It’s still a little difficult to fathom, but the NHL playoff begin in just two days.
Yes, this Saturday, August 1 is the return of meaningful NHL hockey, the most meaningful possible, to be honest.
While it’s not quite the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs yet, it might as well be thrown into the same category as teams are very much playing for their lives in the qualifying round.
With that in mind, I’ll be taking a look at all eight play-in round series’ and the odds as well as giving a prediction as to who will be moving on to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
We will kick the eight-part series off with a look at the Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets in a matchup that few saw coming.
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets Series Odds
- Maple Leafs (-165)
- Blue Jackets (+145)
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets Exact Series Result Odds
- Maple Leafs 3-1 (+275)
- Maple Leafs 3-1 (+325)
- Maple Leafs 3-0 (+360)
- Blue Jackets 3-1 (+450)
- Blue Jackets 3-2 (+500)
- Blue Jackets 3-0 (+950)
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets Series Preview & Predictions
Offense wasn’t much of an issue for a loaded and deep group up front as the Maple Leafs ranked third with 3.39 goals per game on the season, and since they’re playing in Toronto, it’s worth looking into their home offense that ranked 10th with 3.35 goals per game.
The Leafs offense could get a couple of key personnel additions to the group as winger Ilya Mikheyev will return from a wrist laceration suffered on December 27 that was likely to cost him some playoff games before the pause in action.
Mikheyev impressed in his first season in the NHL after coming over from the KHL in the offseason and should take on a top-six role alongside John Tavares and William Nylander come Sunday’s series opener.
Additionally, 18-year-old Nicholas Robertson appears to be carving out a spot on the club after he scored 55 goals in 46 games with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes.
Robertson, a second-round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2019 – looks like a steal at this point and has taken the spot of Pierre Engvall on the club’s third line alongside Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen, a line that could be the fastest in these playoffs.
Largely built to prevent goals, the Blue Jackets didn’t generate a ton of offense this season, and I don’t blame them.
They lost Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin and 2019 trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene on the open market in the offseason, a couple of key contributors to their shocking first-round upset of the top-seeded Lightning last spring.
If that weren’t enough, the club’s offense (plus defense and goaltending) was ravaged by injuries this season as the team played without Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson and Alexandre Texier at various times throughout the season.
— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) March 12, 2020
The injuries played a factor in the team sharing a tie of 27th with just 2.57 goals per game on the season while they ranked 22nd with 2.53 goals per game on the road.
The team will also need to get its power play going to give them a better shot in this series after they produced at just 16.4% this season – good for 27th league wide while their 14.8% mark on the road ranked 27th as well.
It’s been well documented that the Achilles’ heel of this Maple Leafs club is on the blueline where the team has been prone to mistakes and blown coverages far too often in recent seasons.
They showed some improvement after Mike Babcock was fired in mid-November. With Babcock this season, the Maple Leafs ranked 24th while allowing 3.43 goals per game. Under Keefe, the club improved some to 17th with 3.04 goals against per game.
However, Keefe recently admitted the team still needs to “tighten up” on the back end, a phrase that’s been required for use far too often with this team.
Perhaps the biggest defensive difference on the team with the coaching change was on the penalty kill as the club ranked 27th with a 73.1% success rate down a man with Babcock, but improved all the way to 13th with an 80.9% mark in Keefe’s tenure with the club.
The Blue Jackets are structured to defend first given their lack of offensive game-breakers up front, and they did a great job of that this season.
Only Boston and Dallas were superior defensively this season as the Blue Jackets tied the Coyotes for third with just 2.61 goals against per game on the season.
One of the team’s most devastating injuries was to all-world defenseman Seth Jones who broke his ankle in February and was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, but likely to return for the playoffs if the team made it to the dance.
Needless to say, the team’s No.1 defenseman is healthy and ready to go for this play-in series and joins one of the best offensive blueliners in the game in Zach Werenski on the top pair.
Coming off the worst regular season of his NHL career, Frederik Andersen will look to find his form out of the gate in this series.
Andersen’s .909 Sv% from the regular season fell well under his .917 career mark while he had been one of the most consistent goaltenders in the league prior to this season, posting a save percentage between .917 and .919 in each of his previous four seasons.
While it’s not a traditional playoff, Andersen is the owner of a career 2.63 GAA and .914 Sv% in the postseason and played especially well in posting a .922 Sv% in last season’s first-round, seven-game exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
Given the team’s issues on the blueline, Andersen will need to be sharp if the Leafs are to make any noise in these playoffs.
There is a decision to be made in the Blue Jackets’ crease as both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins turned in stout regular-season performances.
The crease was Korpisalo’s to begin with until he suffered a knee injury in late December, turning the keys over to Merzlikins who instantly excelled.
Merzlikins caught the attention of the hockey world when he posted a 1.72 GAA and .948 Sv% with three shutouts and an 8-2-0 record in January while he finished the season with a 2.35 GAA and .923 SV% – his first in the NHL.
That said, my guess is Korpisalo gets the Game 1 nod as he posted a 2.60 GAA and .911 Sv% on the season. While those numbers pale in comparison to his former backup’s, Korpisalo is in his fifth season with the organization, waiting patiently behind former netminder Sergei Bobrovsky for his time as the team’s starter. I believe he will get that opportunity, at least to start the series.
John Tortorella did a wonderful job with this team despite a lack of high-end skill and a questionable goaltending tandem. No one thought the Blue Jackets were close to competing this season and they should have been dead in the water once the injury bug hit.
While they’ve exceeded any and all expectations, they’re in for a tough one against a dynamic Maple Leafs lineup.
The offensive advantage is unquestionably with the Maple Leafs while the special teams advantage goes to Toronto as their penalty kill under Keefe largely stacks up to the Blue Jackets’ season-long numbers in the department. Additionally, Toronto’s power play is far superior to that of their opponent.
While Columbus defends with the best of em’, few teams present a greater challenge in that department than Toronto.
I’ll take the Maple Leafs in this one, but I think it goes the distance in this best three-of-five qualifying round.