Well, we now have a series. That was closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs team fans were expecting when the series got underway.
And what brought it out were many of the things we have seen from the Leafs all season long.
Matthews and Nylander combined for a beautiful goal. Frederik Andersen was fantastic. Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey played against the other’s team top line (not Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev), JVR scored a power play goal, and the Leafs transition game was in full force.
But there was something new, too – Tomas Plekanec was the primary matchup centre. It has been a tough transition for the career Montreal Canadien, who still hasn’t registered a goal as a Leaf and has primarily been used as the team’s fourth line centre. I remarked recently that perhaps he’s just not able to truly play his game in a limited-minutes, fourth-line role. In Game Three, he was matched up against Patrice Bergeron in a big-time assignment, and he stepped up.
Plekanec played over 12 minutes against Patrice Bergeron and co. and they were held without a point, although they were still quite dominant for large stretches, as Bergeron ended the game with a 66.67 CF% against him. The line did miss on a handful of chances throughout the game, but it was the first time they were really inconvenienced throughout the series.
In the second period, Plekanec put a good hit on Bergeron, who took a run at him (along with Brad Marchand) to end the shift. Towards the end of the game, Morgan Rielly got a good hit in on David Pastrnak down the wall as he tried gaining the zone (a period earlier, he cross checked him to the ground in the corner), and Roman Polak took a good run at him for good measure in the final minute, knocking him to the ground.
And of course, in the final minute, Rielly and Marchand — followed by everyone on the ice — shared in some pleasantries. It took a humiliating loss and some rearranging, but there was a pushback of substance and Plekanec was right in the middle of it.
The Bruins changed up their philosophy a bit more on the road – playing the Krug pairing with Bergeron. They also had Riley Nash return, which tweaked their lines slightly (although Riley Nash is an upgrade). Chara played mostly with the David Krejci line and there was also the sneaky impact of Adam McQuaid not returning, which juggled the Bruins defense and put more stress on their top four.
A quiet storyline to start monitoring is their defense if McQuaid is out, adding to the injured Matt Grzelcyk and the even more important Brandon Carlo. The Bruins depth on defense is really being tested and it could start to strain them.
Matthews went up against the Krejci line primarily and was at 50 CF% there, which opened up more offensive opportunities than the Bergeron matchup (he had five shots on net in the game). He still saw Chara and Charlie McAvoy more than any other Bruins defense pairing, but without the added layer of their top forward line, the matchup finished quite even (45.45CF%).
Home-ice advantage is proving to be a real factor so far in this series and the Leafs are going to need to defend it again in Game Four. If they can, they’ll get Nazem Kadri back, and it’s game on for a series-deciding best-of-three.
– Before the Chara goal, the Leafs won an offensive zone faceoff and Nikita Zaitsev had the puck on the point. The Bruins collapsed a bit and took the shooting lane away, with Jake Gardiner wide open on the other side. He floated the puck to the net, the Bruins took possession, went down the ice, and scored. For some reason, Zaitsev is not seeing the other side of the ice well.
– If there’s a primary area the Leafs can improve against Boston, it’s those point shots in general. Rielly had a great opportunity with traffic and the puck on his stick around the top of the circle on a dominant shift in the first period, but he couldn’t find a lane and ended up passing off to his partner, who passed it back, and then Rielly’s shot got deflected and out. Every defenseman had at least a shot on net, and Rielly, Gardiner and Hainsey each had two. They’re leaving shots on the table, though. Part of that is a credit to the Bruins, who do an excellent job of getting into the shooting lanes.
– Two big goals for Patrick Marleau gives him 70 for his career in the playoffs. It’s not appreciated because he was part of San Jose and they never won the Cup with him there, but he’s actually 13th in playoff points since the lockout, ahead of players like Mike Richards, Justin Williams, David Krejci, and Patrice Bergeron. He had no hesitation to keep, shoot and score on that 2-on-1 and that cushion allowed everyone to breathe a little easier.
