games 1, 3 and 4. I don’t know why. Just a gut feeling. They look ready to play.
CP: Blue Jackets sweep. Because they’re annoying and do stuff like that. Let’s do this, ladies and gents.
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