We almost exclusively focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs and their perspective of things in this space, but let’s take a few minutes here to get into the Boston Bruins’ mindset heading into Game 4.
After two fairly emphatic victories to start the series at home in which one of the Leafs best players got suspended for three games, the Bruins came to Toronto looking to put a stranglehold on the series and to at the very least give themselves an opportunity to close it out back home in Game 5. The Leafs managed to put together their best effort by far in front of a pumped up crowd in Game 3. Their star player scored a big goal, their goalie was excellent, and they got some big efforts throughout the line-up.
Then, heading into Game 4, they lose their first line center, who is either their first or second best player. So what’s their plan from here?
Riley Nash moves up to the first line, as he did when Bergeron was hurt previously, and the team played a lot more defensively, relying on goalie Tuuka Rask to bail them out and on the Leafs to make mistakes. The Leafs carried play, generally speaking, in this game — there’s no question there:
But Rask stood on his head and the Bruins capitalized on their chances. The Bruins slowed the game down by clogging the neutral zone and making it difficult for the Leafs to create rush offense that they feast on. That’s kind of the recipe for winning a road game when you’re undermanned: Rely on your star goalie and rope-a-dope the game.
For the Leafs part, it’s not fair to say they played right into their hands because part of it is they just couldn’t capitalize on the many high-grade scoring chances that they created. But they made the big mistakes – gift wrapping two 2v1 rushes that were as clear cut as possible (they even got lucky on a third one towards the end of the second that was nullified because they Bruins were slightly offside).
The Bruins have worked the Leafs offensively repeatedly, scoring 12 goals in the first two games and forcing relatively easy mistakes, like the first 2v1 goal with a tired line on that was trapped due to an icing.
When a defenseman holds the line, his job is always to stop the guy coming up the wall against him. The puck might get by him, but the player can’t. On both goals, the Leafs defensemen made mistakes and then didn’t take their men – and if the guy gets by, it is not the job of the high forward. The purpose of the high forward is to cover the third forward on the other team.
If the puck gets chipped by the defenseman on the wall, the defenseman takes the man who did it, and the other two forwards go down on a 2v1 and score, that’s the high man’s fault.
And to make matters worse, on the 2v1 rushes, the Leafs made the passes as easy as it can be at this level, cheating towards the puck carrier and inviting the pass instead of trusting their goalie to come up with a save.
After that, it was relatively smooth sailing for the Bruins. The Leafs mustered a bit of a push, but the game never really felt in doubt at 3-1 in the final 10 minutes. Their goalie played like the all-star he is and the Bruins ground out a win — blocking a ton of shots (27) and getting in the shooting lanes, preventing the Leafs from shooting in general, and capitalizing on their chances.
And now the Bruins head back home, possibly with Patrice Bergeron returning, and have an opportunity to win the series.
– Some players just can’t play certain roles, and we might be seeing that with Tomas Plekanec, who was pretty inconsequential for the first 20 games of his Leafs tenure before moving up to a matchup role. It helps playing with better wingers, too, but Plekanec looks comfortable for the first time as a Leaf being given a specific role that’s more than energy shifts and defensive zone draws with the fourth line. Similarly, Dom Moore has been able to come in and provide a boost. Moore played a little over 5 minutes with Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson; they had 11 shot attempts for and zero against. That included one shift where Moore bumped Zdeno Chara off the puck in the offensive zone and they proceeded to dominate from there.
– I was shocked Kasperi Kapanen only played 9:36 in Game Four.
– I mentioned that the Bruins are doing a good job of getting in shoot lanes and making things difficult on the Leafs to get shots through – one way the Leafs tried game planning for that a bit better in Game Four was to shoot for deflection on high-tip plays. Jake Gardiner had a particularly good one to Matthews that almost resulted in the goal. Morgan Rielly, in particular, has had a ton of opportunities with the puck on the point and has only five shots on net in four games. Of the top eight players on the team in shots on goal this playoffs, only two are defensemen (Gardiner and Dermott).
