TORONTO — The Maple Leafs sat two minutes from a resounding, feel-good victory.
They had finally solved Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo and were on the way to evening the teams’ qualifying round series at one game apiece.
Then while killing a penalty late in Tuesday’s third period, defenceman Jake Muzzin took a crosscheck from Pierre-Luc Dubois before stumbling and jamming his head/neck into the leg of Blue Jackets winger Oliver Bjorkstrand.
When the bruising blue-liner tried to get up, he couldn’t. A stretcher was eventually wheeled onto the ice inside a fan-less, deathly quiet Scotiabank Arena as players looked on from both benches during a delay that lasted nearly 15 minutes.
The Leafs would seal a 3-0 victory over Columbus, but their thoughts were elsewhere at the final buzzer.
“What he brings to our team is immeasurable,” Toronto captain John Tavares, who scored the game’s second goal, said of Muzzin. ”Certainly tough to see, especially just how much we love that guy.”
The Leafs tweeted the 31-year-old was transported to hospital, adding he was alert and able to move his limbs.
“We’re all praying for him,” Toronto winger Mitch Marner said. ”There’s a lot bigger things than hockey.”
As for the game, Auston Matthews opened the scoring for the Leafs, finding a crack in Korpisalo on Toronto’s 56th shot of the series after the 26-year-old netminder making his post-season debut recorded a 2-0 shutout in Sunday’s opener.
Frederik Andersen made 20 saves to record his first post-season shutout with Toronto, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference as part of the NHL’s 24-team restart to its pandemic-delayed campaign. Morgan Rielly added an empty netter with 42.6 seconds left as the Leafs dominated from start to finish.
“We forechecked really hard,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. ”Our guys brought it to another level from a competitive standpoint.”
Korpisalo, who made 28 saves in Game 1, stopped 36 shots for No. 9 Columbus, which will look to rebound in Thursday’s Game 3.
“Toronto played a really good game,” said always-fiery Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella. ”We sucked.”
With the Leafs coming in waves, Matthews deftly redirected a Zach Hyman pass off the rush beyond Korpisalo’s blocker on Toronto’s 28th shot with exactly four minutes left in the second — a goal that would have blown the roof off the building in a normal post-season encounter.
Instead, the players on the ice and bench made all the noise inside their home rink, which is playing host to the East teams as part of the Toronto hub because of COVID-19. The goal sequence was one of the few where Blue Jackets defenceman Seth Jones wasn’t out against Matthews, and the Leafs’ star centre made them pay.
“It’s tight out there and goals are hard to come by,” Matthew said. ”It was nice to get that one.”
Before that breakthrough, however, it looked like Toronto might never solve Korpisalo, who was lights out behind a stingy defensive structure that worked to perfection against the high-flying Leafs less than 48 hours earlier.
“Those thoughts can creep in,” Tavares said. ”But when we’re playing like that, we have so much belief in each other, and with the type of team we have, that eventually it’s going to pay off.”
After outshooting the Blue Jackets 15-6 in the first Tuesday, Toronto continued to press in the second. William Nylander couldn’t tuck his effort home at the side of the net on a power play with Korpisalo down-and-out before Tavares had two chances right in front, and another from the slot.
Leafs defenceman Justin Holl had a golden opportunity pinching down, but Korpisalo was there again as Columbus barely touched the puck in the middle period.
Andersen was solid in making 33 saves in Game 1, but disappointed by the one he missed — an innocent shot off the rush from Cam Atkinson that proved to be the difference before a late empty-netter.
The Toronto netminder didn’t have much to do Tuesday, but had to be sharp with the teams playing 4-on-4 after Matthews finally solved Korpisalo. Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski had a chance off the rush and Atkinson was there on the follow.
“What happens in their end is useless to think about,” said Andersen, who had two post-season shutouts when he was a member of the Anaheim Ducks. ”I just focus on what I can do.”
Columbus, which stunned the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a first-round sweep last spring before losing stars Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency, tried to get going early in the third. But with Werenski caught down low in the offensive zone, Tavares, who had a rough Game 1, was sprung free on a break and beat Korpisalo under the blocker at 4:56.
Korpisalo kept his team within striking distance by stopping Matthews on a 2-on-1 break midway through the period, but Toronto coasted from there, save for Muzzin’s scary injury, to even the series 1-1.
The Leafs were once again the “home” team inside a frigid Scotiabank Arena on a muggy August afternoon, but with a 4 p.m. ET start — the second of three games at the venue Tuesday — they set up shop in the reconfigured media centre and not their usual locker room. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, were in the Toronto Raptors’ digs down the hall.
Keefe tweaked his top-6 forward group, with Marner joining Matthews and Hyman, while Nylander moved to the wing on the second line with Tavares and Ilya Mikheyev.
Toronto started on its toes, with bruising winger Kyle Clifford steamrolling Dean Kukan early in the first — a hit that would have had the home crowd frothing at the mouth in normal times.
“We came out with a strong push,” Matthews said. “Just a full effort throughout the lineup.”
The Leafs will be looking for more of the same — likely without Muzzin — on Thursday night.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2020
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press