Playoff Notebook – May 3

Playoff Notebook – May 3

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Well, that was a rude awakening wasn’t it? Here we were all were excited and pumped up about playoff hockey… Only to come crashing back to Earth watching the Leafs play like that.

After the jump, I’ll discuss the main narratives circulating right now and offer my two cents. From there I proceeded to re-watch the game – unfortunately — and have written out some additional notes. I’ll wrap up with the biggest questions going into Game 2.

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Narratives:

Leafs are inexperienced and not ready for playoff hockey.

The Leafs were turning the puck over with regularity up the middle the ice on Wednesday night. On top of that, when they did have the puck and tried skating with it, they often were stood up at the blue line and fed into Boston’s counterattack. Other than Grabovski and JVR, no other Leafs player really showed a willingness to battle, sacrifice his body, and go to the dirty areas. If that’s not enough, even after going down multiple goals, the Leafs appeared flustered more than anything and never really mounted any sort of pressure or pushback at any point once Boston went ahead. That’s not playoff hockey.

Considering this was the Leafs first playoff game and that this team doesn’t have much experience in the playoffs, this wasn’t too hard to see coming. When you also factor in that it was on the road in a building that’s given them the most trouble for years now, I think it’s a little premature to write the Leafs off. They should be better prepared going into game 2 now and have a better idea of what to expect of playoff hockey; all you can do at this point is consider the first game a learning experience and move on. Further to that, the Leafs haven’t even played at home yet and while home ice advantage doesn’t always mean an advantage, it could be in this market more than others.

Boston is simply way better.

The Bruins outshot the Leafs by a wide margin and the 4-1 score probably flattered the Leafs. Chara has dominated Kessel for years and one team always has a big advantage if it can completely negate the other team’s best player. Moreover, the Bruins have an extremely deep line-up and at no position can you really give the Leafs a clear advantage over Boston. Add in that the Bruins are not only more skilled, but more physically devastating, and it’s just all around frustrating that the Leafs drew this match up. As many have been saying for quite some time now, the Bruins accentuate the Leafs weaknesses.

I’m not going to try and convince anyone that the Leafs are truly a better team than the Bruins because ultimately I think Boston is just plain better right now. That said, I’m not going to cede that Boston is substantially better based on that game since the Leafs played terrible save for two players and the Bruins played well collectively. If the Leafs play reasonably well and Boston still runs them over, then there’s probably no debate, but after that game? I’m willing to wait and see how they respond. This wouldn’t be the first time the Leafs have come up lame, fans and the media have freaked out, and the Leafs responded by playing well. Let’s see if Kadri, Lupul, Phaneuf, etc. can play well against Boston and what happens first before anointing Boston unbeatable.

Carlyle is a bad coach.

Carlyle has taken a lot of heat online – and I point that out because in person people seem much more complimentary of Carlyle, maybe that’s just in my life — for his line up decisions and player usages. Dressing both Orr and McLaren in particular has drawn the wrath of fans, not to mention Grabovski’s role all year long. Oh yeah, there’s also that whole Jake Gardiner debacle. Mike Kostka really struggled in game one, Fraser played the most of any Leaf and players like Frattin, Gardiner, Colborne and Hamilton watched the whole thing unfold in suits.

A lot of people surprisingly complained about the top nine lines, but was it really that unreasonable to put Grabovski back with Kulemin so he could play his veteran center more in the playoffs? Kadri has had success with MacArthur before, was given the easiest matchups one could ask for against Boston and did nothing. Meanwhile, Grabovski was what, one of the Leafs two best players? I won’t justify playing two goons because there is no justification for that. Had they really gooned it up when the Leafs were down 4-1 and started crushing Bruins I could have stomached it, but they truly contributed nothing. Carlyle said changes are coming though so we’ll see what he does. All is not lost after one game and if the Leafs learned their lesson and come out of this for the best, with a stronger group being iced, we might all view game one as a blessing in disguise. We’ll need to see it to believe it first obviously.

Series isn’t over until you lose a home game.

The old cliché is pretty self-explanatory – no series is really over until you lose at home. I’m not going to reference playoff series in which the road team has lost the first two games because I think everyone here is smart enough to understand this saying.

I like to hope that the Leafs will get serious emotional and adrenaline boosts when coming back to Toronto, but it’s going to be easier to win in Boston in game 2 than it will be in a game 5 or 7. Knowing that, this team needs to play much more desperate hockey and this cliché is really more of a hope for teams hanging on for dear life more. Considering how the Leafs played in game 1, I’m looking for them to simply play some solid hockey and take that back to Toronto even if they are down 2-0 in the series.

Leafs simply played terrible.

The Leafs seemed to think the game tape wasn’t as bad they initially thought it would be. There were a lot of senseless turnovers, most of their play was sloppy and almost everyone on the team had a bad game. Perhaps in that sense then, the Bruins weren’t that good Wednesday, it was the Leafs playing that bad.

