After an up-and-down, back-and-forth first-round series for the ages, it all comes down to this: Game 7 in Boston.
Down 3-1 after four games, no one gave the Leafs much of chance, especially after the average or below goaltending and the lack of answers against the Bergeron line, at 5-on-5 and 5-on-4 alike. But a breakthrough offensively on the road in Game 5 after the return of Nazem Kadri, consecutive lights-out performances from Frederik Andersen, and a rebound on special teams has this series down to a one-game winner-takes-all situation.
Neither team has made drastic lineup changes since those first four games, but with Kadri back at center ice for the Leafs, the Leafs are deeper and harder to matchup against, with their Big Three now spread across three separate lines. Plekanec has elevated his play to the point where it’s allowed the Leafs to have two lines that Babcock trusts with heavy defensive zone starts and up against top competition. The Plekanec line’s ability to — while largely getting snow under possession wise — somehow limit the damage against the Bergeron line has been a key contributor to the series turnaround, although if you were to pick out one single factor, it would have to be the play of Andersen between the pipes.
If you’re looking at the trends, the good news for the Leafs is this: They’ve theoretically got the momentum on their side and have been playing desperate hockey longer than the Bruins have coming in. Andersen is playing his best hockey again in the last two games, they’ve broken through offensively against Tuukka Rask, and they’ve limited the Bruins to four goals in the last two games, with the Bruins now left searching for 5v5 offense beyond their vaunted top line. The concerning part for the Leafs: They’ve controlled just 44% of the possession in score-close situations in this series (15th out of 16 playoff teams), which is in the same vicinity of the Wild and Devils — both five-game outs in the first round.
You can often throw out the series script when it comes to Game 7s, though. As Mike Babcock put it today, he’s lost more than a few Game 7s his team should’ve won on a bounce here or there (or a “sifter” that went in, as he put it). Ultimately, this is one hockey game that comes down to who executes better when the lights are shining brightest and the intensity is at its peak — and who earns the bounces.
Keys to the Game
- The Nazem Kadri and Tomas Plekanec-centered lines performance tonight will likely mirror the results of the game itself. Of course, if Matthews is able to take over a game, it would be massive for the Leafs, but when you’ve got Kadri and Plekanec taking 0 and 20% offensive zone draws in Game 6, respectively (albeit in a game where they managed only 35% possession), it’s clear two lines are relied on to keep the Bruins’ main offensive threats at bay and set the stage for the rest of the lineup.
- As for Auston Matthews, has he saved his biggest game of the series for last? Stars become superstars on the game’s biggest stage.
- The Leafs need to improve in the breakout game tonight from what we saw for large swaths, particularly in the second period, of Game 6. When the ice is tilting and the Bergeron line feels like it’s playing every other shift, the Leafs are going to have to compose themselves and make some plays to get out of their zone with control — and that will require shortening up their breakouts with proper support when necessary — rather than exclusively punting pucks down the ice. When the Leafs can move the puck up the ice effectively, few teams in the league are more dangerous in the o-zone.
- It seems like every time the Leafs win, Frederik Andersen stands on his head. The Leafs are certainly capable of controlling play and establishing momentum at 5-on-5 with their speed and skill up and down the lineup, but they’ve not been as successful at consistently establishing their forecheck and cycle game in this series as the Bruins have. The Leafs have controlled just 46% of the shots at 5v5 with the game tied in this series and just 43.6% with the score within one. Andersen has won the goaltending battle two games in a row and he’ll need to do it a third time.
- It’s a cliche, but a good start — and even better, an early goal — to take the home crowd out of it in what’s sure to be a raucous and hostile atmosphere will go a long way to setting the Leafs up and settling down the nerves. As Babcock put it the other day, “Scoring first in Game 7 is a huge deal, I can tell you that.”
|Regular Season Record||49-26-7 (105pts)||50-20-12 (112pts)|
Game Day Quotes
Babcock on why the Bruins have largely kept their matchup focus on Matthews and not Marner:
I’m not certain that’s what’s happening. I actually think last time in [Boston], that wasn’t the case. Matty’s a real good player, Mitchy’s a real good player. Sometimes in a series, the beauty of being on a team is you pick each other up. Sometimes in the NHL season, there’s weeks or a couple weeks at a time where you’re in a lull and then someone picks you up and they don’t notice at the end of the year because the numbers add up right. In the playoffs, the same things happen. You go out to soon, sometimes there’s no equalization. If you keep playing a long period of time, those who get em’ get em’ .
Babcock on the value of experience, or lack thereof, in a game like this:
Yeah, it all helps, but I think the biggest thing is to just get out there and play and enjoy the opportunity. The biggest thing is just do your job, do your part and that allows the group to be great together. We don’t need tons of spectacular individuals. Do your part and the team will play well.
Babcock on his hopes for the game tonight:
Two games ago, we spent way too much time in the box. Obviously, you want to come out and be poised and execute early. Obviously, that’s critical to have for success. Scoring first, I think, is real important obviously, as well. I think the other thing you’ve got to do, and I’ve talked quite a bit about this: There’s only certain moments in your life that turn into memories. This is one of them here tonight. Make it a great memory. So we have an opportunity here today to enjoy ourselves, to embrace the situation, to play well, to play hard, We’re capable. Let’s do that.
Nazem Kadri on the Leafs’ momentum coming into Game 7:
Being down 3-1, we’ve played desperate hockey. We know what that feels like. We know how to start games. This feeling really isn’t anything new for us over the course of the last few games. They got off to an early lead and we had to step it up. Now it’s really up for grabs.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lineup
Hyman – Matthews – Brown
(6\-1-3-4) – (6-1-1-2) – (6-1-3-4) | Total Goals: 3
Marleau – Plekanec – Marner
(6-2-1-3) – (6-2-2-4) – (6-2-6-8) | Total Goals: 6
Van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Kapanen
(6-3-1-4) – (6-2-2-4) – (6-0-0-0) | Total Goals: 5
Johnsson –Kadri – Nylander
(5-1-1-2) – (3-0-2-2) – (6-1-1-2) | Total Goals: 2
Rielly – Hainsey
(6-0-5-5) – (6-0-1-1) | Total Goals: 0
Gardiner – Zaitsev
(6-0-1-1) – (6-0-2-2) | Total Goals: 0
Dermott – Polak
(6-0-0-0) – (6-0-0-0) | Total Goals: 0
Andersen (.909 sv%)
McElhinney (.826 sv%)
Extras: Leivo, Martin, Carrick, Komarov
Boston Bruins Projected Lineup
Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak
(6-2-5-7) – (5-0-5-5) – (6-4-7-11) | Total Goals: 6
Debrusk – Krejci – Rick Nash
(5-3-2-5) – (6-2-3-5) – (6-1-0-1) | Total Goals: 6
Wingels – Riley Nash – Backes
(3-0-0-0) – (4-0-0-0) – (6-2-0-2) | Total Goals: 2
Schaller – Kuraly – Acciari
(6-0-2-2) – (6-2-2-4) – (6-1-1-2) | Total Goals: 3
Extras: Gionta, Heinen
Chara – McAvoy
(6-1-1-2) – (6-0-1-1) | Total Goals: 1
Krug – Miller
(6-2-7-9) – (6-1-1-2) | Total Goals: 3
Grzelcyk – McQuaid
(5-0-1-1) – (6-1-1-2) | Total Goals: 1
Rask (.904 sv%)
Injuries: Brandon Carlo