First and foremost, no hockey game should EVER be more important than somebody’s health. With that being said, before we get into that exciting game for Leaf fans… please keep your thoughts and prayers with Jake Muzzin and his family as we wish him a speedy recovery of whatever is ailing him.
So Leafs Nation… how relieving did that feel? In response to what seemed a near perfect game on Sunday for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Toronto Maple Leafs have evened the series with 3-0 victory in game two.
In my pre-playoff series preview, I basically said these teams were two polar opposite squads who try to dictate the game in two very different ways. Up until this point, we’ve seen this scenario play out exactly. The consensus after Game one was Columbus played their ideal game, and aside from a scary injury at the end… game two went about as perfect as it could go for the Maple Leafs.
The first two periods were almost identical as the first two in game one, except instead of Columbus dominating the scoring chances, it was Toronto dictating the style of play. As opposed to Frederik Andersen keeping his team in the game, it was Korpisalo standing on his head. The Leafs xGF% was 59.97% and 78.08% in the first two periods respectively (according to Natural Stat Trick). It was an onslaught that was encouraging to see but still worrisome that the Leafs were not able to put one in.
We were about to see another 0-0 tie going into the third period but thankfully #34 Auston Matthews finally found a way to solve the Columbus goaltender with just under five minutes to play in the second period. What started off as tremendous back pressure from Matthews, turned into a partial 3-on-2 lead by Matthews flanked by Hyman and Holl. Auston made a perfect play driving to the middle of the ice drawing defender Ryan Murray to him, quickly sliding the puck over to Hyman on the right wing. Matthews then proceeded to drive hard to the net for the give-and-go where Hyman fed his centerman back for the re-direct past Korpisalo.
At this point, Leafs Nation all took a collective exhale. It would have been a damn shame to get “goalied” in a game that was essentially a “must-win”. At least, now there was pressure on the Blue Jackets to push for offence as opposed to fully-committing to locking it down as we saw in game one.
Also as we entered the third period, it seemed like almost every tweet I read was talking about what John Tavares had to sacrifice in his life to put one past Korpisalo. The Captain had eight shots on goal Tuesday night and it seemed like every single one was a point-blank shot inside the slot or the crease. But finally, as was hoped for by the Leafs when Columbus plays from behind… they needed to stretch themselves out in order to score.
With just under five minutes played in the third period, the Blue Jackets pushed ALL FIVE of their players BELOW THE HASH MARKS in the Leafs zone! Zach Werenski lost control of the puck thanks to some pressure from Dermott and Nylander, Dermott then fired the puck out and as the screen panned out of the zone… there was #91 in all alone from his own blue line. Thankfully, Tavares snuck his attempt past the guy that simply had his number for the last 40 minutes and now the Leafs are up 2-0 with 15 minutes to play.
Now with a two-goal lead and 15 minutes to play, another test was presented before this Leafs team. In years past and even some times through the regular season, there would be a genuine worry of the Leafs seeing this game through until the end. Well, this team passed with flying colours and even killed two penalties in the last 6 minutes of the game thanks to some heroic play from Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl.
Which brings us to the scary scene that casted a cloud over what should have been a positive night. While helping kill a frankly weak Kapanen slashing penalty, Muzzin was shielding Pierre-Luc Dubois from the puck in an attempt to clear it from the zone. Dubois then gives Muzzin a dangerous cross check to the lower-back about three feet from the boards.
Fortunately, Muzzin did not go head-first into the boards which could have been catastrophic… however, he did land awkwardly into Oliver Bjorkstrand’s leg (you can see the incident here).
Muzzin seemed unable to get up but was awake and moving all of his extremities as he responded to the trainer’s and doctor’s questions. Due to the location of impact, which seemed to be his neck… Muzzin was stretchered off with just under two minutes to go.
He was taken to local hospital last night and the Leafs updated us on the situation just after 11:00 a.m. Wednesday morning through their public relations account. In all honesty, the news that Muzzin was discharged overnight and is now in quarantine at the team’s hotel is the best possible news we could have hoped for. From a hockey perspective, Muzzin will be out for the duration of this series but as I said off the top, let’s just hope and pray for a painless and speedy recovery for a beloved Leaf.
