TORONTO — Ryan Callahan is willing to offer a prediction.
After battling through six playoff series as a heart-and-soul winger on John Tortorella’s teams and two others as an opponent who faced them, he’s got a pretty good feel for how the master motivator is likely messaging the Columbus Blue Jackets during this qualifying round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Our last year’s team (in Tampa) and Toronto are so similar that you can almost use that same strategy going in,” Callahan said over the phone Monday. “I guarantee he brought that up to the guys.”
As much as Callahan loved playing for Tortorella on Broadway, he hated seeing what the coach cooked up for Columbus in helping them sweep his Lightning out of the first round in the spring of 2019.
The Blue Jackets choked off Tampa’s talented attack by preventing them from gaining the offensive zone with speed and then closed off seam passes into the middle of the ice whenever they crossed the blue line. It led to more dump-ins and forced plays than star players would prefer to make and levelled the skill disparity between the teams.
Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe referred to it as a system designed to frustrate you in the wake of Toronto’s 2-0 series-opening loss Sunday, and from Callahan’s experience, the frustration only grows for opponents the more a Tortorella-coached team buys in.
That’s what he found so significant about the way Game 1 played out at Scotiabank Arena. The Blue Jackets may have needed a strong performance from goaltender Joonas Korpisalo to keep Toronto off the scoreboard, but they barely gave up a shot — let alone a scoring chance — in the final 10 minutes.
“What it does for that Columbus team, what I feel it did for them when they beat us in Game 1 last year, it just gives them that sense of belief that the way they’re playing and the system they’re using and their tactics against Toronto are working,” said Callahan.
“You give a team like that confidence and belief, they can run with it.
“I really think they’re playing that underdog mentality as they did last year against us and you could see as the series went on last year against us, just their confidence built and they just played their system even better as the series went on.”
The most important task for the Leafs in Tuesday afternoon’s Game 2 is to introduce some doubt.
They can do that by grabbing a lead — something the Lightning failed to do beyond the series opener a year ago — and by taking their compete level up another notch. A system designed to frustrate isn’t as effective if you battle through the roadblocks and keep from getting discouraged.
“It’s a lot tougher to play a team like that either tied or with the lead,” said Callahan. “You jump up on ‘em and all of a sudden they’ve got to start creating some offence, creating chances, taking chances and I don’t think that’s in their comfort zone.”
The Leafs spent Monday looking for ways to make better use of their time in the offensive zone. They had more than a third of their even-strength shot attempts blocked in Game 1, which is to be expected against a determined opponent that’s willing to let you play there while it works to take away the most dangerous areas of the ice.
Mitch Marner spoke of wanting to show more confidence with the puck. He’s one of Toronto’s most creative and dangerous carriers, but dumped it in five times on his eight zone entries — nearly twice the rate of his regular-season average, according to Sportlogiq.
It’s a symptom of the way Columbus forces its opponents out of their comfort zone. Toronto averaged 6.7 rush-scoring chances per game during the regular season and only generated four on Sunday night.
In Callahan’s eyes, that’s where things unravelled for the Lightning in their series with the Blue Jackets. Once the preferred route of inflicting damage was removed, they didn’t find other ways to break through.
“It’s a possession game that these skilled players like to play, and with a high-speed team you like to enter the blue line with the puck and to make plays,” said Callahan. “They did such a good job at shutting down the blue line that it forced us into making plays that weren’t there and then on the flip side of it, we weren’t a team that was used to dumping a puck in and forechecking and going to get it.
“So it was a little bit out of our element to have to do that and it fed right into them and what they wanted to do.”
Callahan called the Leafs a “mirror” of the Lightning, if only a few years behind in their development curve. He believes a skill-based roster is capable of getting the job done against heavier, more risk-averse challengers at playoff time if it’s willing to play with some edge of its own.
Of course, edge isn’t optional when you play for Tortorella.
“He holds guys accountable, which I loved playing for him,” said Callahan. “You can see it. You can see it in the Columbus team, right? They play as a team and they play as one.
“It’s just an extension of Torts.”
Still, after seeing his 13-year NHL career end with a series that has eerily similar dynamics to this one, Callahan is willing to offer a surprising prediction about how Leafs-Jackets will turn out.
“Going into the series I picked Toronto and I haven’t wavered on that,” he said. “But it’s not going to be as easy as I think some people thought.
“Columbus is a good hockey team.”