With five minutes left in Friday night’s Game 4 it was all falling into place for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Leading the high-powered Maple Leafs 3-0 in an elimination game, the Blue Jackets had the hub hosts on the ropes and seemed on the way to another huge playoff upset. The hardest part seemed to be in the rear view mirror. Columbus had survived a second period push when the Leafs held an edge in shots (16-13), 5-on-5 scoring chances (7-6) and high danger opportunities (2-0). Toronto’s expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 in the second frame was 65.63, and yet Columbus scored the only goal and were up 2-0 after 40 minutes.
With just under six minutes to go in the third, Boone Jenner scored to increase the lead to three and that should have been what buried the Leafs.
And then history happened.
Watch Sunday’s series-deciding Game 5 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets on Sportsnet and SN NOW. Coverage gets underway at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.
“I just think we obviously sat back,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said the morning after. “It wasn’t what went wrong, we just allowed a team to get some energy off of one goal and just didn’t have that push back we needed. A couple of unfortunate bounces with empty nets and that’s the difference in the game. It’s unfortunate because we played a really good hockey game up until that point.”
Columbus was doing everything they’d hoped. They were frustrating Toronto’s lineup of elite shooters, making it hard for them to get the puck to the middle for the best opportunities. Rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins, starting his first post-season game after coming on in relief in Game 3, had made 57 consecutive saves without allowing a goal across the two games and had settled right in. Toronto had only five shots in the first 15 minutes of the third period.
At 16:03 of the third and with the goalie pulled for a Hail Mary attempt, William Nylander scored to give the Leafs a glimmer of hope, although that felt like a parcipitation ribbon goal — just happy to not get shutout. Fifty-one seconds later John Tavares scored a beauty under the bar. Now, suddenly, it was a one-goal difference and a comeback could be completed with one lucky bounce, which Toronto got when Pierre-Luc Dubois’ empty net shot was caught in the outside of the net instead of going in. What were the odds of Columbus’ best player in the series missing in that moment?
And of course, Toronto tied it in the final minute, then won it in overtime, becoming the first team in playoff history to blow a three-goal lead and lose one night, then rally from a three-goal deficit to win the next.
Columbus was that close to winning this series and having a few days off until starting their next. Now, they have to regroup in a day and try to fend off the Leafs’ potent — and now re-energized — attack all over again for 60 minutes on Sunday. How does a team recover from being so close to a series win, and blowing it in such shocking fashion?
“Every day is a new opportunity to learn something,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “It’s a tight series. We’ve seen two pretty good comebacks in the last two games. It’s a great series in my opinion. It’s a battle and just have to get ready for Sunday because it’s another one there.
“Nobody expected this to be easy.”
Yes, Toronto was able to rebound from its own blown three-goal lead in Game 3, but it took nothing short of a miracle to pull off. Columbus’ situation is similar, but different in that they had this thing closed out. They had the upset in their hand. They may even have started thinking about the next round a little. And now, very quickly after such a huge letdown, they have to regain a confidence and mindset that brought them so close to an impressive series win.
Unlike Toronto, the Blue Jackets probably don’t have the runway to be second-best for much of Game 5, nor the spread of offensive weapons to pull off the four-minute flurry Toronto just did. Columbus must start Game 5 with the same intensity and team-wide commitment they’ve had throughout. These are pros of course, but that will be the mental challenge on Sunday.
“There’s things you always want back, even in wins,” Foligno said. “You can’t dwell on things. It’s how you respond to adversity that’s going to allow you to have success. Especially in the playoffs. If there’s anything we’ve learned, that’s what makes good teams great in the playoffs — they respond the right way. I have full confidence our team will respond the right way.
“Our group’s resilient…this isn’t going to faze us. There was an upbeat group at breakfast today.”
That resilience will be put to the test, especially if defenceman Zach Werenski is either unable to go, or slowed by injury. Werenski, a huge part of Columbus’ success to this point, did not take a shift in the final half of the third period or at all in OT. Kekalainen had no update on Werenski’s status for Game 5.
With the series on the line for both teams in Sunday’s do-or-die, Toronto would seem to have all the momentum. They were buzzing down the stretch and in overtime, where they held a 14-7 shot advantage, and their best players had an extra jump that wasn’t always there earlier. There’s no excuse for the Leafs to come out flat.
Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.
But Columbus? How do you recover from such a collapse, in an elimination game no less? Comebacks are the theme of this series so it’d be foolhardy to rule them out if they fell behind early, but we’ll get an idea of where this team is at mentally shortly after puck drop when we see what kind of push back they can bring, or if the Leafs are in total control.
It’s hard to think this loss isn’t weighing on the Blue Jackets players today. They’re human after all. There’s got to be a sour taste on Saturday, and somehow they’ve got to put it back together again by tomorrow night.
“The difference is going to be the team that wants it more,” Foligno said about Game 5. “I think you’ve seen both teams at their best of what they bring. For us, I think it’s going to be to try to get to that game faster than them and really that’s the difference in this series.
