TORONTO — Before Jake Muzzin crashed awkwardly into Oliver Bjorkstrand after a short push from behind from Pierre-Luc Dubois less than two minutes before the horn, there was an argument for Game 2 versus the Columbus Blue Jackets following the exact ideal script for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Needing a victory to even the qualification series and avoid facing elimination six days into the NHL’s restart, the Leafs did more than meet the bare minimum. Instead, they overcame obstacles similar to those that presented themselves in their Game 1 loss, proving to themselves that patience, resilience and, maybe most importantly, staunch commitment to the system would eventually pay dividends in a matchup against a team that wants to stifle their preferred playing style.
At the top of the list in terms of challenges was Blue Jackets netminder Joonas Korpisalo. The Leafs needed 29 shots in the game — and 57 targets total through the first 96 minutes of the series — to finally solve the locked-in Blue Jackets stopper.
In a series as short as this one, an outage of that length could easily spell the end. But the Leafs survived the minutes that grew to become more tenuous, and appear to be in a better position now because they were made to wait.
This is a team that knows they can fill the net against just about any opponent when things fall into place. What they haven’t proven over the last few postseason disappointments is that they can win in other ways, while at the same time still sticking to the tactics that make them such a dangerous offensive team.
Control. Puck possession. Time spent in the offensive zone being the most effective avenue to minimize risk. Yes, there are things that could be cleaned up — there always is. But when looking at the game in its totality, it’s hard to imagine the Leafs performing any better.
Toronto ran up massive advantages in shots, scoring chances and attempts, relentlessly carving up the ice in front of Korpisalo while keeping the area in front of Frederik Andersen clean.
And when they finally earned the breakthrough they so desperately needed with a tidy tip-in finish from Auston Matthews on a rush with Zach Hyman, they seized control and opened up a scenario in the series that may be most favourable to them.
While protecting leads has not been a characteristic of Leafs teams in this era, it makes sense that front-running would favour them against the Blue Jackets. Because when forced to over-extend, to chase, to step outside that conservative, methodically-break-you-down approach, that’s when the Jackets could be most vulnerable.
It’s a theory that was proven to be true when they invested more resources into a third-period attack and forgot John Tavares was on the ice.
JOHN. TAVARES.— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) August 4, 2020
He deserved this one. pic.twitter.com/9Trmm4xvW3
Knowing how difficult the Blue Jackets can be to break down, and how they might become more susceptible when chasing the game, it’s obvious, then, that fast (or at least faster) starts could be the key to the remaining games in the series.
Of course, the important lessons learned in the equalizing win have to be considered differently in the potential absence of Muzzin, who is central to much of what the Leafs do.
The veteran defenceman was taken to hospital, and therefore outside the confines of the NHL’s bubble, casting doubt over his potential return in a best-case scenario, which is hopefully that he’s escaped serious injury after being stretchered off the ice after that awkward collision.
Either Martin Marincin or Rasmus Sandin will be inserted into the lineup, and the responsibilities on the back end re-distributed, in the likelihood that Muzzin is unavailable in the immediate term.
In its context, it’s a massive blow, but it brings us back to that one thing the Leafs must prove to be repeatable.
Staying within themselves. Find new ways to win.
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