After Game 1, we touched on the Leafs’ poor bench management after the team missed challenging a goal that was offside, put their fourth line out against the Patrice Bergeron line for a goal against, and took a too-many-men penalty.
After the game, Babcock explained the line four versus line one matchup:
“Well, I did that on purpose… because that’s their job is to win that draw and get it out and get it in. They did that, but never got off the ice. You get paid to do certain things. That’s your job. So, it wasn’t like I was avoiding that at all. I thought that was a real god situation for us. They’re supposed to be able to start in the D zone, get us in the O zone and get off the ice. That’s their job.”
That is the kind of answer I would expect to hear in a November game on a weekday. The reality of that situation was pretty simple:
- It’s a road playoff game
- Boston has the best line in the league
- Tomas Plekanec has not been good since coming to Toronto and your fourth line, while deep for NHL standards, is nothing to write home about with the type of fire power Boston has waiting on the bench.
- This particular fourth line does not have a proven history of being good in this role as a unit. It wasn’t like they had this trio all season “doing their job” in this role. Plekanec was like the Habs 2C/3C depending on the night. Kapanen ripped up the AHL.
Making a mistake is one thing – we’re all human and we all do it. I wouldn’t expect him to throw that line under the bus publicly, either. But he doubled down, and that was strange, as there’s no question it was a bad idea. Even if they didn’t score, philosophically, it’s a bad decision.
That was Game 1. In Game 2, it got stranger. The Leafs made adjustments by taking Zach Hyman off the top line for Leo Komarov – breaking up what was one of the best lines in the league this regular season. Did they get outplayed by the Bergeron line in Game 1? Yes. But that’s a kneejerk reaction, especially with matchup center Nazem Kadri suspended. The experiment barely lasted the first period.
The real eyebrow raiser was having Gardiner – Zaitsev play against the Bruins top line. They haven’t received the top responsibilities since the very beginning of the season before abruptly dropping them due to the poor results. Last season, Zaitsev also struggled in that role with Morgan Rielly. Predictably, then, he was beat consistently in the first period by the Bruins. We also have to add in the fact that Zaitsev has been hurt and generally has really struggled this season. We didn’t know going into the game that this matchup would change, but the results were predictable.
There were a few other noteworthy issues – a second straight game with a too-many-men penalty (at some point, someone has to take charge on the bench here), not taking a timeout at any point while they were shellshocked in the first period, and we can probably argue they could have put Freddy Andersen back into the game to start the second to at least get his confidence back (he didn’t speak to the media after the game).
If they lose in the first round, this will be Babcock’s fourth straight first-round exit. In his last 23 playoff games behind the bench, he’s 6-17. It’s not squarely on Babcock’s shoulders that they laid an egg in Boston, but he is now under the microscope after some of these decisions.
– On paper, the Leafs were over 60 percent possession each period, but that’s a product of the Bruins getting a big early – it was hard to look at the matchups or stats given the circumstances, and really, it almost makes them not worth considering. In a regular season game 7-3 game, half the time you throw out the tape and never watch it again.
– The Bruins power play has been pretty simple so far this series – pucks on net and get rebounds, or work pucks down low and center them. What stands out from the Leafs point of view is how weak they have been at boxing out. Rick Nash was barely touched in front. In Game 1, Backes won a battle with his body where Hainsey was simply trying to stick-check. They have not been competitive in front of their own net through two games.
– I wrote after Game 1 how battles have to be won using the body in the playoffs and Connor Brown did exactly that leading to the Tyler Bozak goal – led with his body, got under the Bruin, and made a great play. More of that is needed moving forward.
– On top of his goal, Tyler Bozak had a really great backcheck in the second period to prevent a Bruin opportunity all alone in front of the Leafs net in the second period.
– James van Riemsdyk landed a big hit on Zdeno Chara after he took a big hit from him. It would be nice to see more forechecks like that without needing to withstand a big hit to do it.
– Later in the game, Marner took a delay of game penalty after JVR no-look spun to hit the puck, and then Marner no-look whacked the puck into the crowd. Both had time and the Bruins defensemen had already retreated. It demonstrated that they are not even looking up anymore – in part, presumably, because they are hearing the footsteps and panicking. Even on the play JVR got crushed, he didn’t lower his shoulder and get ready for the hit, or perhaps even dish out his own contact in the process. He lunged and bailed on the play.