“We can’t live in the past.”
Blue Jays: Taijuan Walker won’t be cheap to re-sign, but he’s worth it – Jays Journal
Taijuan Walker has quietly been one of the better pitchers in the AL since he was traded to Toronto, and the Blue Jays should do what they can to re-sign him.
Ross Atkins and the Blue Jays front office had a very busy trade deadline this year, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s a good thing they did. The additions of Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, and Jonathan Villar have all come with mixed results, but there’s no doubt that they still helped push an injury-depleted roster into the playoffs.
As for Taijuan Walker, he’s not only helped in that regard, he’s proven that he could be the type of starter that the Blue Jays have to seriously pursue this winter. After the way he’s pitched down the stretch for the Blue Jays, he’s not going to come cheap if they are looking to retain him.
After throwing three hitless innings on Friday, the right-hander will finish the regular season with a 4-3 record, a 2.70 ERA, and a 1.16 WHIP across 11 starts in this abbreviated season. As impressive as those numbers are, he’s been even better since joining the Blue Jays. In those six starts he’s been good for a 1.37 ERA, and has more than proven himself capable of being a playoff starter as the team heads to the post-season.
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It’s expected that once they’re through with this playoff run, the Blue Jays will look to add to their rotation for the 2021 season. As things stand now they’ll still have Hyun Jin Ryu, Nate Pearson, Ross Stripling, Trent Thornton, and others who have pitched in relief this year like Anthony Kay, Thomas Tom Hatch, Ryan Borucki, Julian Merryweather and more. They also have Tanner Roark under contract for one more year, and a 9.5 million dollar option on Chase Anderson, but they’re set to lose Matt Shoemaker, Robbie Ray, and Walker to free agency.
They have enough options that the Blue Jays could stand pat and build a rotation with their in-house options, but I doubt that’ll be the way they go. That’s especially the case as they’ve proven that they’re ready to compete in 2021, having qualified for the post-season this year. Yes, it’s under an expanded format, but they’re still sitting at 31-27 on the season, and that a significant step for this young and talented core.
With that in mind, I believe the Blue Jays will spend to bring in a starter that could comfortably slot as the number two behind Ryu. That could very well be a spot that’s destined for a guy like Pearson, but Walker would provide important high-end depth for the next few seasons at least, and that could be a difference maker. At just 28 years old, he’s likely just entering his prime as well, and this year has been a great indication of where his potential could be.
What will it cost to retain him? I know it sounds like a cop out, but I’m honestly having a hard time taking a guess given the way the pandemic has likely changed the financial dynamics of free agency. In a normal year I wouldn’t be that surprised if he could look for 4-5 years at 15-20 million, but will there be teams lining up with that kind of offer this winter? It’ll depend on what ownership has to say about the budget, and that could be a tricky situation for a lot of teams.
As for the Blue Jays, most of their best players are still playing on pre-arbitration contracts, and with so many other bargains on the roster, this is the perfect time to continuing adding final pieces. After that audition that Walker has shown the Blue Jays this summer, I can’t imagine they’ll let him get away without at least making a serious offer, and if he adds to his resume in the playoffs then the pressure will really fall on Atkins to keep him around. It’s been a match made in heaven so far, and a partnership well worth trying to extend.
Stars’ Hintz, Bishop, Comeau and Faksa ‘unfit to play’ in Game 5 – Sportsnet.ca
Hintz left Game 4 after taking a hit from Tyler Johnson in the second period and did not return. In 25 games this post-season, the 23-year-old has 13 points.
Faksa will miss his seventh straight game with an undisclosed injury, while Comeau is out for his second straight game. Bishop has been sidelined since Game 5 against the Colorado Avalanche.
Goalie Anton Khudobin missed the Stars’ morning skate as Jake Oettinger was present at practice but the team confirmed that Khudobin would get the start.
The Stars trail the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 in their series. Puck drop for Game 5 is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.
Stamkos remains out of Lightning lineup for Game 5 vs. Stars – Sportsnet.ca
Tampa’s captain suited up in Game 3, but was declared unfit to play for Friday’s Game 4 victory. Before Game 5, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos will not play on Saturday. However, earlier Cooper did not rule him out for the remainder of the series, should Dallas stave off elimination Saturday.
Stamkos has missed the entirety of the Lightning’s post-season run due to an injury suffered before the club reconvened from the season’s pause to begin training. Managing only 2:47 minutes of ice-time during Game 3, Stamkos made an immediate impact upon returning to the lineup, scoring the second goal of the Bolts’ eventual 5-2 win just seven minutes into the tilt.
Stamkos posted 29 goals and 66 points through 57 regular-season games in 2019-20, dominating before being forced to the sidelines with a core muscle injury.
Blue Jays: Taijuan Walker won’t be cheap to re-sign, but he’s worth it – Jays Journal
Students to go into isolation after 1st COVID-19 outbreak declared at Toronto school – CBC.ca
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