The Toronto Maple Leafs are heading into the biggest game of their season
Coming off of one of the greatest comeback efforts in franchise history, the Toronto Maple Leafs look to carry over their late-game momentum into the final game of their qualifying series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
With some significant lineup changes impacting the outcome of the last two games, including the absence of top Blue Jackets defender Zach Werenski for almost the entire second-half of game four, both teams will look relatively similar heading into this match.
The Blue Jackets goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have posed some significant challenges for Toronto’s high octane offense, collectively stopping 146 of the 155 shots taken for an incredible .942 combined save percentage.
Despite both playing extremely well, it was reported earlier this afternoon by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston that Columbus head coach John Tortorella has decided to start Korpisalo for game five.
Leafs vs Blue Jackets
From the beginning of game four, it was pretty apparent that Merzlikins was struggling to control rebounds on chances that were not dangerous, and narrowly avoided a number of errors he made playing the puck behind the net.
While nobody could predict the collapse the Blue Jackets had towards the end of the game, it would have been surprising to see the Toronto Maple Leafs stay off the scoresheet.
It was also reported that Zach Werenski will return back to the Blue Jackets defensive core after suffering an apparent neck injury in the third period (although Tortorella refused to comment on the matter, in typical Torts-like fashion).
The top Columbus defensive pairing of Werenski and Seth Jones logged over 52 minutes of ice time in game four, and have been able to shut down Toronto’s top line for the majority of the series, though mostly because of the goalies.
The Toronto Maple Leafs
Regardless of the overwhelming amount of emotion that filled the hearts of Leafs fans Friday night, It’s time to talk about the first 56 minutes of game four, which was a remarkably bad effort for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Starting on the defensive end, I still question every day why Morgan Rielly is burdened with having Cody Ceci as his defensive partner.
Having Ceci on that pairing eliminates any opportunity for Rielly to play offensively at all, and although nobody stood out on the back end, there is no excuse for this lack of awareness of your own lineup at this point in the season.
Although, Morgan Rielly made some inexcusable plays down the stretch as well, including a turnover leading to the third Blue Jackets goal that resulted from a collective lack of urgency to make any push until the first goal was scored.
One highlight in the overtime period for the Toronto defensive core was Travis Dermott. Dermott made some big blocked shots and showed some signs of maturity by making the safe plays when they needed it most.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Maple Leafs heading into his game is the top six forward group, and if any of the adjustments made throughout the later stages of game four will carry over into this one.
With the only noteworthy pressure in the offensive zone coming from the fourth line of Jason Spezza, Pierre Engvall, and Kyle Clifford, head coach Sheldon Keefe loaded up the top line with Marner, Matthews and Tavares to try and generate some momentum.
While they ultimately came through, with some unbelievable play from Zach Hyman with the goalie pulled, should the Toronto Maple Leafs keep this ‘super line’ together?
Personally, I think it’s an overwhelming yes.
Fans and analysts have praised the Toronto Maple Leafs for having some of the best forward depth in the NHL throughout the entire season, which gives you the luxury of putting together a powerhouse line like this one. SO DO IT.
It has succeeded time and time again for teams like Boston, Tampa, Dallas, and countless others before, and the past couple of games have shown that there can be some serious difference makers on this team when put into bigger roles.
A second line of Nylander, Mikheyev, and Hyman, in addition to a bottom-six with Robertson, Kerfoot, Engvall, Spezza, Clifford and Kapanen has the potential to be lethal, and I’m honestly surprised we are only seeing this now.
As we’ve seen with Sheldon Keefe’s short tenure as head coach, he is not afraid to take risks and make in-game adjustments when necessary, so it isn’t a stretch to say that we could see a different looking setup tonight.
The winner of game five will move on to the round of 16 to take on the first seeded Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Maple Leafs have the chance to make history tonight, winning their first playoff series in 16 years.