The Leafs journeyed to Ohio tonight to take on this season’s Cinderella story: the Columbus Blue Jackets. Very possibly, it was also a battle of two Jack Adams nominees for the year. Gritty veteran Eric Fehr drew in for the injured Nikita Soshnikov instead of offensive youth Josh Leivo, causing moderate Internet angst and at least one terrible hashtag.
The Jackets’ mobile defence was on display early, with rookie phenom Zach Werenski impressing right off the hop. CBJ’s aggressive forecheck also worked to pressure the Leafs into hastily disposing of the puck, leading to multiple icings in the first few minutes. The first Leaf effort with real force was off an o-zone faceoff led by the Bozak line, with Connor Carrick drilling a couple of shots from the point.
There was an unfortunate moment about five minutes in. Three Blue Jackets came in closely pursued by three Leafs; one of the pairings was Leo Komarov covering Columbus captain Nick Foligno. Komarov knocked Foligno over going for the puck, and Foligno went awkwardly into the end boards, staying down for some time. Foligno left for the concussion protocol under his own steam, and later returned.
Perhaps fired up in the absence of their captain, the Jackets came on strong in the next few minutes, with sustained zone time. But it was the Leafs—and Komarov no less—who opened the scoring nine minutes in.
Werenski, pressured by Nazem Kadri in the corner, lost his handle on the puck; Naz picked it up and immediately threw a pass through the slot to Leo Komarov, who was waiting just on the far side of the crease. Komarov spiked the puck over Joonas Korpisalo’s pad for his 12th of the season and a 1-0 Leafs lead.
The game heated up considerably as the Leafs seemingly decided en masse to get physical on the Jackets, a sequence that peaked when Connor Carrick threw a thunderous hit on CBJ forward Josh Anderson.
Connor Carrick lowers the boom pic.twitter.com/VW2imKtCIs— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) March 22, 2017
A scrum ensued in which Brandon Dubinsky took a retaliatory roughing penalty on Carrick, and the Leafs went to the first power play of the game. The Leafs got set up as usual; Jake Gardiner manned the point, as usual; and he threw the puck down to William Nylander, as usual.
The Nylander pass on this goal is the platonic ideal of passes. It should be in an art gallery, shielded in a glass case, behind a velvet rope, guarded by a mildly overweight and impassive man in a drab beige uniform. Nylander found Auston Matthews in the slot, and Matthews fired the puck into Korpisalo. Korpisalo stopped it but couldn’t smother it, and Auston buried his own rebound to put the Leafs up 2-0.
The high level of physicality continued, with Martin-Boyle-Fehr raising holy hell and infuriating the Jackets, who thought the Leafs deserved at least one penalty. They didn’t get one; in fact, the next powerplay was another one for the Leafs, as Cam Atkinson clipped Nazem Kadri with a high stick. The Leafs didn’t wind up converting this chance, though.
The final two minutes were highlighted by a furious Blue Jackets rally led by the Jackets’ talented second (currently) line of Brandon Saad - Sam Gagner - Cam Atkinson, and Atkinson had a close rebound off a Kyle Quincey slapshot that Andersen turned aside. Nonetheless, the period ended 2-0.
The Leafs’ games have often been fast this year, but recently they’ve been getting much more aggressive. The Boyle line was savagely physical every time they stepped on (but suffered badly in shot attempts; the Kadri line was very strong, and the Leafs capitalized well on the chances they got. The Gagner and Dubinsky lines for Columbus had sustained dangerous shifts in the Leafs’ end, and the period was closer than 2-0 makes it sound. But still: good stuff.
The Jackets came out blazing and halved the Leafs’ lead almost immediately. Boone Jenner fed the puck to Brandon Dubinsky behind the net. Dubinsky turned to see CBJ defender David Savard pinching in towards the faceoff dot and hit him with a pass. Matt Martin wasn’t able to get to Savard in time, and Savard fired a laser beam of a shot past Andersen, and :43 into the second, it was 2-1. Twitter was lacerating on the Leafs’ fourth line on the play.
The Kadri line at least managed a strong response shift, with several good chances that didn’t quite go in. The next action in the Leafs’ end came when Lucas Sedlak tripped Frederik Andersen as the Leafs’ goalie tried to play the puck. The Leafs went to their third power play of the evening, but they were unable to cash—Mitch Marner struggled twice to receive two key passes at the right wing boards, which gummed up the works.
The invigorated Jackets kept coming on; Brandon Saad had a particularly deadly one-timer from the high slot, and it took a ten-bell Frederik Andersen save to keep the Leafs ahead. Saad would not be denied, though; on his line’s next shift, they set up a strong cycle in the Leafs zone. Sam Gagner threw back to Zach Werenski at the point; Werenski fired a shot at medium height, and despite Connor Carrick playing him close, Saad tipped it on the way by for a no-chance goal on Andersen. 2-2.
Matthews had a shift reminiscent of peak Jaromir Jagr; he turned his face to the boards and his back to William Karlsson, and simply would not give up the puck. His persistence keyed a very strong sequence by his line, but despite battling and buzzing around the net, nothing went in.
William Nylander, however, was having himself A Game. Tyler Bozak made a backhanded clearing effort that evaded everybody on its way to centre ice, where it was picked up by the Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike. Nylander zoomed in on a partial break that he managed to turn most of the way into a full break. He got in on Korpisalo and shot the puck far side like this:
Sweet lord does that young man have a shot. 3-2 Leafs!
