|Blue Jackets set for opener vs. speedy Leafs|
The Columbus Blue Jackets earned a reputation as giant-killers in the first round of last season's playoffs by knocking off the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in four straight games.
This time around, they will open their best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifying round series Sunday night in Toronto against a team that is known for early playoff exits, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs have lost in the first round of the playoffs for three straight years and have not won a playoff series since 2004.
In another twist, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe played 93 of his 125 NHL games for Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella while both were with the Lightning from 2000-03.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for (Keefe)," Tortorella, 62, said. "He's one of the most competitive players I've coached. I didn't coach him a lot of games. But when he played, he knew one way, and that was to play hard."
Keefe, 39, who replaced Mike Babcock as Maple Leafs' coach in November, was no longer with the Lightning when they won the Stanley Cup under Tortorella in 2004.
"I was there through the process of that team growing from one year to the next to the next, eventually to the point that it was too good for me," Keefe said. "Seeing how he put all that together to eventually build it to a champion is something that, frankly, has really been the foundation of my coaching."
Toronto won the season series with Columbus 1-0-1. Babcock coached the Maple Leafs in both games.
Both teams won an exhibition game this week -- Toronto over the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus over the Boston Bruins.
The teams play contrasting styles. The Blue Jackets play a grinding, defensive approach, emphasizing structure. The Maple Leafs favor offense with a free-wheeling style led by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
"It's a fast team we're playing," Tortorella said.
With that in mind, Tortorella will try to inject speed into his own lineup.
That means Eric Robinson is expected to play in Game 1, along with the 20-year-old Liam Foudy, who played well enough against the Bruins to earn a chance against Toronto.
"I want to give (Foudy) every opportunity to get in the starting lineup because of his speed," Tortorella said. "We're playing a very fast hockey club. We need to get as much speed in our lineup as we possibly can."
Oliver Bjorkstrand and Cam Atkinson also figure to provide speed. It also helps that defenseman Seth Jones has returned from ankle surgery performed in February.
The Blue Jackets are solid in goal with Joonas Korpisalo (19-12-5, 2.60 goals-against average in the regular season) and rookie Elvis Merzlikins (13-9-8, 2.35 GAA).
Maple Leafs starting goaltender Frederik Andersen (29-13-7, 2.85 GAA) is ably backed up by Jack Campbell (3-2-1, 2.63 GAA since joining Toronto).
Keefe has studied how the Blue Jackets handled the Lightning last year.
"I watched more than enough video, looking at the job they did last year," he said. "That's fresh in my mind. They had players no longer there (Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky), but the core of their team, the players who make up who they are and how they want to play, remain and their leadership is clearly there."
Toronto defenseman Jake Muzzin said he was eager to get started.
"We're a hungry group and there's obviously a lot of talk about taking the next step," Muzzin said.
--Field Level Media