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Photo Credit: Scott Maxwell

Scott’s Thoughts: Game 2 vs. Columbus Edition

The Maple Leafs had a lot to prove after Game 1. The highly skilled roster fell victim to Columbus’ offense-stifling system and saw a big goose egg under their name on the scoreboard as a result.

There were a lot of concerns going into Game 2. Would Keefe prove to us he’s not like Babcock and adjust after the first game? Could they solve the neutral zone clog? Would the big names show up? Could the Leafs beat Korpisalo? Another loss, and the team would probably find themselves under a lot of scrutiny down 0-2.

Well, they definitely adjusted

Yeah, Sheldon Keefe is not Mike Babcock. If Babs was still coaching, he’d just tell the pl’y’rs that they gotta be gud pros and keep steady on the rudder or some dumb slogan, and trot out the exact same roster and play the exact same way.

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Instead, Keefe adjusted. I already talked about how Engvall drew into the lineup, but Keefe also swapped Marner and Nylander in the top six, and both paid off. Marner’s heavy focus on playmaking (and lack of a shot) complimented Matthews’ shot, while Nylander and Tavares’ ability to do both complimented each other as well. Meanwhile, Engvall went out playing like someone who didn’t want to be scratched again, which in turn allowed the fourth line to get out there a bit more, which gave Clifford more opportunities to be physical, like his big hit that helped set the tone in the first.

One of the things Columbus did well in Game 1 was hold the Leafs to the outside towards the boards, and then punish them physically once they got there. With physical plays like this from the Leafs in Game 2, the Blue Jackets were more cautious in doing so, which helped open up the ice.

The Leafs also adjusted some of their strategies with transitioning up the ice, which allowed them to consistently break through Columbus’ neutral zone clog, get scoring chances in the offensive zone, and basically have the puck the entire game. While they didn’t use stretch passes like I had suggested, they used some similar ideas, as brought up in this thread by @mostlyleafies.

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Now, normally when the Leafs pick up the pace on creating scoring chances, they also are guilty of giving up scoring chances. One upside to Game 1 was they actually played some solid defense to limit the Blue Jackets. But not only did the Leafs not stray from that defensive performance in Game 1 in exchange for more offense, they actually improved on it, and had an even better defensive game while creating more offense, holding the Blue Jackets to just 13 scoring chances, and only 0.78 xGF at 5v5.

The big boys came to play

While Matthews had a strong Game 1, he didn’t score, and the other three top forwards on the team were nowhere to be found, so there was some expectations for them going into Game 2.

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And did they ever show up.

Matthews had his fair share of chances before finally breaking Korpisalo with a deflection. Tavares almost finished with a higher xGF than THE ENTIRE BLUE JACKETS ROSTER, and capped it off with a breakaway goal to give the Leafs a two goal lead. Nylander helped drive that offense with Tavares, and had an assist on the Tavares goal. Marner didn’t have a point, and while you’d hope the guy who demanded as much money as he did would start showing his worth with substantial offense, he had the highest 5v5 CF% of the team, so he had far from a bad game.

Hopefully that can continue in Game 3 (as well as some depth scoring, that’d definitely help with the wins too).

Steady Freddy

Andersen was probably one of the biggest worries going into the postseason, mine included. He was just coming off of his worst season as a Leaf, has had questionable playoff performances, and has been notorious for having bad starts to the season, which after almost five months off, was a similar situation to these playoffs.

Up to this point, Andersen has erased all of those concerns in this series. He’s held the Blue Jackets to one goal, leads the NHL in save percentage with .982%, is second among goalies in 5v5 dFSv% with 2.49, and is second in GSAx with 1.73. It helps that the Leafs are seventh in the playoffs in 5v5 xGA/60, but even that can occasionally lead to a mental game. But, Andersen has been incredibly poised through the first two games.

Replacing Muzzin

The one thing that keeps this from being a perfect game for the Leafs was losing Jake Muzzin late in the third period. He’s thankfully in good health, but he’ll be out for the rest of the series recovering from the injury (and probably quarantining as well). It’s a huge blow to the Leafs, as Muzzin is an essential part of the Leafs shutdown pair, and their best defensive defenseman.

In his place will be Travis Dermott, who’s had an up and down couple of years, but in a brief stretch in the same position, excelled.

Among Leafs pairs that got at least 100 minutes this season, Dermott-Holl was one of the two closest Leafs pairings to having a good rate of creating and preventing expected goals (the other, Dermott-Barrie, is right underneath them).

A lot of this came late in the regular season for the Leafs, when both Rielly and Muzzin were out long term, leaving the Leafs with very few options for a shutdown pair. Dermott and Holl stepped up, and the Leafs managed to hold together during a stretch where they should’ve broke.

They’ll need to be equally up to the task in this series, as limiting the Blue Jackets chances will be essential to winning this series for the Leafs.

My concerns for Game 3

The biggest thing going into Game 3 is how Tortorella responds. He’s not just going to sit back and keep trying his style, he’s going to make some new strategies to adjust to the Leafs for Game 3. He’ll also have the last change, so he can dictate the matchups if he wants (not that it mattered with how the Leafs played, both of Tort’s preferred matchups got skewered by the Leafs top six). Whatever adjustments he makes, the Leafs better hope they can solve it and fast, because they can’t go behind in this series again.

The other big thing for this game is the goaltending situation with the back-to-back games for 3 & 4. Columbus has the flexibility to put Korpisalo in one game and Merzlikins in the next without there being a drop off in skill, while the drop off from Andersen to Campbell is drastic, especially considering Campbell hasn’t played any meaningful game action. Winning Game 3 will be crutial because being down 2-1 on the second half of a back-to-back with a tired Freddy while they have a rested goalie will not be an ideal situation, unless the Leafs play another game like Game 2, and give Andersen a really low workload.

I’m a lot less worried for Game 3 than I was for Game 2, but a win here would be huge.