TORONTO — The Maple Leafs have known since late May the Columbus Blue Jackets were on the docket to begin the NHL’s restart.
Toronto watched video, discussed tactics and practised different ways to break down an opponent with a grinding, soul-sucking defensive structure.
Seeing it up close was an entirely different matter.
Joonas Korpisalo made 28 saves in his first post-season appearance, Cam Atkinson scored in the third period, and the Blue Jackets downed the Leafs 2-0 on Sunday to take an early lead in their best-of-five qualifying round series.
Sure, Toronto had chances, but not nearly enough. The Leafs weren’t able to get to the inside against a tough blue-line corps led by Seth Jones and Zack Werenski that mostly neutralized Auston Matthews’ line with the help of Pierre-Luc Dubois up front.
“I don’t think anything really surprised us,” said Matthews, who was third in the league with 47 goals in 2019-20. “They play a pretty straightforward game, and you know what to expect every night. They’re gonna compete, they’re gonna play physical.”
Frederik Andersen stopped 33 shots for Toronto, but was fooled on Atkinson’s innocent effort from the top of the right circle 65 seconds into the third.
“His initial release looked to be a little bit higher,” said the Leafs netminder, who was beaten under his blocker. ”I reacted up and obviously made a mistake.
“That cost us a goal and eventually the game, unfortunately.”
The Leafs were designated as the “home” team inside the friendly confines of a cavernous, empty Scotiabank Arena as the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed in the NHL’s 24-team restart to a campaign halted by the COVID-19 pandemic 4 1/2 months ago.
Alex Wennberg scored into an empty net with 18.2 seconds left for ninth-seeded Columbus, which will now look to grab a stranglehold with a victory in Tuesday’s Game 2.
“I felt pretty confident from the get-go,” said the 26-year-old Korpisalo. ”The boys played really good in front of me, battling for me to see the puck.
“That was awesome. That was fun to play.”
After the Blue Jackets nudged ahead early in the third, the Leafs tried to get their high-octane offence going, but were unable to get many second and third opportunities, and were held without a shot over the final 6:12 of regulation.
Andersen kept the Toronto in it with a toe save on Alexandre Texier with under three minutes to go, but his teammates couldn’t find a way through to Korpisalo before Wennberg sealed it.
“They did what they do best, and what we were prepared for,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, who played for Columbus bench boss John Tortorella with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the early 2000s. ”We knew it was going to be difficult.
“Now we’re out on the ice and you feel it.”
Following a scoreless opening 20 minutes that featured a couple of clear-cut chances, the goalies stole the show in the second.
Korpisalo, who got the nod ahead of first-year sensation Elvis Merzlikins, denied Matthews at the side of the net on an early power play, while Andersen stopped Eric Robinson on a break and Texier from the slot.
The Columbus netminder had his bench up banging their sticks on the boards later in the period when he robbed Matthews with the glove on a one-timer.
“He played unbelievable,” Blue Jackets defenceman David Savard said. ”He made some key saves, I think on Matthews there in the second was a turning point for us.
“That was huge for our game.”
Jones then fired a shot off the crossbar before Andersen robbed Oliver Bjorkstrand — both players are from Herning, Denmark — with an exceptional toe stop that the deserved a standing ovation, not the din of canned crowd noise.
“I’d expect more of these games moving forward,” Leafs blue-liner Morgan Rielly said of the defensive struggle. ”And I would also expect for us to be able to handle them better.”
Rookie winger Nick Robertson suited up for Toronto after scoring 55 goals in 46 games in 2019-20 with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, becoming the first 18-year-old to make his NHL debut in the post-season since Jarome Iginla in 1996.
Robertson had a terrific opportunity on his first shift, but Korpisalo was there with his right pad. The Leafs, who were back in their home locker room after making way for the Montreal Canadiens in Tuesday’s exhibition game, were otherwise on their heels the rest of the first half of the first period.
Andersen made a good stop on a Dubois breakaway before Matthews stole the puck and chimed a shot off Korpisalo’s crossbar. Werenski then did the same off the near post at the other end moments later.
Both teams were close to full health after the schedule was suspended March 12. Jones would have been a serious question mark with an ankle injury had the playoffs started as usual in April, while Toronto blue-liner Jake Muzzin (hand) and Ilya Mikheyev (wrist laceration) are also back. Leafs winger Andreas Johnsson (knee) continues to work his way back and could be available as the resumption of play progresses, should his team advance.
Prior to Sunday, the Leafs last played a meaningful game March 10 — a stretch of 145 days — while the Blue Jackets’ last suited up for real March 8.
Toronto and Columbus sat with identical points percentages (.579) when the novel coronavirus shuttered the season, but the Leafs secured the eighth seed with 28 regulation wins compared to the Blue Jackets’ 25.
“Two teams that were tight together in the standings, two teams that are very competitive,” Keefe said. ”I thought we played a good enough game to win.
“But obviously, you can’t win when you don’t score.”
Notes: Toronto owns a 7-8 record all-time in best-of-five series, with those 15 appearances being the most in league history. The NHL used to play best-of-five in the first round, but expanded to a best-of-seven format following the 1985-86 season. … The Blue Jackets and Leafs played twice in the regular season, but it was a while ago. Toronto picked up a 4-1 victory in Columbus on Oct. 4 before suffering a 4-3 overtime loss at home Oct. 21.