The Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets will play each other in the best-of-5 Qualifying Round when the NHL season resumes. Though there is no date for the games to start, two NHL.com writers have already started the debate over which team has the edge in the series.
Brian Compton, deputy managing editor
I love this matchup. It’s a gifted offensive bunch in Toronto desperate to get over the hump against a Columbus group that thrives on defying the odds. But I’m in the camp that believes the Maple Leafs will find a way here, led by their captain, John Tavares, who has raised his game with high stakes in the past. Mitchell Marner has committed himself to becoming a solid two-way forward, and defenseman Morgan Rielly will eat a lot of minutes. It’ll all be anchored by goalie Frederik Andersen, who has shown flashes of brilliance in the postseason. I think Toronto wins this series.
Nick Cotsonika, columnist
Sure, the Maple Leafs are the easy pick. But the Tampa Bay Lightning were the easy pick last season when they were one of the best regular-season teams in NHL history, and the Blue Jackets swept them in the first round. And while lots of people thought the Blue Jackets would fade this season after losing goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene in free agency, they were tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus — despite having lost 419 man games to injury, the most in the NHL. The pause benefitted Columbus perhaps more than any other team, giving several players time to heal. Oh, and how many playoff series have the Maple Leafs won during the past 14 seasons? Even the Blue Jackets, whose defeat of the Lightning was their first series win ever, have won more.
I can’t say enough about the job coach John Tortorella has done with the Blue Jackets this season and, like most teams, they’ll be completely healthy when games resume. And yes, the lack of postseason success the Maple Leafs have endured essentially since their last Stanley Cup championship in 1967 is well-known by all, especially Tavares, who grew up in the hockey hub. Even if he has to carry the Maple Leafs past the Blue Jackets (which I don’t necessarily think will be the case), so be it.
You’re right about Tortorella. Perhaps no coach does a better job of rallying the troops with an us-against-the-world attitude, and that’s going to be huge considering all the challenges on and off the ice. A couple of other factors in favor of the Blue Jackets: It’s not just that they upset the Lightning last season. It’s that the Lightning are somewhat similar in style to the Maple Leafs, giving the Blue Jackets a blueprint and confidence as they try to do it again. This will be a best-of-5 series, not best-of-7. When you have to win three games instead of four, that introduces more randomness and a better chance for the underdog.