You can change the coach, the management staff, whether or not there are fans and media in the stands – but you can’t just change all of the players. And that continues to be an issue for the punchless Toronto Maple Leafs.
Just hours after storming out to a 3-0 lead, then promptly blowing that lead, only to lose deep into overtime – by a score of 4-3, the Leafs somehow will need to erase that nightmare and get back on the ice in a do-or-die scenario come Friday evening.
The Leafs looked to be in total control once again last night, and probably did play well enough to deserve a victory, but the continued mental fragility of this group continues to plague whoever puts on that blue and white jersey. A team this talented and skilled shouldn’t continue to collapse and fall short of expectations.
Columbus has a great shot to prolong the Leafs’ misery and send them into another extended off-season of massive uncertainty. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004, and if they can’t win two straight against a pesky Jackets side – you can bet criticism will be in full force for this Toronto side.
Heading into a pivotal Game 4 it will be fascinating to see how this Leafs team responds. Will they fold again like a cheap deck chair, or can this talented core finally rectify past failures? One thing is clear, it will be fascinating and exciting to watch this series come to a conclusion.
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets Betting Odds:
Toronto Maple Leafs (-141)
Columbus Blue Jackets (+128)
Over 5.5 (+105)
Under 5.5 (-125)
*Betting odds provided by BetOnline.ag
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets Pick:
While the numbers so far in this series would likely tilt the edge toward the Leafs, it is worth noting that the Blue Jackets will take to the ice Friday with a new netminder. Joonas Korpisalo is out after some soft play yesterday, and instead the more talented Elvis Merzlikins is finally getting his shot. He was the goalie most thought Columbus would start with and is coming off of an excellent season.
Merzlikins was unbeatable and was calm and composed yesterday, stifling the Leafs and showing zero signs of rust.
Toronto meanwhile are running out of line options and tweaks. Without Jake Muzzin available on the back-end, this is a wildly vulnerable side, especially on defense. After blowing a 3-0 playoff lead, there aren’t many places to turn.
A more veteran group may be able to turn things around and overcome that type of defeat, but we’ve seen on countless occasions that this Leafs team is just not up to the lofty challenge of playoff hockey. When the games the bigger, the Leafs’ stars shrink. The tighter checking and physical nature of playoff hockey isn’t something that suits their style all that well. And somehow this seems like a recording of past playoff failures against Boston.
Look for this game to start with an early Leafs push, but they will likely get completely stifled by the Jackets’ knack of keeping chances to the outside, along with the red-hot Merzlikins. The Leafs had their chance to take control, and the longer this game doesn’t tilt towards the Leafs favour – expect Columbus to gain even more confidence.
As a result, it’s hard to see anything else here aside from a tightly contested and low-scoring Jackets victory. The Leafs will be desperate, but that will likely manifest itself in countless individual efforts opposed to solid team play and structure. Panic will inevitably set in, and mistakes will plague their game once again. At another juicy underdog price, and with a decisive goaltending and defensive advantage – the Jackets to close things out in Game 4 again represents immense value. We’ll wait and see if yet another Leafs’ playoff loss ignites the changes this franchise so desperately needs.
Pick: Columbus 3-1