No matter what happens in the rest of the series, this much is clear: The Leafs have closed the gap on the Boston Bruins.

Are they equal to or better than Boston? Probably not. But compared to where the Leafs were last year against Boston, this is a dramatic improvement.

Last season the Leafs weren’t even in Boston’s stratosphere. Every game was embarrassing in every way possible – the scoreline, the physicality, the intimidation, the goalies, you name it. Even if Boston does end up winning this series in 5, there’s no question Toronto has made them work for it. Game 1 they weren’t great, but they were definitely the better team in game 2. Game 3 saw the Leafs actually out play the Bs for large stretches but make some costly mistakes. Game 4, the Leafs were pretty even throughout the game although I’d argue Toronto had the clear advantage from basically the third period onward.

Boston’s playing for a Cup this year. They traded for Jagr and Redden, selling off future pieces for the present. Imagine the Leafs did that, too? Trading a first and a prospect for Jay Bouwmeester, or even a Robyn Regehr, to replace one of Fraser or O’Byrne with a player of that calibre? But the Leafs were never going to be Cup contenders this year, and that’s not what this playoff run was ever about.

The difference is the Leafs are only opening their playoff window, while Boston is trying to capitalize on theirs while Chara is still… Chara.

Most people wanted to play Montreal – and I think the Leafs would have won that series — but in playing Boston we are really starting to learn something about this Leafs team.

How many critics have questioned Kessel’s big game ability since Burke acquired him? He’s been fantastic. JVR has been a man possessed, and although we all already knew the Leafs won that trade, it’s been amazing to watch him. Consider that he’s only 23 and is signed for 5 more years at a cap hit of “only” 4.25M per year. I mean, seriously, think about that for a second.

Then there are guys like Gardiner, Grabovski, Kulemin, Lupul, Frattin, Gunnarsson and Franson who have all played fantastic as well. That’s nine players we’re talking about, plus guys like Kadri and Phaneuf who haven’t had as great of a series as everyone hoped for, but who are both still good players. And there is Reimer in net of course. We’re now looking and talking about a legitimate core in Toronto that’s competing toe to toe against one of the best teams in the East.

It sucks seeing the Leafs lose right now, but there’s solace in knowing that this is not the finished product in Toronto. The Leafs have a core of to be proud of right now. It needs some tweaking, no doubt, but there’s something here.

And this series isn’t over just yet.

Here are some notes on game 4:

– I don’t think this is series is over. If the preamble sounded as if I do believe that, trust me when I say I don’t. Certainly last night was a tough one and win or lose we need to take the positives out of this season and playoff and learn from them. That’s the best way this organization can move forward.

– One of the best sequences in the game was JVR going at Krejci after the whistle, drawing a penalty, then deking out Boychuk and drawing another penalty. The 5 on 3 resulted in nothing unfortunately, but JVR was on a one mission to make a difference and he did. JVR had 8 shots on net last night, and although he didn’t record a point, it’s safe to say the Bruins haven’t had an answer for him in front of the net all series. Between he and Lupul, the Leafs boast two legitimate, big, strong, net presences with skill. No surprise that both have been great for the Leafs in the playoffs.

– There’s no denying that Grabovski and Kulemin have played very well so far, but in four games they have 2 assists and 13 shots on net between them. If the Leafs have any chance at getting back in this series, these two guys are going to need to find the back of the net one way or another. They are 2/3rds of the Leafs second line and need to help the Leafs out offensively sooner rather than later.

– It hasn’t received much attention, but the Leafs have been dreadful at clearing the net all series. It seems every game Boston gets a goal because the Leafs fail to box out the Boston forwards, and last night it was Krejci’s turn to get one as he drove the net and Grabovski was unable to stop him from getting there. That’s the biggest way the Bruins size has impacted this series. Otherwise, the Leafs have sustained pressure against Boston, they’ve been able to neutralize their cycle game generally speaking, and Boston in general just hasn’t been able to impose their will on the Leafs and intimidate them. But they have been able to drive the net and get goals as a result of it.

– Don’t understand MacArthur playing 8:50 at all. Even without his goal, he had a few shifts where he helped the Leafs sustain pressure against Boston, and he showed some jam to his game.

– At the end of regulation, Carlyle basically ran the Lupul-Bozak-Kessel and JVR-Grabovski-Kulemin lines only. Kulemin was the only one of those six to play under 22 minutes at 18:29, and the next closest forward was McClement at 16:49. It was curious line management to say the least. Kadri didn’t play much and neither did Frattin.

– When overtime rolled around, the tune changed and he basically ran Lupul-Bozak-Frattin, JVR-Grabovski-Kulemin, MacArthur-Kadri-Kessel.

