Welcome back, hockey.
It took nearly 150 days on the sideline and a secluded “bubble” of a hub city in Toronto for the NHL to return to play. But it happened. It really happened.
|TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS|
36–25–9 (81 points)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
8 P.M. – SUNDAY, AUG. 2
FOX SPORTS OHIO
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The Stanley Cup Qualifiers opened on Saturday, and they'll continue on Sunday with the Columbus Blue Jackets getting back into action by kicking off a five-game series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The game is set to begin at 8 p.m. in a Scotiabank Arena without any fans in the stands.
Technically, this isn't a playoff series. It's only viewed as a play-in series to reach the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets, however, have decidedly treated it as if it's any other regular postseason series – especially due to the four-months-long layoff that preceded the past three weeks of practices.
“I think as we've gone on, we've gotten better and better practice habits, better concentration,” John Tortorella said on Saturday. “I think as all the teams here, I think they're just itching to play. We've gone about our business. We've gotten our tape work done – finished it up today. Had a good quick practice today, and now it's time to play. Sooner or later, you've got to do something here where it counts. Now it falls to them, and I just think they're ready to go as far as playing a game that means something.”
In order to get past the Maple Leafs, who enter as the betting favorite in the series, the Blue Jackets are able to rely on a host of players who were banged up in the regular season but used the break to recover.
They return Seth Jones, their James Norris Memorial Trophy contender, to once again pair him with Zach Werenski – who was tops in the NHL among defensemen with 20 goals in the 2019-20 season. Oliver Bjorkstrand, who led the team with 21 goals in the regular season, has returned from an injury to join Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alexandre Texier on the first line. They have two-time All-Star selection Cam Atkinson back to add a scoring punch to a team that has struggled to score with consistency. Texier, Emil Bemstrom and Dean Kukan are all also healthy and geared up for the postseason.
Among the most notable returns from injury is Joonas Korpisalo, an All-Star goaltender this season. Tortorella has not yet announced whether he or Elvis Merzlikins will be in the net to start Sunday evening's game.
With so many players healthy once again, it'll be a new-look team compared to the group that was scuffling before March's pause in play.
“Right now, we're taking one game at a time,” Alexander Wennberg said. “We're just focusing on this first game, got to win that one. That's pretty much all you can do – focus one game at a time. Right now, it feels like we're really excited and we're ready to play.”
|10/04/19||TOR 4, CBJ 1 // HIGHLIGHTS|
|10/21/19||CBJ 4, TOR 3 // HIGHLIGHTS|
Toronto, which hasn't faced the Blue Jackets since October, has also gone through a bit of turnover since the two teams last matched up. Sheldon Keefe, who once played for Tortorella, was named head coach Mike Babcock's replacement on Nov. 20, and he leads the Maple Leafs into the series.
They trot out a dangerous offense that features former No. 1 overall draft pick Auston Matthews, who recorded 47 goals – the third-most in the NHL – and 33 assists in the regular season. John Tavares (26 goals, 34 assists), Mitch Marner (16 goals, 51 assists) and William Nylander (31 goals, 28 assists) are also players to watch.
Defensively, Toronto has struggled, ranking 26th in the NHL with 3.17 goals allowed per game. Columbus isn't exactly known for its scoring prowess, but that's an area it will look to penetrate.
“I know our team's ready to play. In this situation, we're ready to play Game 1. We're just looking forward to getting started.”– John Tortorella
Columbus Blue Jackets Projected Lines
|42||ALEXANDRE TEXIER||18||PIERRE-LUC DuBOIS||28||OLIVER BJORKSTRAND|
|14||GUSTAV NYQUIST||10||ALEXANDER WENNBERG||13||CAM ATKINSON|
|71||NICK FOLIGNO||38||BOONE JENNER||19||LIAM FOUDY|
|50||ERIC ROBINSON||20||RILEY NASH||52||EMIL BEMSTROM|
|8||ZACH WERENSKI||3||SETH JONES|
|44||VLADISLAV GAVRIKOV||58||DAVID SAVARD|
|27||RYAN MURRAY||14||DEAN KUKAN|
|90||ELVIS MERZLIKINS||70||JOONAS KORPISALO|
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
|88||WILLIAM NYLANDER||34||AUSTON MATTHEWS||11||ZACH HYMAN|
|65||ILYA MIKHEYEV||91||JOHN TAVARES||16||MITCH MARNER|
|89||NICHOLAS ROBERTSON||15||ALEXANDER KERFOOT||24||KASPERI KAPANEN|
|73||KYLE CLIFFORD||33||FREDERIK GAUTHIER||19||JASON SPEZZA|
|8||JAKE MUZZIN||3||JUSTIN HOLL|
|44||MORGAN RIELLY||83||CODY CECI|
|23||TRAVIS DERMOTT||94||TYSON BARRIE|
|31||FREDERIK ANDERSEN||36||JACK CAMPBELL|
- Getting the early edge: Tortorella legitimately might not have gone a single press conference the past three weeks without referencing the need to get out of the gates fast. He harped on it constantly, making it clear that it was a message behind the scenes, as well. In a five-game series, there's no room for a slip-up. Whichever team can grab Game 1 will secure a significant advantage going forward.
- Blistering offense vs. stout defense: On one end of the ice, Columbus' unimposing offense – which ranked 27th in the NHL with 2.57 goals scored per game – will do battle with Toronto's not-to-impressive defense. It'll be a movable object against a stoppable force. On the other end of the ice? That's where it gets interesting. The Blue Jackets' defense has proven to be one of the best in the NHL, but it'll be trying to stifle a high-powered Blue Jackets offense. It's one of the most intriguing matchups of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
- Goalies, goalies, goalies: Toronto knows its guy. It just doesn't know how he's going to perform. And Columbus doesn't know its guy. But it believes whoever's out there will do well. Say hello to the goaltender situations of these two teams. Frederik Andersen will be in the net for the Maple Leafs, but he's been inconsistent at times, ranking 39th in the NHL with a .909 save percentage and 40th by allowing 2.85 goals per game. On the other side, the Blue Jackets will trot out either Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo – Tortorella won't reveal who's the starter – and to them it doesn't particularly matter who gets the nod. Both deserve a shot, so it's hard to believe there's a wrong answer.
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