TORONTO – Let us first state the obvious here: there is nothing more important than Jake Muzzin’s health, which is why it’s tremendous news the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman was able to return to the team hotel from hospital after being stretchered off the ice Tuesday.
That tells us his condition is not as critical as it looked during the scary quiet 10 minutes it took to get him safely loaded on the stretcher late in a Game 2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
However, if Muzzin is to play again this season, the Leafs must now win two of the next three games without him in order to advance beyond their qualifying-round series.
And so the task gets tougher.
The team didn’t provide any specifics on the nature of Muzzin’s injury, but announced Wednesday that he would be unavailable for the balance of the best-of-five with Columbus. The defenceman fell awkwardly after being cross-checked in the back by Pierre-Luc Dubois and crashing head-first into Oliver Bjorkstrand.
He had to be taken from the NHL’s secure zone to be examined at hospital and was discharged overnight, returning to the Royal York to observe quarantine in his hotel room while recovering.
Muzzin is a central figure in what the Leafs are and hope to be. The 31-year-old handles difficult minutes on the shutdown pairing with Justin Holl, kills penalties and serves as an off-ice conscience of the group.
Sheldon Keefe urged him to take on an even greater presence in the dressing room after signing a $22.5-million, four-year contract extension in February – noting that it removed any question about his standing within the organization.
The next day, Muzzin spoke candidly with reporters about what was holding the Leafs back from becoming the kind of Stanley Cup contender they hoped to be.
“The core of the team needs to take a jump consistently,” he said before a Feb. 25 game in Tampa. “We can’t have it one night and not the next. That’s everyone and that’s bringing along the younger core as well. We have to give them no option but to come with us.”
The way the Leafs played in Tuesday’s 3-0 victory over the Jackets suggests they’ve grown in the intervening months. It was arguably their most complete performance of the season, with a decided edge in even-strength shot attempts (61 per cent), expected goals (67.3 per cent) and high-danger scoring chances (75 per cent).
Most importantly, they limited the Blue Jackets to just 20 shots against.
Replicating that effort in Thursday’s Game 3 will be difficult without Muzzin, who will likely be replaced in the lineup by veteran utilityman Martin Marincin. He hasn’t appeared in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 2017 series against Washington, when he was on the ice for both goals against in a 2-1 loss in Game 6.
Marincin spent most of the next season in the American Hockey League – winning a Calder Cup with Keefe and several of his current Leafs teammates – and has remained in the organization as a depth option on a series of league-minimum one-year contracts.
What he does especially well is suppress shots on the penalty kill, which will be useful if there are as many specialty teams situations as we saw in Game 2. It’s unlikely the Slovak would be trusted with Muzzin’s minutes at 5-on-5.
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An intriguing option for those is Travis Dermott, who stepped in alongside Holl when Muzzin suffered a broken hand earlier this season. That proved to be one of the stronger stretches of the season for him.
We’ll get a better idea about Keefe’s plans when the Leafs practice later Wednesday afternoon.
There isn’t much time to make contingency plans with Games 3 and 4 scheduled back-to-back on Thursday and Friday, followed by a potential series-deciding Game 5 on Sunday.
Perhaps this will serve as a rallying point for the Leafs. Muzzin is an incredibly popular teammate, the kind of guy who leads even without having a letter sewn on his sweater.
There had to be some relief among the players in finding out that his injury wasn’t season-ending, especially after the shock of seeing him stretchered off. Now they have to win enough games in order to buy Muzzin the time needed to get back in the lineup.