TORONTO — It was one small error by Frederik Andersen. But in the end, that’s all it took.
The Maple Leafs’ goaltender had stonewalled the Columbus Blue Jackets for more than two periods in Game 1 of their NHL playoff qualifying-round series on Sunday, matching Joonas Korpisalo at the other end save for save. That was right up until Cam Atkinson’s quick wrister early in the third period sailed past Andersen’s blocker, a harmless-looking shot that would be Columbus’ game-winner in a 2-0 Leafs’ loss.
The Blue Jackets, who added an empty-netter late, took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
“I saw him coming on the wing. His initial release looked to be a little bit higher and I reacted up and I made a little mistake,” said Andersen of Atkinson’s tally. “That cost us a goal and eventually the game. It’s unfortunate.”
It was the single blemish on an otherwise sterling 34-save effort by Andersen, who was still bested by Korpisalo’s 28-stop shutout for Columbus. Toronto’s bigger problem throughout the game was an inability to back up what Andersen was offering with some of its vaunted offence.
Despite the Leafs having weeks to get ready for the suffocating forecheck and physical play that Columbus brings, when it came down to it, Toronto just couldn’t find its way. There were some stretches of sustained pressure in the offensive end, but the Blue Jackets did well keeping the Leafs off-kilter in the neutral zone and forcing them into turnovers.
“[The Blue Jackets] did what they do best and what we were prepared for,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We knew it was going to be difficult. Now we're out on the ice and you feel it. We didn't get one to fall for us here today. I thought we did have some chances to get more than what we got on the scoreboard but it didn't fall in for us, it fell in for them and that's the difference.”
Keefe gave his top forwards every opportunity to break through, playing Auston Matthews a team-high 24:38. On a line with William Nylander and Zach Hyman, Matthews had many of the Leafs’ best chances, including one off the crossbar behind Korpisalo, but the Blue Jackets’ Seth Jones and Zach Werenski stymied Matthews with their patented tight-checking defence.
“I don't think they did anything to surprise us,” Matthews said. “I think they really play a pretty straightforward game and you know what you can expect every night. They're going to compete, they're going to play physical. I thought we did some good things, and there's some things we can clean up. But obviously we have to create some offence, get guys inside and capitalize on some opportunities.”
On a night where there were few special teams opportunities - Columbus was 0-for-2 on the power play, Toronto was 0-for-1 - the outcome boiled down to 5-on-5 success. And Keefe felt the Leafs were set up well for that with a strong push from the Matthews line to open the third period.
But Columbus excels in tight games, boasting a league-high 20 wins in one-goal games during the regular season, and when Atkinson scored, the ice decidedly titled away from Toronto.
“I thought we played a good enough game to win today,” Keefe said. “I thought we were going to be rolling pretty good and then all of a sudden, you're down and it changes the nature of the game from there. But obviously, we got to find a way to score. You can't win when you don't score. We're going to have to regroup here, push back and get one go our way.”
To do that, the Leafs will need a lot more from their other top-six forwards, including John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Their line with Ilya Mikheyev finished at minus-two on the night, and five shots total - three for Mikheyev, two for Tavares and zero for Marner.
“We need to get a little bit more from them,” Keefe acknowledged. “But we need more from everybody. We didn't get anything from anyone today. We only generated one power play. But we expected it to be hard, we expected it to be uncomfortable. I thought this one today could have gone either way.”
For 18-year-old Nick Robertson, Sunday marked his NHL debut, and even in a losing effort the rookie found a way to have an impact early. Robertson generated the Leafs’ first real chance on net in the first period, calling for a pass from linemate Kasperi Kapanen below the goal line while perched on Korpisalo’s doorstep, but the netminder managed to turn him aside.
“I thought Robbie had some good moments in the game,” Keefe said. “He had a great look early in the hockey game, just got the toe of the goaltender there. That was a big moment that could have put us in a real good spot but it was good to see him get into that position to be available to get the shot. That would be by far the hardest game he's ever played in, and he's going to have to continue to find his way through that.”
The same could - and will - be said for the rest of the Leafs, who have until Tuesday’s Game 2 to solve the smothering Blue Jackets.
“It's what we expected,” said Hyman. “It's good for us to be playing in these tight games. We want to be on the right side of it. We'll learn from this, we're going to capitalize on our chances and come back strong.”