There were good chances in the next few minutes—Tyler Bozak wired a shot off Korpisalo’s blocker, Matt Calvert fired point-blank shot that Andersen turned aside—but the next really extended pressure came when the Jackets caught the Leafs’ first line tired in their own zone and just ran them in circles. The Leafs are regularly victimized by good cycling teams, and CBJ is definitely a good cycling team; it was nearly two minutes before Matthews and friends got to the bench. After a few subsequent Leafs rushes, the period ended.
This was one hell of a hockey game. The Jackets, as in the previous paragraph, worked the cycle superbly (both goals game off defender’s shots off the cycle—Gagner up the side boards to Werenski, and Dubinsky behind the net out to Savard) while the Leafs seemed to have more rush chances. The Kadri line continued to be the Leafs’ best in CF%, and they generally looked it, despite flashes of individual brilliance from Matthews and Nylander. Mitch Marner wasn’t having his finest night, although he showed good effort on a couple of forechecks. On the Jackets’ side, Johnson/Savard meshed well with the Dubinsky line, whom they played behind regularly. All in all: this period was more than a little mean-spirited and very, very fast.
Boone Jenner attempted to start the third period as he’d started the second: with a physical offensive shift. This one didn’t end in a goal, though. It was quickly forgotten, because Roman Polak threw a nasty hit from behind on Oliver Bjorkstrand, sending him head-first into the boards.
Polak justifiably got five minutes and a game for the hit; this didn’t stop John Tortorella from erupting at the refs in a vintage Torts display of rage. I’m not sure what he wanted out of the refs, who were already penalizing Polak as harshly as possible, but I don’t blame him for being mad about what happened to his rookie winger.
The five-minute power play was surprisingly tentative from a Columbus team that was aggressive most of the night up to then. The Leafs several times chased the Jackets back to their own zone before they could set up. You have to be both lucky and good to kill five minutes, and the Jackets still had chances, but Toronto survived the major. They survived even though it was an even longer major than usual—Mike Babcock didn’t put anyone in the box in place of Polak, so there was no one to come out once the penalty expired, and Columbus kept the puck in play long after the time on the penalty had run out—only a whistle would let them return to even strength. Effectively, this meant Columbus had a power play that lasted nearly seven minutes. The only reasoning for this as a decision would be to keep the entire bench available for the PK, but it seems more likely Babcock just got caught up preparing his penalty kill in Polak’s absence and forgot to designate someone to sit in the box.
Babcock told players on the bench, "That's my fault."— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) March 23, 2017
After a bit more Columbus pressure following their power play, the Leafs had multiple strong shifts from the Kadri line and then the Matthews line, countered by responses from Dubinsky and Gagner’s groups. Connor Brown had two golden chances—a breakaway and then an opening in front of the net alone—but was unable to cash. Still, it was his line that struck next for the all-important insurance goal.
After a Nikita Zaitsev pinch deflected the puck loose, Leo Komarov recovered it a few feet inside the line at the boards, and fired it in on net. Nazem Kadri recovered the rebound and fired it into the empty net. After a fraught off-side review, the goal stood, and the Leafs went up 4-2.
Tortorella went for the early goalie pull, and the Leafs made him pay for it; Nikita Zaitsev hit the empty net to seal the victory at 5-2 with a little under three minutes left. That was that; 5-2 is your final.
- Nazem Kadri now has 30 goals playing shutdown minutes. His line was fantastic tonight, as a genuine group effort—he, Komarov and Brown all impressed me at different points with aggressive, opportunistic play. They had two goals, they had a dominant Corsi showing, they were flying out there. Love it.
- Related point: Babcock has decided to let his star rookie centre shoulder tougher competition, and the Matthews line has had some struggles because of it. They got crushed tonight in CF%, almost entirely due to some brutal shifts against the Dubinsky line where they were unable to break the Jackets cycle and they just bled CA. It’s a little disguised because of two fantastic individual offensive moments by Nylander, one on the power play, but I think it has to be noted. It’s a learning curve, and it’s okay. They still had some quality offensive shifts; it’s getting the puck back in their own zone that they need to work on.
- The flipside of this is that the very physical, very dangerous Dubinsky line is very good at getting the puck and keeping it.
- In my last recap, one reader objected that I didn’t give enough credit to Nikita Zaitsev. I didn’t think Zaitsev had that great a game last time out, but I am very happy to credit him tonight; I thought he was excellent, and so did the fancy stats. Him and Gardiner seem to have formed a very effective top pairing, and it’s one we may see more of going forward.
- I’ve seen some people defend the Polak hit on Bjorkstrand arguing that Bjorkstrand changed directions at the last moment, which he did—he was reversing direction to head back towards the corner when Polak hit him. At the same time, the hit was right on the numbers, and Polak has a responsibility to avoid that kind of hit; I think it was rightly penalized. Polak at times has to rely on his body-checking to deal with players who outspeed him. This was one of those times.
- The Babcock error on the penalty kill is kind of comical, though it’d be harder to laugh at if Columbus had scored. But credit to Babcock for owning it, at least.
- The Jackets are an impressive team, and they play hard. Saad is a gunner, Jenner is a basher, and the defence is mobile and knows when to pinch. They’re the real deal, and despite the lack of history, Leafs-Jackets could be a pretty great playoff series. Lots of speed, and already some bad blood.
- The win put the Leafs a point ahead of the Boston Bruins (who have played one more game) for third place in the Atlantic division, at 83 points. The Islanders wound up beating the Rangers, so they sit three back of the Leafs with 80 points. Right now, the Leafs are going for a playoff spot the direct way: winning.
- Next game is tomorrow night against the New Jersey Devils. Go Leafs Go!