– The Phaneuf pinch was something we’ve all seen before and are aware of that he does. The other point is, when Phaneuf plays a ton we’ve seen his game go really downhill. Phaneuf played 31:14, which is exactly 3 minutes more than the next highest Leaf in Franson. The Fraser injury obviously hurt the Leafs rotation quite a bit and Phaneuf really looked like he was labouring out there. Adding another legitimate minute-munching defenseman to this team is clearly the biggest offseason priority. Whether that comes externally or internally is for Nonis to decide, but this has to be fixed.

– My biggest issue with the pinch itself is that Phaneuf didn’t have the protection from a forward to the point where he should have felt comfortable doing it. Yes, Kessel did catch Lucic, but Phaneuf actually ran into Kessel in the aftermath of his hit. The only reason Kessel caught up was because he’s Phil Kessel and he was chasing Milan Lucic. Furthermore, he has to know who he’s playing with, too. It’s one thing to pinch with Gunnarsson back there; it’s another when it’s O’Byrne.

– O’Byrne clearly didn’t play the 2 on 1 very well either, but pointing the main finger at a guy trying to cover up another guy’s mistake seems silly to me. His biggest issue was not reading that Kessel did catch up to Lucic. He was taking the pass away like any defenseman would, but he should have realized that he needed to play it like a one-on-one basically from the blue line on in.

– Phaneuf broke up a 2 on 1 earlier in the game where he put his stick down and then went right at Bergeron. That’s basically what O’Byrne had to do.
Nobody is or should be blaming anything on Reimer, but if the Leafs were to have any chance at winning this series going in, we all knew he’d have to steal them at least a game. To this point he hasn’t, while Rask has played fantastic on his end.

– Kadri has received a lot of heat for not producing, and I think a lot of that stems from expectations. Kadri had a great regular season, but he’s been put on L3 and that alone hurts him. For example, in the third period last night his line drew an icing at the beginning of his shift, but as soon as the whistle went Kessel’s line came on because Chara wasn’t on. Kadri effectively gets lost in the shuffle at times with this matching game and that makes it hard for him to get into a flow and produce. He’s not the first rookie ever to get a reduced role in the playoffs and see his production decline. His time will come.

– Only Leafs without shots on net in game 4: Fraser, O’Byrne, Orr.

– One thing not talked about in this whole faceoff debacle is how poor the Leafs are at winning scrambled draws. The Bruins wingers attack the faceoff every time and know exactly where to go, whereas the Leafs wingers lose the battle to the puck and that causes the Leafs to lose the 50/50 draws. The McQuaid goal in game 3 is a good example of that, although that one Krejci did get a good piece of it.

– JVR has to beat Horton to the puck on the dump in that resulted in Krejci’s second goal. Horton got that puck at the top of the circle, and there’s just no way the puck should be able to go around basically the entire zone with no Leaf getting a stick on it.

– The power play has looked bad for two games now, even though they scored twice on it in game 3. The biggest difference in what the Bruins are doing is how they approach the neutral zone to not allow the Leafs to setup. When the Leafs skate out, Chara actually comes all the way up to the Leafs blue line, and they don’t give them the neutral zone at all. They almost run three guys right across the neutral zone, and then have a defender back just in case. The Leafs combatted it once by having Phaneuf skate up to it, then drop a pass to a trailing Kessel, who easily gained the zone. But the Bruins adjusted and had the far side winger cheat towards Kessel the next time. This strategy from Boston has resulted in more than a few offsides for the Leafs as they try to make cross ice passes right around the blue line in order to gain a clean zone entry.

– Anytime they’ve dumped it in, the Bruins have easily cleared it out. You need to be prepared to win battles on the power play, not just setup in your formation and throw fancy passes all over the ice.

– Was also surprised to see Phaneuf and Franson start the 5 on 3 on their one timer sides right off the draw. The Leafs have struggled at the dot all series, so you’d think they would start on their strong sides just in case they lost it and the puck came up the boards. That way they could stop it and setup. Alas, that’s exactly what happened and Phaneuf was unable to keep it in. The mindboggling part about it, to me, is that Phaneuf and Franson almost never started a 5 on 3 like that all year.


No more time for excuses anymore. It’s win or go home time now.

Game 5 Questions

1 – Can the Leafs refocus, or will they play defeated?

Obviously game 4 was heartbreaking but now the Leafs have to get over it, or risk having Boston put them away handily if they let those emotions linger. We’ll know early on in game 5 what the answer is.

2 – Can Reimer steal one?

Asked this before, and I’ll keep asking it until the series is over. The Leafs need him to.

3 – Will Grabovski and Kulemin breakthrough?

If those two ever got hot and Lupul, JVR and Kessel kept rolling, we could see this series go 7 easily.

4 – Can Phaneuf rebound?

The pressure and scrutiny is all on the captain right now. He hasn’t had a good series and it’s a shame he’s receiving all this vitriol. Would be nice to see him carry this team to a victory.

5 – Are we going to see a game 6?