After stunning win, Jackets aim to close out Leafs

NHL

It wouldn’t rank as an upset along the lines of last spring’s Stanley Cup playoff opening-round victory over the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Columbus Blue Jackets want it just as much.

After the Blue Jackets shockingly defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime on Thursday — erasing a three-goal deficit en route to the victory in Toronto — Columbus has an opportunity to eliminate Toronto on Friday night.

The Blue Jackets lead the best-of-five Eastern Conference qualifying series 2-1 and will go for the kill in the hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup tournament.

This year’s edition of the Blue Jackets is considerably different from the team that dispatched the regular-season champion Lightning in the 2019 playoffs, but it has a blend of experience to go with youthful exuberance.

“I’m not sure what’s best, total experience in playoff hockey or just youth and dumbness,” Columbus coach John Tortorella quipped.

That youth was on full display in Thursday’s victory. Pierre-Luc Dubois — who was in Tortorella’s crosshairs during a tongue-lashing in the second game of the series — netted a hat trick, including the overtime winner. The 22-year-old chosen third overall in the 2016 draft is the first Blue Jackets player in franchise history to post a playoff hat trick.

Columbus also benefited from brilliant work by backup goalie Elvis Merzlikins, who stepped into the net when starter Joonas Korpisalo was hooked after surrendering three goals on 15 shots. Merzlikins stopped all 21 shots he faced.

The Maple Leafs, who actually finished the truncated regular season with the same point total as the Blue Jackets but recorded more victories and more regulation/overtime wins and therefore received the higher seed, will have a tall order to regroup from the disappointing loss.

Toronto had a 3-0 lead at the midway point of regulation and still held a two-goal edge going into the third period before completely collapsing. Then again, they weren’t full measure for the lead, and knew it.

“I didn’t like our game at 1-0, 2-0, 3-0. We got what we deserved,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We didn’t have any purpose or plan to our game.”

Then again, the quick turnaround could help the Toronto charges focus on the task at hand.

“Just erase it. We’ve been bouncing back all year,” Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner said of the plan of attack. “When things don’t go our way, we’ve always showed up the next day and played our hearts out. It’s a quick turnaround, they’ll want to finish us out. We have to make sure we’re playing smart, playing from above.”

To Toronto’s advantage going forward, the Maple Leafs do have plenty of veteran experience, even if they have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs each of the last three seasons and haven’t won a playoff series since 2004.

“A lot of belief in our group,” captain John Tavares said. “We just have to do the best we can, regroup and recover.”

–Field Level Media

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