The Columbus Blue Jackets’ body-banging, shot-blocking, harassing defensive style frustrated the offensively gifted Tampa Bay Lightning in a stunning first-round playoff sweep last year.
After a long break and hurried training camp, the Blue Jackets now will see if they can summon that kind of intensity again. This time the opponent is the Toronto Maple Leafs, another team that relies heavily on a cadre of goal-scoring stars to make the difference.
The best-of-five playoff qualifying series opens Sunday night in Toronto.
“We’ll probably see some wild hockey games,” said Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, who had 26 goals and 34 assists when the season was put on hold in mid-March.
“I keep reading that a lot of people feel that this is probably going to be the hardest Stanley Cup to win with everybody being fresh,” said Auston Matthews, the 22-year-old Toronto centre who led the team with 44 goals. “I’m not sure anybody really knows what to expect.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the teams will play in an arena with no fans and be confined at all times inside the playoff “bubble” with strict safety and testing protocols. The 24-team playoffs are being conducted in two hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.
“This is your legacy as a player, this is what you’re remembered for when your career is over — not the regular season stuff, it’s how you handle yourself in the atmosphere of playoffs,” said Columbus coach John Tortorella, who has stayed in character as the cajoling, irascible taskmaster since his players returned from the break two weeks ago.
“This is a little bit different,” he said. “There’s no fans, I’m not sure exactly how it’s all going to play out, but it’s still playoff hockey.”
GOALS IN ABUNDANCE
Toronto boasted the second-highest goal total in the NHL (237), behind only the Lightning. Four players — Tavares, Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — had at least 59 points. Columbus’ leading scorer, Pierre-Luc Dubois, had 49.
But the Maple Leafs also surrendered the seventh-most goals at 222. That, coach Sheldon Keefe said, must change if the team is going to advance.
“There’s no area of our game defensively that we were satisfied with,” said Keefe, promoted after Mike Babcock was fired in November. “We’re not kidding ourselves here, we know that there’s a lot of areas that we need to look at.”
JACKETS HEALTHY AGAIN
Columbus was a hard-luck bunch when it came to injuries this season. They led the NHL with more than 400 man-games missed and were relying on rookies to help them keep up with the other playoff contenders in the Metropolitan Division when the season was halted.
Among many others, the injured included star defenceman Seth Jones, top goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand, veteran forward Cam Atkinson and, at different times, both of the top goalies.
Thanks to the long break, the black-and-blue Blue Jackets are nearly at full-strength again.
SPEAKING OF GOALIES
Tortorella has yet to name a starter at goaltender for the series, but neither Joonas Korpisalo nor Elvis Merzlikins were stunning in the final scrimmages before the team left for Toronto.
Korpisalo, whose first half was good enough to get him named the NHL All-Star team before he went down with a knee injury Dec. 29, surrendered 13 goals in back-to-back scrimmages last week.
That could give the edge to Merzlikins, the Latvian who was lights out for Columbus in January in February in relief of Korpisalo.
Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs are hoping their top goalie, Frederik Andersen, has his mojo back.
Through 52 starts this season, Andersen was 29-13-7 with a .909 save percentage and a 2.85 goals-against average — the worst statistical performance of his career. He suffered a neck injury in February but returned to put up a 5-1-1 record with a .931 save percentage in his last seven starts before the hiatus.
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Mitch Stacy, The Associated Press