What a long, strange journey it’s been. We’ve just gone through our longest non lockout related break from hockey and the reality of the Leafs playing tonight is finally hitting, and it’s hitting hard. If the COVID pause wasn’t enough of a shock to the system, the fact that Sheldon Keefe was able to turnaround the trainwreck Leafs he inherited from Mike Babcock to turn them into a playoff team, only to then have them start playing their way out of the playoffs again makes it a surreal feeling that we’re talking about the Leafs as a playoff team in the 2019-20 season. Or at least talking about them as playoff qualifier participants.
Heading into this bizarre playoffs, I have firmly held the belief this situation favours the Leafs. They are offensively driven, they play an aggressive attack style that exploits mistakes, and there should be no shortage of mistakes in these playoffs. They have had a chance to heal, both mentally and physically. They have had a chance to go through a Sheldon Keefe led training camp, and finally we can treat this as his team, completely. We’re removed from the Andersen slump. We’re watching a very young and peak conditioned Leafs team take on a lot of older competition. It’s okay to be excited about the Leafs.
On the other hand we have the Columbus Blue Jackets. They aren’t star studded. They are system driven. They are defense to the Leafs offense, and they are also relying heavily on the continuation of a goaltending hot streak that occurred months ago. There’s little doubt the Leafs have studied that film and read the necessary reports. Still, assuming the Blue Jackets will be an easy out on the way to the next round is a foolish way to think, and when the Leafs haven’t moved on to a second round in any situation since before the 2005 lockout, the pressure is on.
The highlight for the Leafs has to be the meaningful game debut of Nick Robertson. If he demonstrates the same ability we saw against Montreal, he has the potential help turn the third line into a difference maker in the series. We also have Gauthier in for Engvall, but really that’s the fourth line. Look at those top two lines as your source of happiness, and hold out hope that the Leafs defense can hold back the Blue Jackets, who will probably play them fairly aggressively.
After getting caught up in the awesomeness of that top pairing, or playing “who, the eff is that?” with a good chunk of the lineup, some of the other names to watch for are probably Liam Foudy, who finds himself in a Nick Robertson situation, and appreciating the balanced attack the Leafs are going to see from all four of those lines. They might lack superstars, but some of those guys would be household names if they played in Toronto. We’ll probably fall in love with some of them.
The Leafs will be going with Andersen, and as much as some of us may have fallen in love with Jack Campbell, the reality is that there is still a very big talent gap between Andersen and Campbell when it comes to what they are like at the top of their game, and Andersen has earned the opportunity to completely exhaust all benefit of a doubt. Maybe not with you, but the organization certainly is going to give him that.
The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, are a bigger mystery. Elvis Merzlikins was a big part of the Jackets turning their year around, and he probably deserved more consideration than he got for the Calder. Joonas Korpisalo went into the year as the starter, and has been given the starter treatment by the Blue Jackets throughout camp. There’s every reason to believe he’ll get the net to start, but the leash will be short. The Leafs will see both goalies this series if things go remotely well for Toronto.
Gametime will be 8PM ET, and the game will be seen on Sportsnet. Enjoy the Leafs being back and having the opportunity to get extremely mad in your living room again.
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