After a day off on Tuesday and a practice day yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs will look to defend home-ice advantage tonight and turn a 0-2 hole into a whole new best-of-three series.
Here are some storylines to keep an eye on for Game 4.
The Bruins will come out for Game 4 with a renewed focus on battening down the neutral zone after the Leafs managed to break it open a little bit and stretched the ice on them with some success for the first time in the series in Game 3.
The Leafs, as we’ve seen all year, want to take their shots down the ice, back off the Bruins forecheck, and catch Boston on the break in transition. But the Bruins are also a highly dangerous team in transition and are typically a well-organized group through the neutral zone, meaning the Leafs can’t throw pucks away when the openings aren’t there.
The Leafs’ made those “space plays” work at times in Game 3, but they also need to manage the puck properly against a Bruins team that will attempt to adjust to this — the Bruins were susceptible a few times on line changes or with a defenseman caught, and that would have been a point of emphasis for Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy in the video room.
The Leafs will need to adjust by shortening their game up if those chip plays and stretch passes aren’t available and are resulting in too many neutral-zone turnovers coming right back down their throats.
Matchup vs. Bergeron line
Keeping the Patrice Bergeron line off of the scoresheet for one game is one thing — and it was a confidence booster, in addition to a series saver – but can the Patrick Marleau – Tomas Plekanec – Mitch Marner line, plus the Morgan Rielly – Ron Hainsey defense pairing, repeat the feat against the best line in hockey, or at least limit the damage?
It was a better effort from the Leafs against the Bs top line in Game 3. Plekanec wiggled his way under Bergeron’s skin a little bit and Morgan Rielly made life harder on David Pastrnak, who finally learned there is, in fact, physical contact in the playoffs. However, the Leafs were still handily out-possessed with that line on the ice, the Bruins still created more than their fair share of scoring chances, and the Leafs benefitted from some puck luck along the way, in addition to some timely – and in one case, out-of-worldly – saves from Frederik Andersen.
In the offensive zone, Brad Marchand or Patrice Bergeron, both so effective at winning board battles and protecting the puck off the cycle, will look for David Pastrnak floating in the high slot/top of the circles for a one-timer/quick release, with the other forward stationed in front. They scored this way in Game 1 – on the second try, after just missing on the identical play — and nearly connected on another one in Game 3. The line can inflict damage in all kinds of ways, and the Leafs will need be alert and stay tight to them at all times. Of course, the best way to defend them is by generating more offensive zone time than the Leafs have been so far against this line – no easy task against the best possession trio in hockey.
If the Plekanec-centered line can keep the Bergeron line from winning the game on its own, the Leafs should benefit from some advantageous matchup situations for the Matthews line, which was freed up to face the Krejci line quite a bit in Game 3, with better results. The Leafs’ depth became a factor again on home ice in Game 3, with the fourth line of Andreas Johnsson – Dominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen showing promise and Tyler Bozak’s line winning the possession battle in their time against the Krejci and Riley Nash lines.
If the Leafs can get to Game 5 with the series knotted up and Nazem Kadri returning to the lineup – who will have a point to prove coming off of suspension – the series momentum entering the best-of-three will have officially flipped in the Leafs’ favour.
There were only two power plays between the two teams in Game 3, but that can’t be expected to last.
Can the Leafs stay out of the penalty box, and if they don’t, will the penalty kill snap out of its funk? The first question can be a wildcard given the officiating standards of the playoffs, but the Leafs PK – something they can control — has been brutal all series, conceding five on 11, as well as to end the regular season (73.5% in the final 12 games).
The Leafs’ PK only got through Game 3 unscathed because of a post and a bunch of puck luck after forfeiting three or four grade-A scoring chances on their one kill. The biggest concern is that the Leafs’ PK units do not look confident up against the intimidating Bruins’ top power-play group.
In Game 3, the Leafs’ shorthanded units backed right off, conceded the blue line, and collapsed/scrambled around their net. They need to get back to executing confidently and aggressively within their structure, and it starts with making it much harder on Bruins to gain the zone and set up. Otherwise, the PK will be a major detriment to the team’s cause for the rest of this series.
Battle of the Best
While the Bergeron line was held scoreless for the first time in the series, the Leafs best players were their difference makers in Game 3.
Continued good efforts from Mitch Marner (in a tough matchup role, to boot), the first goal and points of the series for William Nylander and Auston Matthews, a fantastic game from Morgan Rielly, as well as Frederik Andersen’s bounce-back performance in net were exactly what the doctor ordered for the Leafs in Game 3. Can that group carry momentum forward into this game with the confidence of knowing they can play with and beat this Bruins team?
Mike Babcock was hinting in his presser yesterday that he expects the best version of the Bruins we’ve seen so far now that they’ve taken their first punch. The Leafs’ best players will need to continue to elevate as this series progresses.