Toronto eliminated by Columbus: Are the Maple Leafs too cute to win?

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All of Toronto’s flash evaporated in the face of a staunch defensive stand by the Blue Jackets and superb netminding from Joonas Korpisalo. If the Maple Leafs are going to become a real contender, they may have to try being a little more straight-forward in their approach.

Boone Jenner (center) and Gustav Nyquist celebrate|John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

You won’t find one reason that the Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 5 – there were several. The whole tenor of the series was always going to come down to which team’s style (defensive discipline for Columbus, high-powered offense for Toronto) would win out and the Jackets certainly won that category. In net, Toronto’s Frederik Andersen was once again the second-best goaltender in a series and this time perhaps third-best, behind the Jackets tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

But it’s truly hard not to point the first finger at the Maple Leafs’ tendency to be too cute. Like, 90 percent of the time.

The most physical manifestation of this is the team’s penchant for drop-passes, something the Maple Leafs do on a disturbingly frequent basis. No doubt, the idea is to maintain possession of the puck, but in reality the stunt often kills momentum. In the most malignant cases, it puts the Maple Leafs offside, destroying offensive rushes before they can even be berthed. In other situations, it allowed the defensively-hearty Blue Jackets to regroup; as if Columbus needed any more help in that category.

“We talked about it from Day 1: they were doing really well holding the middle and we knew when they get the lead they just lock down the neutral zone,” said Toronto’s Mitch Marner. “I thought we had some chances, they just didn’t go in.”

In fact, little did go in for the Maple Leafs the entire series. In Game 5, the Blue Jackets maintained their usual defensive tenacity and also got some top-notch goaltending from Korpisalo, who was particularly devastating early on when the game was still scoreless. Leafs captain John Tavares came the closest when he hit the post and it was certainly that kind of series for Toronto, which had an abysmal shooting percentage over the five games.

In an effort to combat that, coach Sheldon Keefe put together a Big Line of Tavares, Marner and Auston Matthews, three of the players who had done the lion’s share of the damage in that miraculous Game 4 comeback. And while the trio had some incredibly long and dangerous sequences in the Columbus zone in Game 5, they still couldn’t beat Korpisalo.

The downside of packing the titans together was that it left the rest of the Maple Leafs lineup rather muted. Columbus could really concentrate its efforts on that top line, getting the super pairing of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski out against them nearly every shift. Moving William Nylander to center also caused confusion for the Leafs, leading directly to a too-many-men penalty in the first period. But Keefe spelled out his logic in his post-game availability.

“We obviously found it difficult in this series to find offense,” he said. “I thought our best opportunity was to have those guys playing together. I liked Will in the middle when we made the change in Game 4. And in Games 3 and 4 our second line was getting outplayed pretty badly.”

Another controversial decision was to insert left winger Andreas Johnsson into the lineup at the expense of rookie Nick Robertson – the last Toronto player to score a 5-on-5 goal in the series. Johnsson hadn’t played since February due to knee surgery, but his coach made the call.

“That was an easy one for me,” Keefe said. “He felt ready and with what’s at stake we wanted to have him a part of it. He’s an important player for us and he worked really hard to be ready to play.”

Johnsson wasn’t bad in the game – and had one of the team’s better scoring chances – but again, was all the tinkering necessary, or was it overthinking? Robertson may not have had the same impact on the series as Blue Jackets rookie Liam Foudy, but he was pretty energetic and tenacious for the Leafs.

And look, not everything was a miscue for Toronto; there was also misfortune. Jake Muzzin was in the stands instead of on the blueline and Tyson Barrie got knocked out before the third period by a big Boone Jenner hit. So an already-thin Toronto defense was crumpled, while Columbus Game 5 maybes Werenski and Ryan Murray were both healthy enough to go.

But as the Maple Leafs head into the off-season, there must be some soul-searching. This team can be super-fun to watch when the stakes are low, but that flashy primetime style has consistently come up short when the season is on the line. And now the workmanlike Blue Jackets have a date with Tampa Bay instead.