After what ended up being over a ten minute delay, the Leafs still had to kill a minute off the Kapanen penalty and frankly did a tremendous job considering their minds were probably on the health of their beloved teammate. As the penalty ended, Alex Kerfoot won a board battle and popped the puck out to Matthews who found Rielly just in front of their own net. Morgan Rielly then successfully found the empty net to put the cherry on top of Andersen’s first playoff shutout as a Leaf.
Now to quickly get into some things I liked and some things I still think need to be improved before game three on Thursday night.
- The Leafs were much more persistent in their breakouts. Too many times in game one, the Leafs would turn back and reset their breakout if they didn’t have an immediate outlet pass. This strategy is smart when the forecheck is applying puck pressure but a lot of times as the Leafs would reset, Columbus would get into their neutral-zone trap to stymie the Leafs transition into the offensive zone. To combat this in game two they were much more aware of what the delay was doing so you would see them make those quick passes and have more of a “GO, GO, GO” mentality to catch the Blue Jackets off guard.
- The Leafs were stretching out their passes more past the Columbus forecheck which allowed for more rush attacks. This is a very key battle for the Leafs to continue to win as the Leafs are one of the most dangerous teams off the rush as opposed to Columbus who is one of the best teams not allowing rush chances.
- That 1-2 punch up the middle was dominant and proved too much for the Blue Jackets when both top lines are chugging. Auston Matthews looks a step faster, a lot meaner, and it just adds up to what we all know he could be and that is one of the best players in the world. John Tavares on the other hand was never going to beat you with his skating but he still has an elite shot and his smarts allow him to get into the high danger scoring chances. If these two can play like they did tonight for another two months, there is no limit to how far this team can go.
- The 4th line provided energy and seemed much more dangerous with Engvall centering that line. Kyle Clifford blew up Dean Kukan around 3 minutes into the game and it is a damn shame there are no fans in the stands because the roof would have flown off the building after watching that hit. Keep that 4th line for game two please!
- Lastly, Frederik Andersen has been outstanding so far stopping 54 of 55 shots so far for a .982 SV%. Andersen sits 4th in playoff goalies in GSAA/60 (goals saved above average) and 1st in HDSV% with 1.000% (high danger save %). I had Andersen as my top Leaf under the gun going into these playoffs and so far he has answered the bell.
- Mitch Marner still looks like he is lacking the confidence to make the plays we are used to seeing. His underlying numbers are positive signs that hopefully can result in some points on the scoresheet but the way I see it is this… if you were one who disregarded the underlying numbers and only brought up points when you were arguing about Nylander last season, the same should apply to Marner. Both had very polarizing negotiations with management and at the end of the day I want both to be Leafs for a long time. But if someone like Marner can’t start contributing offensively, he deserves criticism.
- The power-play is 0/7 and it isn’t even because of the play of Korpisalo. The neutral zone transition and o-zone entries look sloppy. There are no second or third chance opportunities because the puck retrievals are lazy (look at the Heatmap from Natural Stat Trick). The Leafs are lucky that their penalty kill is preventing the Blue Jackets from scoring or else this series might be 2-0 Columbus. The power-play needs to step it up especially if this team has aspirations of making a run.
- With Muzzin gone for the rest of this series… it is going to put a lot of pressure on Travis Dermott and Tyson Barrie. I’d imagine Keefe pairs Dermott with Holl, keeps Rielly-Ceci together and these pairs will become the two PK pairs as well. That would leave either Marincin or Sandin (hopefully) with Barrie. Why do I think a strictly offensive defenceman like Barrie needs to step up in the loss of our best defensive defenceman? The answer is simply Rielly and Ceci will now be more relied upon heavily matchup wise to share the workload on the new pair of Dermott-Holl… which means Barrie needs to start providing some offence against weaker competition and o-zone starts so someone like Rielly isn’t stretched out too thin trying to do it all.
Overall, that game one loss should now be a distant memory and the Leafs can now focus on a pivotal game three on Thursday night. The Leafs are now back to being favorites to take their Qualifying Round series with the Blue Jackets, with their post-Game 2 odds to win the series jumping to -185, per Sports Betting Dime.