– The Leafs’ late power play goal was a lucky bounce, but don’t underestimate getting that monkey off their back late in the game before heading home in hopes of swinging the series.
– The Auston Matthews unit with Gardiner was really stagnant – if Gardiner doesn’t walk the line while in a shooting position (which he doesn’t), it’s easier for the Bruins to defend it. He is getting caught not moving his feet while QBing the power play and that makes it easy to defend. Two of the best power play defensemen in the league in Brent Burns and John Klingberg make a living walking the line and creating shooting holes. So far, the Bruins have managed to prevent/alter shots by getting into lanes.
– One area of the Leafs game they have gotten away from is shots off the rush for rebounds. Lots of players are pulling up off the rush and the team, in general, is not driving the net – Kasperi Kapanen had some strong rushes, for example, but he failed to record a shot on net (he did hit the post early in the game). The far-pad rebound shot and net drive is a staple of a Babcock-coached team and it hasn’t been there very often so far.
– I wondered if he’d put Frederik Andersen back in to start the second period to get his confidence back. While the game was likely over anyways, there’s something to be said for sitting on the bench already preparing for the next one. It worked for the Flyers.
“We’ve got 105 points for a reason. We’ve got a good team. We’re not going to talk about it tonight. There is no sense. No one is listening to anything anyway. What we’ll do is we’ll fly back and get together. We won’t practice tomorrow, but we’ll get together and get ourselves regrouped and count on our leadership group to help out as well, and get ourselves on track. Obviously, our fans will be in our building and they’ll be behind us. We’ve got to get off to a good start in our building.”
– Mike Babcock on whether he’s worried about confidence
The first goal of a game is always important, but I think it’s going to be particularly important in Game 3. The Leafs have yet to have a lead in this series and they need something to feel good about themselves and get back to their game.
“We deserve every bit of criticism far and wide. Good news is, story isn’t totally written yet … We can try and change the story come Monday night.”
– Ron Hainsey on the first two games of the series
He’s right, but there’s no point in lamenting it. The biggest positive is they have not played even remotely close to their potential, which means they have a lot more to give.
“We dominated parts of the game and I think that was key for us to kind of get some confidence back. They got some bounces early, we were flatfooted early and kind of got out of the game right away.”
– Jake Gardiner discussing the game
They are kidding themselves if they think they actually dominated. The game was so out of hand so quickly that Boston started coasting. Anytime the Leafs tried to make it interesting, the Bruins responded by scoring.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think I would switch the defense up and pair Gardiner – Rielly together, keep the Dermott – Polak pairing, and unite Hainsey – Zaitsev. In doing this, I’d play Gardiner – Rielly as much as possible – as in each player is pushing 30 minutes. This team is not breaking out well at all and it is killing them. They are constantly throwing it off the glass and are panicking under the Bruins forecheck – pairing Gardiner and Rielly together and giving them a ton of ice time combines the team’s two best puck movers on the back end and can hopefully kick start their transition game. They’ve also tried their other pairings against the Bergeron unit and they’ve been run over, so this is probably their best matchup, to be honest (especially with Kadri out).
2. With Kadri out and the way they’ve played, I think I’d completely blow up the lines. I’d put the two best players together: Matthews and Marner (with Marleau). I’d shift Nylander to center with Hyman and Kapanen. Keep the Bozak line as it is.
3. I think I’ll say this every game until Plekanec plays well – I’d put Dominic Moore in for Tomas Plekanec. At least he’d have some passion out there.
4. I think I’d insert Matt Martin. The team has looked defeated for long stretches through both games so far and this is still a game of emotion, especially in the playoffs. I think he can give them an emotional boost and this group is really in need of a spark. Martin was effective last year in the playoffs; I think he’d come in, get the crowd going, and get some positive vibes going on their bench. They need it.
5. I think this series is far from over. As long as they can get to Game 5, you’d hope for a boost from Kadri returning in order to bring it home for Game 6. Anything can happen in a Game 7 scenario. The first two games have gone about as bad as anyone could have imagined, but a series isn’t over until you’ve lost a home game.