I agree that the Leafs were really bad, but I’d be careful in saying they made the Bruins look better than they are due to their own poor play. As stated above, that 4-1 score was a kind scoreline from the Leaf perspective. Boston had a disallowed goal, and missed a 2 on 0 and a host of other quality opportunities. The Bruins put things in cruise control in the third period, other than taking one or two runs at Leafs players. Boston is a great team that plays into the Leafs weaknesses very well, and the Leafs will need pretty well their entire roster to play better than they did to even make this a series, let alone win it.

It’s only one game.

Ultimately, it is only one game. Whether the Leafs lost 1-0 and played great, or 10-0 and played awful, it still counts the same. What matters now is how they respond, and to their credit this team has responded to challenges well all year with numerous rebound games.

It is only one game and it’s probably a lesson that the Leafs got embarrassed like that to start the series, but considering the Bruins were coming into the series playing some poor hockey, it would have been nice for the Leafs to keep the seeds of down planted in their brains. The last thing the Leafs need is for Boston to find their confidence and swagger back, but the Bruins looked well on their way to getting it again as they ran over the Leafs in every part of the game Monday. The Leafs might have some saving grace coming up in the form of the Ference suspension, Boston getting a little cocky thinking this is the same old Toronto team again, and the Leafs playing with some piss and vinegar on Saturday. This can only be one game that doesn’t signify what kind of series this will be whatsoever, or it can foreshadow the rest of the series. It’s in the Leafs hands now.

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Notes

- Before the series began, Peter Chiarelli noted that the Leafs have a faster line up. I don’t usually put a lot of stock into the complimentary comments from other coaches, but the Bruins came out in the first period and played as if they respected the Leafs speed quite a bit. The entire neutral zone was clogged and they trapped more than they willingly engaged. I don’t think the Leafs were prepared for a trap at all because the players looked like they were instructed to flip the puck up and out at all times, and that’s exactly what they did… right to Boston players. Basically what I’m saying is that instead of the Bruins forcing the Leafs to make mistakes at the beginning of the game, they simply waited for the Leafs to make mistakes in their neutral zone trap. The Leafs players panicked, and plays such as Phaneuf’s flick up the middle of the ice, Bozak’s flick up the middle of the ice and a Fraser cross ice pass attempt through the neutral zone stand out as glaring giveaways.

- The Leafs biggest issue here was that they didn’t have anyone who could skate the puck up ice and break that trap. Even a good puck mover like Franson got baffled and threw up some giveaways along the boards because nobody was moving. The worst thing a trap can do is get all your forwards standing still in the neutral waiting for a pass. In the NHL, you can’t be receiving passes standing still because it will never work unless you’re on the power play. How, for example, is Kessel going to do anything against Boston when he’s standing still in the neutral zone and Zdeno Chara is a stick length away? Even if that pass happens to find him and lands on his tape, there’s just no way he could beat Chara with no momentum or speed in his favour.

- So there are a few adjustments that the Leafs can make here. The first is obviously playing Gardiner. I truly believe the Leafs dressed Kostka because they expected a heavy forecheck and I think Kostka makes a decent enough pass and can withstand the cycle better than Gardiner can. But he had a very bad game and wasn’t able to do anything with the puck so now you have to look at Gardiner and the things he can do with the puck on his stick and recognize how extremely valuable that is to the team. Gardiner can single handily break a trap.

- But one defenseman can’t do it all, nor should he be expected to. The Leafs best puck carriers are Kadri, Kessel, Lupul and Grabovski, but none of those guys took the initiative and grabbed the puck themselves to skate with it. If Boston is going to hang back and trap like they did to start the game, then the forwards just mentioned need to swing down low, collect the puck and lug it up ice themselves. That doesn’t mean they need to get the puck and go end-to-end because the chances of that happening are slim to none. But what it does mean is a guy like Kadri can skate to the center ice line with speed, dump it down deep past the Bruins defenders who are holding the blue line strong, and keep his momentum going to either get to the puck first down low, or hammer someone, battle for the puck, slow down the Bruins D and wait for help to arrive.

- There are a lot of different ways to combat a trap and those are two of them. We’ll see what the Leafs do and revisit this.

- A few examples of the Leafs speed being worked to their advantage and hurting the Bruins were JVR hitting the post while shorthanded, Bozak getting a breakaway from a simple defensive zone breakout, Komarov splitting the D and then fanning on a shot, and Kessel taking Seidenberg wide and getting hauled down going to the net. The Bruins should fear the Leafs speed, but the Leafs need to use their speed a lot better and probably dress a roster that encourages speed more than anything else.

- Now, after saying all of that, the Bruins didn’t trap all game. Specifically, after the Redden goal in which the fourth line got it in deep for Boston and caused a turnover, the Bruins really turned up the heat and started pressing the Leafs. Toronto looked almost confused and unsure of themselves when it came to moving the puck. They definitely looked discombobulated and not on the same page, almost like they were playing with each other for the first time. The clip of Kadri falling and pushing the puck to the middle of the ice where he thought Kessel would be in his own zone right before the Bergeron disallowed goal is particularly memorable… those guys weren’t just not on the same page there and were reading completely different books. In that sense, you can see why the Leafs feel the game wasn’t as bad as it looked because they played so poorly. If you break down all of the Bruins goals, they were all avoidable.

