The National Hockey League’s Return to Play format is official, and assuming all goes to plan, we are about six weeks away from watching hockey once again.
The new format – in the event you live under a rock – will feature 24 teams in total, and will open up with a 16-team qualifying round. The opening best-of-five series offers new life to eight teams that were below the original playoff cutline, and should create waves of excitement for eager sports fans.
With such a significant layoff, there will be ample questions about preparedness for every team. But the good news is with 70 or so regular-season games logged, we do have a rather strong understanding of each team’s strengths and weaknesses.
To shake off the rust here, I will preview each qualifying round series over the next few weeks. Today we will start in the Eastern Conference, with the eight seed Toronto Maple Leafs taking on the nine seed Columbus Blue Jackets.
Regular Season Performance
One of the things that I think makes a Toronto-Columbus matchup so intriguing is that the teams are polar opposites.
The Maple Leafs are a high-flying offensive team with loads of superstar talent up front, and carried one of the league’s more prolific offences through the regular season. Toronto’s 3.4 goals per game was actually third in the league, trailing only Tampa Bay (3.5) and Washington (3.4). Despite the wondrous offensive production, Toronto is still just an eighth seed – in large part because only five teams gave up more goals per game (3.2). Elite offensive team, shaky defensive team
The Blue Jackets live on the other end of the spectrum. Their 2.6 goals against per game was fourth best in the league – a surprisingly strong performance considering the exodus of talent from Columbus last summer. In many ways, it’s a classic John Tortorella team: incredibly disciplined in the defensive zone, with five-man units that show very capable in pushing opposing forwards well into the perimeter.