TORONTO – If we are billing the Toronto-Columbus elimination series as a tug-o-war between two distinct identities — and best believe we are — then the first 60 minutes was textbook Blue Jackets.
Even in diagraming his plan and readying a mindset to defeat the more talented offensive outfit, John Tortorella could not have drawn up a better Game 1 than the one that unfolded at Scotiabank Arena Sunday night.
Wearing their “above the puck” mantra like a second crest on their sweaters, the Blue Jackets gave up nary an odd-man rush, only committed a single minor penalty, and patiently waited around a scoreless seesaw until one costly Maple Leafs’ mistake made enough of a difference.
The Tortaterrific result: 2-0 Blue Jackets and the first shutout victory in Columbus playoff history.
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“They did what they do best,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had to admit post-loss. “You can’t win when you don’t score.”
“That’s the way we have to play,” said Jackets forward Cam Atkinson. “A greasy, in-your-face defensive style.”
To that end, Tortorella’s first smart move was selecting the right starting goaltender.
In his first-ever post-season game after four seasons in the shadow of Sergei Bobrovsky, Joonas Korpisalo turned aside all 28 shots he faced. Most prominent was a 10-bell save on an Auston Matthews one-timer, a rare Leafs chance from the slot.
“The save on Matthews is probably one of the best of the night,” Blue Jackets defenceman Seth Jones said. “He’s done his time behind Bob for years now, and it’s finally his chance.”
Tortorella’s second wise choice was drilling discipline into his troops.
Well aware that Keefe’s Leafs want to feast on the man-advantage, Columbus has elected to win the special-teams battle by avoiding it altogether.
Tortorella took note of the frequency of whistles Saturday in the bubble (the Rangers and Hurricanes combined for a silly 42 penalty minutes in their first outing, for example) and reinforced the need to stay out of the box.
“There’s been a lot of penalties called in these games here. We’ve really put an emphasis on playing the right way — skating, keeping our sticks down and just checking the right way,” Tortorella said.
“It’s a dangerous power play we’re playing against. We can’t give them that many opportunities.”
In the two minutes the Leafs did have 5-on-4, they registered just one shot.
The primary focus of Maple Leafs’ camp was improving defensively, and that they did, particularly in the affair’s conservative first half. But on Sunday the steady defence came at the cost of what got them into the post-season to begin with.
The highest-priced forward corps in the bubble couldn’t weasel through the layers of frustration Columbus stacks up.
So, after a hemmed-in start, Keefe abandoned his fourth line almost immediately. (Deadline rental Kyle Clifford skated all of 3:21.) He ran out his most dangerous weapon, Matthews, more than Mike Babcock ever did in a regulation playoff game (24:38). And he flashed his All-Star Game line.
And yet? Nada.
It’s difficult to win a track meet when the other guy won’t even give you a second to tie your shoes.
“They play playoff hockey. This is playoff hockey,” Zach Hyman said. “Not much out there. It’s tight.”
“We’ll learn from this.”
Each member of the Leafs’ top-six forwards finished with a dash in the plus/minus column. Mitch Marner did not register a shot on net.
The new-look third unit, featuring teenage sniper Nick Robertson, was built to produce. Yet after Robertson’s Grade-A chance on his first shift, they went quiet.
“That would be by far the hardest game he’s ever played in, I imagine,” Keefe said.
Credit Tortorella’s game plan, and the Jackets’ commitment to it, for drawing first blood in what could well be the series with the thinnest margins for error.
Knotted at 0-0 heading into the third period is where Columbus is comfortable.
This season the Jackets had 12 wins when tied after two. They celebrated 20 one-goal wins. Both marks are the most in the NHL.
Just give them a window.
Ask Frederik Andersen, who was fantastic all night but made one third-period gaffe. The goalie guessed high on an Atkinson wrister from the right wing that zipped far-side over his pad and under his blocker.
“I closed my eyes,” Atkinson said. “I knew where I wanted to shoot. I wasn’t really expecting it to go in, but obviously one of those I’ll take.”
After Alexander Wennberg thumped the empty net, Keefe stood by Andersen.
“As far as I’m concerned, he did his job. He kept them to one goal. We have to find a way to get him some help.”
One day at training camp, we asked Keefe if he was ready for this chess match with Tortorella, and the former player assured he was.
Columbus has knocked over the first significant piece and taken a firm step towards planting its own identity all over this best-of-five.
“We can’t lose sight of who we are as a team,” Keefe had reminded in the lead-up. “We need to be really good offensively.”
Tuesday, Game 2, would be a fine time to start.
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