But when Toronto is even aiming for the best-of-five in Tuesday’s Game 2, Marner has a plan in place to earn some redemption.
“Absolutely [didn’t have] enough shots on the net, didn’t produce enough offensively, ”Marner evaluated his performance to reporters during a Zoom call from the NHL East Conference Center to the Royal York Hotel on Monday. “The goal tomorrow night is just to have more confidence with the puck, not to try to throw stuff, to skate more with it in my hands and to try to make more plays with the puck, and just trust it. But at the same time, be responsible and smart with it.
Marner was the only one of Toronto’s top nine forwards to not put a puck on the Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo in the Leafs’ 2-0 loss, and that was when his line with John Tavares and Ilya Mikheyev produced the most possession in the game in Toronto at 62 percent.
The problem was the suffocating defense of Columbus and the work of David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov. The Blue Jackets were the third best defense in the NHL this season, against the third best offense in the league in the Leafs.
But this defensive tandem has done a solid job of knocking out areas of the ice that Marner and Tavares can usually capitalize on, and has repeatedly deprived them of gaining momentum in the offensive end.
“I think they did a good job in their zone, keeping five tight,” said Marner. “Few shots were successful and when they did, chances for a second [chance] weren’t really there. We are trying to find ways out. We talked about those second opportunities today, and it’s something that we have to improve in and that we have to improve in this series if we are to continue.
Tavares also struggled to find his balance on Sunday, finishing with three shots on goal and mirroring Marner’s minus two rating. While Auston Matthews‘unit with William Nylander and Zach Hyman saw more Columbus defense pairs in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, Savard and Gavrikov also managed the Tavares group.
“They’re going in and blocking a lot of shots,” Tavares said. “They do a really good job protecting the front of the net and the middle of the ice and the high risk scoring areas. Now it’s about doing our best to break them down, get them out of the net, get them to defend and play their own side consistently. I would like to think that for 60 minutes you can exhaust them.
It was the Leafs who had the wind in their sails in Sunday’s third period, when a 0-0 stalemate was broken early in the third period by Cam Atkinsons wrister battant Frederik Andersenblocker.
Marner and Tavares have made a similar play in a rush many times that would cheat Korpisalo, but Columbus’ reputation as a defensive mainstay only proved too true in Game 1. season to defend against the rush, something that Tavares’ group will particularly need to find their way around.
“This team is going to make it difficult for us offensively, especially in the race, a place where Mitch and John are very successful,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “For that reason we have to find different ways to score and that’s an adjustment. Scoring is what we really need. We just need these guys to play at their best, especially after a loss. We believe that everyone in our team has another level to reach and we will need it tomorrow.
Although Tavares had spoken often since entering the NHL “bubble” of the importance for Toronto of being comfortable in these unprecedented conditions, it was the Blue Jackets who felt a little too cushy about the game. Sunday ice cream. And that’s something the Leafs can try to counter.
“They play their team identity, their structure very well. They are very comfortable in these types of [one-goal] games, ”Tavares said. “They play really well as a five-man unit and play five indoors, they have a comfort level there. I think we have to adjust and adapt to the way we want to play and the skills that we have and starting with myself I have to do a better job of finding ways to break them down and create the opportunities that we need.
Everything is easier said than done, of course. The reality for Toronto now is that they have to win three of those next four games to advance to the NHL Round of 16. But if Monday’s practice was any indication for Keefe, his team are up to the challenge.
“That’s what their system is designed to do, is frustrate you,” he said of Columbus. “We talked about it a lot. But the good news is that just talking to our guys and the kind of training we’ve had, our guys aren’t getting frustrated. Our guys are hungry to come back and recognize where we can improve and know that we have more to give so that we are ready to play tomorrow.