– From March 1 onward of regular season hockey, Frederik Andersen posted a .896 save percentage. In the playoffs so far, he is at .885. The team hasn’t played good, defensive hockey in front of him, and he’s not the primary reason they are down 3 – 1 in the series, but he also has not played well. For the last few months of the year, it was clear the team was going to finish third and they still played him as much as possible, really only sitting him on back-to-backs despite Curtis McElhinney having an excellent season as a backup. Babcock reasoned that they believe he is better when he plays regularly and that Anderson is a workhorse. I’ll be curious to see how much he plays next season and if they go with that strategy again – particularly after a season in which they really had nothing to lose in March.
– Similarly, Ron Hainsey played 52 more minutes shorthanded than the second highest player in the league (Zdeno Chara). He looks pretty gassed. There was a point in the season where he was active with the puck and would even go for the odd rush up ice. He had the 2v1 giveaway up the middle of the ice in the first game, got switched off the top matchup in game two, had a solid game three, and a middling game four. He’s fine as a third pairing guy, but they play him on the top pairing and rely on him for solid top-four minutes. At one point in the third he tried to hit David Pastrnak and it looked like he was on empty, barely registering even a push on the Bruin. The 17:11 he played in Game 4 was his second lowest total of the entire season (the lowest was 17:00 against Buffalo in a game where he was -4).
– We talked about the Leafs needing to battle with their bodies and not sticks in the playoffs, and there was a great example by Mitch Marner leading to the Plekanec goal. He has had a strong playoff showing and it’s probably fair to say has been their best player so far in this series.
“Part of the game plan tonight was, we couldn’t lose the 2nd period. That happened the other night. With the way they play, they don’t give you any breathing room, they’re fast with their transition, catch you in between so we were very mindful of that.”
– Bruce Cassidy discussing Game 4
Further explaining their strategy of clogging the neutral zone up and making the Leafs work for it.
“I saw the blocker quickly and I got it up a little too high I think. I knew guys were chasing me and didn’t want to deke or anything and lose the puck. I just kind of went for it and it got up a little bit on me and he made a great save.”
– Mitch Marner on his second period breakaway
It wasn’t like the Leafs didn’t have chances – they had more quality scoring chances than the Bruins, actually. But their top players finished and the Leafs didn’t.
“When Bergeron didn’t play tonight you’re set up pretty good. You got to find a way to win. This is in our building. You got to win.”
– Mike Babcock on the game
An underrated aspect of the game was that the Leafs didn’t take a penalty. No penalties called against them, no Bergeron, at home… Who would have them losing if I said all those things were going to happen?
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1. I think Babcock is in a really tough spot with what to do with the forwards. He has to be debating splitting up Auston Matthews and William Nylander. They each have one point so far and Nylander, in particular, has not made much of an impact (he has eight shots in four games; Matthews leads the team with 17). But it would be hard to split them up now and not completely blow up the lines in the process, which I guess is part of the debate. Maybe they should just consider flipping Marner and Nylander (with Kadri sliding right back into the second line center hole).
2. I think the only real option as far as who to take out is Dominic Moore. As previously mentioned, his line was up 11-0 in shot attempts and he still didn’t play even 7 minutes on the night. It seems like it doesn’t really matter what he does, so why bother?
3. I think I’d be playing the Johnsson – Plekanec – Kapanen line in the 12 minute range, rather than the 10 or so minute range they have been in. The two wingers have been two of the only consistently good Leafs players so far this playoffs. At a minimum, they should be rewarded.
4. I think offensively the Leafs need to focus more on cycling and creating offense below the top of the circles. The defense is not contributing and getting enough shots through. The Bruins are playing the points tight and clogging lanes well. Make it a 3v3 game down low and take your chances.
5. I think Nazem Kadri is going to be a real shot in the arm for the team and I’d be preparing to play him a ton – first shift of the game, start every period in general, and against the top line as much as possible. Plekanec has been solid since being bumped up the lineup, Bozak has been fine in his role, generally speaking (second on the team in shots on goal, two points in four games), and Matthews has had a series to forget. They need someone to take charge down the middle. I think Kadri can.