Statistically, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets are entering the playoffs pretty evenly matched. They both ended the abbreviated season with a .579 win percentage, with Toronto seeded one slot higher due to three more regulation wins. This is each team’s fourth straight postseason run, and of the three times they were supposed to meet in 2019-20, Toronto won one, Columbus won the next, and the third game didn’t happen.
With the teams looking pretty equivalent from a high-level, let’s get into the granular differences that are going to make or break either team’s run into the postseason. I wrote an article a few weeks back about how the Jackets’ defense is the mitochondria of the CBJ cell, and I stand by that - yes, goals need to be scored, but if we don’t want Toronto running us into the ground, the defense cannot lapse for a second.
Strong, as well as “stingy” - a word that has been thrown around almost to the point of overuse as Game 1 nears, but it’s completely accurate. The Jackets only allowed 2.67 GPG in the regular season, which was tied for third in the league - Toronto was in the bottom five in the league with 3.24 allowed GPG. On the flip side of that coin, the Maple Leafs scored 3.39 GPG (third in the league) and the Jackets were bottom three with only 2.54 GPG scored. Literally, this matchup fits like a glove.
Against the Maple Leafs’ high-flying offense, the Jackets are going to need to lock sh*t down on defense while they get their feet under them and figure out how they’re going to score. Fortunately, the Maple Leafs don’t have nearly the firepower on defense that they bring to their offense.
There won’t be crowds there, but the Jackets are still meeting Toronto on Toronto’s home turf, which is just a lame little stroke of misfortunate that is just classic Blue Jackets.
What we’re working with: CBJ Defense
Here’s my rundown of CBJ defense from a few weeks ago, in case you missed it. To summarize, we have a full, healthy defense going into the postseason - one of the few silver linings brought to us by the last few months of the pandemic. However, every other team has had the advantage of rest and recuperation as well, so we’ll see how far that takes us.
The Jackets are blessed with two of the top-producing defensive scorers in the league: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. Behind them, we’ve got the killer Gavrikov/Savard combo - I have such high hopes for their performance in this series; I literally cannot wait. If ever there was a time for Savard to score this season... but I don’t want to ask for too much!
Here’s the latest on lines:
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Ryan Murray - Dean Kukan
Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara
A look at the whole roster in Toronto:
What Toronto’s working with: Maple Leafs’ Defense
I’ve already gone over some of the statistical differences in CBJ vs. TOR, and without getting too hung up on individual players and psyching anyone (namely myself) out, I think it’s worth noting that the Jackets need only follow one very familiar blueprint - the one they used to sweep Tampa Bay in last year’s playoffs.
This upcoming matchup feels very familiar, and for good reason - it’s a narrative we’ve heard before. The overhyped [insert team here] is up against a beleaguered Blue Jackets team who can’t put the puck in the net when they need to. Fine! I’m happy to play along with that story, and then the Jackets can sweep themselves right into Round 2.
Toronto will be very wary of this, for sure - no one wants to feel how Tampa Bay felt last playoff season. However, their defense is going to need to batten down the hatches in this series, which proved difficult for them in the regular season.
Here’s the defensemen on their roster:
Muzzin is back from a broken hand suffered towards the end of last season, which is a boon for Toronto - what Toronto decides to do with these players against a CBJ team firing on all cylinders remains to be seen. Can’t wait!