Columbus Blue Jackets at Toronto Maple Leafs Preview
With the NHL back in action, so begins the eight qualifying round matchups that precede the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. One of those series starts on Sunday, as the No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets take on the No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs in a best-of-five series in Toronto.
Here is a preview for Game 1, along with a free Gameadvisers pick. Currently, the Leafs are favored at -155 to start the series with a win.
Blue Jackets Outlook
The Blue Jackets were decimated by injuries during the regular season, and were headed toward missing the playoffs. They finished fifth in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division with a record of 33-22-15. But the hiatus gave Columbus time to get healthy and allowed them to play their way into the postseason over the next few days.
When the season ended, the Blue Jackets were just 27th in goals per game with 2.57. Their power play had the same ranking, as they managed to convert just 16.4 percent of the time with the extra attacker. But throughout the year Columbus was one of the more defensively-solid teams in the league, ranking third with 2.61 goals allowed and 12th with a 81.7 penalty kill percentage.
Columbus's leading scorer is C Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had a team-high 49 points mostly thanks to his 31 assists. The other 40-plus point men are RW Gustav Nyquist and D Zach Werenski, who had 42 and 41 points respectively. The Jackets are hoping to have leading goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand and D Seth Jones on the ice for them, after both players suffered injuries that would've held them out of the original playoffs.
Maple Leafs Outlook
The Maple Leafs have looked like title contenders and a lottery team on multiple occasions over the season. They still managed to finish 36-25-9, good for third in the Atlantic division. But now the focus for Toronto is advancing into the postseason, all in their own arena.
One thing that has been consistent for the Leafs is their offense, which has been one of the best in the NHL. Toronto finished the season with 3.39 goals per game, the third-most in hockey, while also finishing sixth with a 23.1 power play percentage. But the defense takes a huge step back, ranking 25th with 3.17 goals allowed and 21st with a 77.7 penalty kill percentage.
Toronto has several stars, perhaps none bigger than C Auston Matthews. Matthews is one of the top goal-scorers in hockey, scoring 47 goals as part of a team-high 80 points. Two other 60-plus point scorers include the young LW Mitch Marner, who had 51 assists and 67 points, and C John Tavares, who had 26 goals and 34 assists. RW William Nylander was just shy of that mark with 59 points as well. Others like D Tyson Barrie and D Morgan Reilly will have to play a big part in holding things down on the other end.
These teams have met each other twice this season, both of them coming in the first 10 games of the year. The first meeting was in Columbus, where Marner scored two goals and added an assist to leads the Leafs to an easy 4-1 victory. Then a couple weeks later, the rematch took place in Toronto, where the Jackets would get their revenge. After the team tied the game in the third, Nyquist scored the penalty shot game-winner in overtime to lift the Blue Jackets to a 4-3 win.
The Blue Jackets will have to decide between Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins in net. Korpisalo was the primary starter at first, going 19-12-5 with a 2.60 GAA and .911 save percentage. But Merzlikins earned a role in a timeshare by going 13-9-8 with a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs are confident in starting Frederik Andersen. Andersen went 29-13-7 with a 2.85 GAA and .909 save percentage.
This is an interesting matchup, and not just because this is the eight-seed against the nine-seed. Toronto is an offensive juggernaut but struggle on defense, while Columbus is stout defensively but struggled to score goals. However, Columbus is fully healthy for the first time in a while, and their coach has more postseason experience. I'm going with the Blue Jackets to pull off the strong defensive effort and steal Game 1.
Head to our number 1 PPH site at RealBookies.com and take the Blue Jackets.