- The first goal had Liles losing a battle to Paille on a dump in, Orr not going for the puck at all, then Kostka screening Reimer. The second goal JVR made a great play and then with 18 seconds or so left in the period decided to try and land a hit instead of dumping the puck in deep to kill the rest of the period. The third goal was due to a soft neutral zone turnover from Fraser before Kulemin had the puck in the slot and tried a soft pass up to a forward instead of riffling it out. The final goal Reimer probably wants back. Looking at that as the Leafs, if we were simply sharper this could have been a game. The Leafs just made really bad plays on all of them.

- The Leafs spoke a lot about their inexperience not being a bad thing, but it sure looked like a bad thing in game 1. JVR made a great rush shorthanded, hit the post and then decided to try and kill a guy even though the puck was right there for him with only 18 seconds left in the period? What if the Leafs survived that period and were tied 1-1 to start the second? Maybe the end result wouldn’t have been different, but the game would have been.

- Kadri was one player who spoke of inexperience not being a big deal, but he was turning pucks over all night. In playoff hockey, you can’t be trying to deke guys at the blue line. That’s inexperience right there and hopefully he learns from it now and plays better. To say inexperience didn’t play a factor in game 1 would be ignoring the obvious. The Leafs made a lot of plays that you simply can’t make in the playoffs, and when Boston got rolling and the crowd became loud, they showed no pushback or poise whatsoever.

- Then there’s Mark Fraser. Yeah, he had a really bad game; you won’t find one person who thinks otherwise. But after Fraser came out of nowhere to have a good season with the Leafs, we’re going to rip the guy apart based on one game? He’s earned the opportunity to redeem himself because he’s been a solid player all year for this team.

- I like enforcers and think they can factor favourably into a game. Do I think they always can? No. Are they liabilities at times? Yes. Do I particularly care about them? No. But if your role is to be an enforcer then your responsibilities are pretty simple: provide energy to your team through your physicality and protect your teammates. That protection can come from either deterring rough play on your stars, or seeking retribution. Whether you agree with the role of an enforcer or not, what I just listed is basically  their job description. With the goons playing on Saturday, the following things happened:

Ference elbowed Grabovski in the face.

Seidenberg crushed Lupul from behind.

Boychuk clocked Grabovski.

And nothing happened to the guilty parties. If you’re going to dress these guys and Leafs players are still getting killed, nothing is happening  to the Bruins players afterward to at least make them think twice about doing it again, and they are liabilities 5 on 5… just dress guys like Frattin and Hamilton who can provide energy, play a regular shift and maybe even score. With the game basically over in the third period, Orr and McLaren easily could have gooned it up but nothing happened.

- Majority of players were really disappointing for the Leafs Wednesday, but one in particular who stood out for me was Komarov. He’s usually physical and in guys’ faces, mixing it up and pissing people off. Really he was a nonfactor.

- At first I wanted Reimer pulled because of the emotion of the game, but upon reflection I liked the decision to keep Reimer in. He’s their guy and they need to run with him through thick and thin. He clearly wasn’t fully comfortable in net, so playing in a game that was essentially over half way allows him to play without pressure in there and kind of settle in. On top of that, I don’t want him to take the easy way out and be thinking about game 2 in the third period, I want him pissed off that he’s in net still for a terrible game. The best chance the Leafs have is Reimer getting pissed off and playing amazing. If there’s one guy on the team I had to put money on to rebound from that game, it would be Reimer.

- If we’re looking for a positive for the Leafs, they went 1/4 on the night on the PP and produced some opportunities on it. The Leafs are going to need their power play to win this series, and it showed signs of life. Considering the Bruins have one of the best penalty kills in the league, that’s a positive sign. So too was Grabovski’s play. He can be an important player for this team, and he showed more signs of life in game 1 than he has in the last month combined.

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QUESTIONS FOR GAME 2

Will the Leafs best players play like their best?

Kessel, Lupul, Phaneuf, and Kadri all either struggled or didn’t make many, if any, impact plays. The chances that the Leafs beat the Bruins are slim to none if their best players don’t play to their capabilities.

What impact will the line-up changes make?

We know they are coming but we don’t know what they will be. I’ll judge the results not guess about the future.

Will Reimer rebound?

He is still their best hope to win this series, so this is the most important question of all.

What kind of impact will injuries play, if any?

Kessel’s wrist is hurt and Franson is banged up, and that’s only what we know about. Particular attention will be paid to whether they are labouring out there or look restricted in anyway.

What strategic adjustments will the Leafs make?

I brought up the Bruins trap earlier, but that can’t be the only adjustment made. The Leafs have struggled to breakout for weeks now, so will there be changes there? Will roster deployment be different?

Anthony Petrielli has been at MLHS since 2011. He is known for his weekly "Leafs Notebook" feature, and also writes specific analysis pieces. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli.

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