After three-goal comebacks in the past two games, the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets head to Game 5 tonight to decide who gets to advance to the first round of the playoffs. What have the first four games shown us about what to expect and what each team needs to do to win?
Leafs Owning 5v5, but Not Turning it into Goals
Toronto has been the much stronger team so far this series at 5v5, yet have been drastically outscored in those situations. A sampling so far:
xG at 5v5 are 8.22-6.6 in favor of Toronto, but Columbus leads in actuals goals 8-3
Toronto has 61% of the 5v5 high-danger scoring chances in the series, but both teams have scored twice in those situations
Toronto has 55% of the 5v5 scoring chances overall, but have been outscored 5-3 from those chances
(Stats from Natural Stat Trick)
This should be a good sign for Toronto that they’ve owned most of the play; however, it could be worrying in a one-game scenario. Much of Toronto’s struggles to convert are due to strong play from Korpisalo – his return in Game 5 could be enough to steal the game.
Toronto Has Been Successful with the Man Advantage
Going into the series, I identified the Maple Leafs’ power play as one of the areas that stood out as an advantage between two relatively similar teams. That’s proven to be the case so far. Both teams have twelve opportunities on the power play so far this series, with Toronto providing the only two goals (including the game-winner in Game 4). They of course also added three goals at 6v5 in Game 4.
What Does Toronto Need to Do to Win?
Get Production from the Tavares Line
Tavares has two goals and an assist in the series, but for the most part his line has been outplayed. They are three out of only five Leafs that have an xG percentage below 50% for the series. If they can perform better than that in Game 5, it will make life extremely difficult for the Blue Jackets.
Andersen and the Defensemen Avoiding Mistakes
Frederik Andersen probably doesn't need to be good as Korpisalo will need to be for his team to win, but he'll need to at least avoid any weak goals. The goal in Game 1 stands out, but that area between the blocker and pad has been an issue during the series - there's been at least one more goal and several big rebounds from shots in that spot. I'd be targetting it if I were Columbus, and Andersen will need to be ready.
Meanwhile, the defensemen for Toronto need to make sure they don't make mistakes with the puck. Morgan Reilly's error in Game 4 was the most obvious, but it has been an issue throughout the series. A poor shot choice led to a blocked shot and a goal the other way in Game 3. With the offensive talent on Toronto, the defensemen just need to make sure they do enough to avoid a crucial error.
What Does Columbus Need to Do to Win?
Defensemen Smart About Jumping into the Play
The Blue Jackets have been burned multiple times in the series by defensemen being overly aggressive in trying to create offense. With Toronto’s strength of the rush, Columbus is putting a ton of pressure on their goaltender when they take unnecessary risks.
The Leafs' first goal in Game 2 is a good example of this. Werenski took a risk, and the puck ended up going the other way. Bjorkstrand was back to cover for Werenski, but read the play poorly and was a step late to cover Matthews.
Toronto's second goal (6:54 of the video above) was even more egregious. All five Columbus players got caught below the top of the circles, leading to a breakaway for Taveres. Mistakes in reading the plays like that can't happen in Game 5.
Get Offense from the D-Men
The extension from the first point, Columbus can’t afford to just have their defensemen stay back to avoid giving up chances. Columbus’ best offense has often come when Werenski and Jones in particular have been able to jump into the play.
The Blue Jackets’ first goal in Game 3 is a great example of this. Werenski jumping into the play starts the confusion in Toronto’s coverage in the zone. His initial rush doesn’t create the opportunity, but the havoc it causes leads to Dubois being left alone on the weak side.
With a lack of game-breaking talent up front, Columbus needs efforts like that to generate chances. The key is being smart about when to take those opportunities to avoid giving Toronto extra opportunities.
Clear out the Front of the Net to Give Korpisalo a Chance
There have been numerous opportunities throughout the series where Columbus has allowed Leafs' forwards to get goal-side for rebounds; it's largely been the play of Korpisalo early in the series that prevented that from being disastrous. I wouldn't want to gamble on the Leafs' offense being held in check if they get too many of those chances in Game 5.