For the high-octane Maple Leafs to lose Game 1 by a score of 1-0 had to have been torturous. In this Game 2, surely their plan was to get out the gate chasing that rabbit, and put plenty of goals on the board by exercising the skill that everyone knows they have, even if they have to give up a few to get there.
This game was not a story of that plan working.
Being shut out in Game 1 undoubtedly drove some decision-making by Sheldon Keefe, removing defensive stalwart Gauthier from the lineup and adding depth scorer Pierre Engvall, and putting the elite duo of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews togther at even strength.
Winning in the playoffs is not just about playing better, it’s about luck and strategy coming to a head. What the Leafs seem to have failed to learn is until tonight is, in the playoffs, you have to break the rules. Kyle Clifford, Stanley Cup Champion, knows this.
Kyle Clifford making his presence on the ice known early pic.twitter.com/KyTP86Xp4c
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) August 4, 2020
I don’t want to focus on the massive (and probably illegal) high hit to Dean Kukan, who thankfully was healthy enough to continue in the game after a quick trip to the quiet room. Instead, my eye was caught by Clifford, near the end of this clip, absolutely hauling down Ryan Murray with a clear holding penalty on the forecheck, which went uncalled. That knowledge of how to break the rules carefully is what veteran guys like Clifford and Muzzin bring to a team of young stars.
From there, the energy level was as dominant as you could hope for. They owned a bigger share of shots, powerplays, goaltending skill, and just general in-your-face energy; it seemed the Leafs executed their plan perfectly. One problem: the puck just wasn’t going in. At least, not as much as they’d hope. This heat map, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, shows just how intensely colourful that domination can be shown. It was an absolute black hole of shot attempts in the Columbus zone: everything was pulled there, but then would just disappear.
It wasn’t until a lonely few minutes remained in the second period when, FINALLY, Auston Matthews broke the seal:
This goal was followed up in the third period by a breakaway goal by John Tavares, as the Blue Jackets had to step out of their element and press for a goal, leaving all 5 skaters below the hashmarks when this puck popped out onto Tavares’ stick:
The game finished on an empty netter for Morgan Rielly for a dominant 3-0 win.
Most Valuable Leaf: Frederik Andersen
As the Leafs were pressing to score in the first half of the game, it was super-critical that Frederik Andersen was on his game as he backstopped the offensive dynamo. He stopped multiple breakaways for Columbus and kept their powerplay O-fer throughout the game, on top of the shutout.
Least Valuable Leaf: Pierre Engvall
Poor guy just drew into the game, so I’ll forgive him some of the weariness from this being his first competitive action. However, tonight, he lacked the ability to close in on the penalty kill that I was used to, and wasn’t on his game with puck handling either. His explosive speed could never get going, because he could never manage the puck for long enough. Keep in mind: he was the least valuable of a near-perfect night of hockey for Toronto, so being the worst of the best isn’t so bad.
Tweet of the Night: As much as I don’t want to be dumping on what seemed to be a catalyst for the Leafs, this is the tweet of the night:
alright, i’ll be a buzzkill: that Clifford hit was insanely illegal and we’d be livid if a Bruin did it to our guy, js
— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) August 4, 2020
On to bigger and better things, I hope.
Muzzin was stretchered off at the end of the game, which was scary to see overall, but it’s possible at least, probable at best, that the Leafs were exercising extreme caution without any evidence of broken bones in his spine. We’ll watch for updates and append them here. The game took an over-ten-minute pause to get Jake onto the stretcher, an ominous moment to end the night.
Otherwise, the Leafs will play again on Thursday at 8 pm for Game 3 of this 5-game series. This was a gold star performance that Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs will work to repeat next time out.