– Easy to forget now, but Pastrnak hitting the post on the Bruins early third-period PP (and only one of the game), was a pivotal moment. This is the first game in which the Leafs beat the Bruins in the special teams battle in this series and it is no coincidence that they won the game. The thought going into the series – myself included – was that if the refs put their whistles away, it would benefit the Bruins. But the way the Leafs penalty kill is going, it might actually benefit them more. Each team only had one power play opportunity in Game 3.
– Another underrated play to preserve the Leafs’ lead: Jake Gardiner saved a goal on a shot-for-rebound play. Rick Nash put it far pad and Danton Heinen was scoring into an open net had Gardiner not deflected the puck away. It’s actually a play the Leafs try a lot, too.
– The third line is a real swing line for the Leafs in this series – Tyler Bozak managed to out-possess in his matchups against the Krejci and Riley Nash lines (even though it was largely with offensive zone starts). They didn’t score 5v5, but they opened the scoring on the power play to give the Leafs their first lead of the series. Even more than that, though, Bozak was just engaged in the game. He was in on the forecheck, he was physical, and if hit stats mean anything to you, he tied for the lead among Leafs forwards with four (Marleau was the other).
“That was one of the best saves I think I’ve ever seen. That was unbelievable. That’s a game changer for sure … that was awesome.”
– Auston Matthews on Frederik Andersen’s ridiculous glove save
Had to mention this save somehow. Just ludicrous.
“That goal from Auston was massive for our team. It got the whole bench going, got the fan base going. There was a lot of electricity in the building tonight. It was fun to play in front of and we need that in Game 4.”
– Mitch Marner on Game 3
I was not at the game, but it felt like the crowd made a legitimate difference. They were loud, supportive, and energetic — and not just when things were going well and the team was winning. There was some definite home cooking all around in Game Three.
“Freddy has been one of our best players all year and we need him to be good. He’s got to feel like he’s back. You talk about Auston; Freddy is one of those guys who has got to feel like he’s back. It hasn’t gone as good for him in the first couple of games. We need him to be good”
– Mike Babcock on a few key players hopefully getting their confidence back
Andersen struggled since March in the regular season, and while I don’t think he has been bad or really to blame for the first two games, he wasn’t great in them, either. If he gets hot now, look out.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think it would be hard to justify changing the lines for Game 4.
2. I think I’ll contradict myself a bit here, though, and say Kasperi Kapanen should move up the lineup and play more, even if it’s not to start the game and just on occasion. Through all three games this series, he’s been one of the Leafs’ best players.
3. In general, I think that entire fourth line can play more. Andreas Johnsson played 8:37, Dominic Moore was at 8:14, and Kasperi Kapanen at 10:23. The line was a real shot in the arm with their speed. Considering they never played together, they should get better as they get more comfortable with one another. Not only were they really fast; they were aggressive and in your face. Kapanen missed another breakaway, while Johnsson had a good one-timer and got robbed by Rask. They had some messy moments in their own zone that will need to be sorted out, though.
4. I think the penalty kill is a legitimate concern and I’d start playing it much more aggressively if I were the Leafs. The Bruins only had one opportunity and they missed four Grade-A chances. The Leafs had no answer for it; the Bruins just didn’t capitalize. And we don’t have to talk about what happened in Games 1 or 2. I think Dermott and Rielly need more of a role in it because of how quick Boston is on the man advantage (in movement and skating speed), and if Dom Moore is going to play, he should get in there, too.
5. I think it was surprising to see Morgan Rielly play the fourth most on defense. That won’t be the norm moving forward. He took the only penalty on the team, so that impacted things a little, and he spent the night going up against the Bergeron line to relatively good results (roughly 40% possession, which, so far, is the best anyone can ask for). And he assisted on two goals. The return of Kadri is really going to help Rielly and all of the Leafs defensemen.