Leafs Playoffs Hockey Returns, The Goals Don't
Game #1 - Toronto Maple Leafs (0) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (2)
As I sit here with my morning coffee writing this. Thinking and reflecting on last night’s ( I guess you can call that a playoff) game...my thoughts continue to be the same. Another 3rd period collapse by the Leafs lead to their defeat and now down 1-0 in the best of five series. I think I can speak for the majority of Leafs fans out there when I say that it felt like the Leafs were playing a game in the middle of the season and the loss meant nothing. In shorter terms, no heart. So for these articles that I will be writing I will be breaking it down, period by period, for you in a way true fans watch the game and not an objective sports reporter.
I don’t think I was ever hype for a Leafs playoff game than this one. Seriously, even more than our return to the playoffs back in 2013 and even the Matthews rookie year where NO ONE saw us making the playoffs that year. I wore my Leafs jersey from the moment I woke up, right up until the empty net goal went in….Anyways, the first period was definitely an interesting one for the Leafs and Blue Jackets which both team were looking to come out and make a statement early. I thought the Leafs showed a lot of promise when in the offensive zone. Lots of puck movement and looking around at creating a scoring chance. Columbus seemed to have thrown the Leafs off guard early and would be the story of the rest of the game, shut down defence while taking advantage of the Leafs with an odd man rushes the other way. The Leafs defensive zone work was rusty as the inside of an old farm shed hinge. Sloppy breakouts and LAZY play in our own zone. I think both teams were pretty even after the first and the score I think was a good reflection of it.
I think both teams got that first period rust out of the way because they came out with their speed and physical play in the second period. However, the reality of a rookie head coach vs. an experienced head coach really did show at this point and the rest of the game. Columbus picked up on the Leafs Offensive Zone strategies and began to cluster the middle of the ice to block any sort of cross crease and force a block shot from the point. The Leafs made no adjustments here and for the rest of the game against this which in my eyes was the nail in the coffin. The Leafs ended up getting a Power Play in this period but really showed no promise whatsoever. I think they may have gotten 2 shots on net and I wouldn’t have even considered those scoring chances. Our saviour Frederick Andersen had to come up HUGE in this period making some game saving saves late in the period. Definitely became a goalie battle too with Auston Matthews receiving a wide open pass in the slot and Joonas Korpisalo robbing him with a fantastic glove save. Both teams had some good scoring chances at the end of the period but both goalies kept their teams in it.
So, at the beginning of the period, I think myself and a lot of Leafs fans out there were sitting there thinking of the same 2 things. Who is going to be the hero to score the first goal of the game and the obvious, oh no please don't have a third period collapse….Well, the hockey gods were sure listening to one team's fans. The Leaf Killer himself, Cam Atkinson, was fed a beautiful stretch pass on the right side and just throws a simple shot at Frederick Andersen and somehow found its way past him to put the Blue Jackets up 1-0 very early in the third period. This one stung very much more than usual because it seemed to have deflated the balloon of the Leafs and it really showed. Cody Ceci would take his second penalty of the game and I know I was screaming the same thing as all Leafs fans and yelling “WHY IS CECI PLAYING OVER SANDIN!!!???”. That was a very good question and it really did show that he was very rusty in this one. For the rest of the period the Blue Jackets stuck to their game plan and just wore down the Leafs with their continuation of shutting them down defensively and the constant dump back into the Leafs end. The Leafs I found needed to change their offensive approach but just fell back into the same Leafs third period team we have seen throughout the season. Bottom line, Blue Jackets came to play playoff hockey, the Leafs did not. A lot of the Leafs stars like John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander were MIA for most of the game. The only players that showed promise and grit were Auston Matthews, Frederick Andersen and 18 year old rookie Nick Robertson.
It is clear that the rookie head coach for the Leafs, Sheldon Keefe, will have to make some serious adjustments. Going down 1-0 in a best of five series is a lot tougher than a best of seven. I think the Leafs will have to come out of the gate on fire next game and put up a lead early on to set the tone for the rest of the game. Lastly, the Leafs will have to do something we only seen a few times this season, and that is to play a COMPLETE 60 minute hockey PLAYOFF game.
P.S. If you were wondering about what I was talking about when it comes to the Leafs needing to change strategies......take a look for yourselves.