As the NHL’s Return to Play format draws closer, executives, media members, and hockey fans alike anxiously await the return of hockey. If everything goes according to plan, we are just under three weeks away from watching the best hockey players in the world do what they do best. 

In the event that the COVID-19 pandemic has distracted you from the return of professional sports, the NHL’s new format will feature 24 teams, opening the door for teams who were on the outside looking in when play was suspended back in March. The best-of-five qualifying round will give new life to teams who were battling for playoff positioning earlier in the year.

After a significant pause since the last NHL game, there are a plethora of questions surrounding how teams will rebound after such a long break. While the 70 game season gave us a decent sample size of how teams stack up against one another, even the modest hockey fan knows that playoff hockey is a completely different animal.

In order to prepare fans for playoff hockey, I preview one of the qualifying series between the eighth-seeded Toronto Maple Leafs and the ninth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Offence is Lopsided

On paper, this doesn’t seem like a fair matchup. Despite both teams finishing with 81 points apiece, Toronto’s offence is leaps and bounds ahead of the Jackets’ top producers, notching nearly 60 more goals than Columbus during the shortened season. With Auston Matthews finishing just behind Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak with 47 goals, Mitch Marner continuing his knack for distribution, and William Nylander enjoying an incredible bounce-back season, it’ll be hard for Columbus to keep up offensively.

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While Toronto’s offensive talent may be better statistically, Columbus has consistently been an underrated team for the last few seasons with many of their players capable of rising to new levels when the occasion calls for it. Especially with the return of all-star Cam Atkinson, the consistent two-way ability of Pierre-Luc Dubois, complemented with a breakout offensive talent in Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Jackets are more than capable of holding their own when it comes to filling the net.

Ultimately, this series will come down to which offensive unit catches fire. If the Leafs continue their torrid offensive pace, they will make quick work of Columbus. However, if the Jackets get adequate goaltending and their defence lives up to expectation, they have a chance of pulling off an upset for the second consecutive season.

A Blueline with Big Expectations

A big part of last year’s sweep of the Lightning was the Jackets’ blueline. Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and David Savard all played crucial roles in supporting the offensive core and shutting down Tampa Bay’s top players. They will have to do the same against Toronto as you can expect Toronto’s top-six to see a healthy dose of Columbus’ top pairing.

With Seth Jones returning from injury, the Jackets will rely heavily on their top defensemen to log big minutes against a deep and offensive-minded Toronto team. With depth pieces of their own in Vladislav Gavrikov and Ryan Murray, the Jacket’s defensive core will be called upon once again to neutralize Toronto’s top talent.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images North America

On the flip side, the Leafs have endured another shaky year defensively. With Morgan Reilly poised to return, which will undoubtedly be a huge boost on the backend, Toronto still has questions to answer. Will Tyson Barrie rebound after a shaky season? Will Rasmus Sandin’s inexperience impact the Leafs core? It’s unlikely we’ll find the answer before the start of the qualifying round.

A Tale of Two Tandems

The goaltending matchup in this series is an intriguing one. Starting with Toronto, Frederik Andersen showed signs of regression throughout the season, but improved gradually as the season went on, finishing the year with an impressive 29-13-7 record. The addition of Jack Campbell, who seems like a good fit in Toronto, is a huge upgrade over Michael Hutchinson.

Clause Andersen/Getty Images North America

While Sheldon Keefe has two capable netminders to choose from, Andersen is the obvious choice when it comes to skill and experience. However, his leash isn’t as long as it once was and Campbell could see some playing time if things start spiralling for Toronto.

John Tortorella, on the other hand, has a much harder decision to make. After the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky, both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have shown signs of growth and development; more or less splitting time between the pipes with 37 and 33 games played respectively.

Jay LaPrete/The Associated Press

In a shortened series, the pros of a tandem are greatly diminished, which would force Tortorella to pick one. Based solely on experience and games played, Korpisalo would have the edge, but on performance, many would argue that Merzlikins has been the better of the two over the course of the season.

My Prediction

This was a tough prediction to make, mainly because of Columbus’ unpredictability. After last year’s miraculous sweep of Tampa Bay, it would be foolish and ignorant to automatically dismiss the Jacket’s chances solely based on their offensive structure.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

With that being said, I’m sticking with the favourites here mainly because Columbus’ offensive talent doesn’t come close to that of Toronto’s. While I do think that the Jacket’s defensive core will be able to steal a couple games, at the end of the day, there are some serious questions on where Columbus’ scoring will come from and I believe that Toronto’s offensive ability will be too much to handle.

Toronto in 5.

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