ECQF Game #1 Review: Toronto Maple Leafs 4 vs. Boston Bruins 1

Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Boston Bruins in Game 1

About that Boston sweep…

Your game in ten:

1.  The first test the Leafs had to pass in this game concerned their start, knowing they were entering hostile territory — in a building full of bad memories — against a team that feels really good about itself at home (the Bruins were 29-9-3 at TD Garden this season). The first 5-10 minutes played out exactly as the Leafs wanted — not much happened as the two teams felt each other out with plenty of 50-50 shifts and no sustained momentum from shift-to-shift, taking the crowd out of it a little bit early and helping the Leafs settle into their game.

The next test concerned what would happen if something went against the Leafs in the first period — like a William Nylander high-sticking penalty leading to a penalty-killing breakdown and a Bruins power play goal orchestrated by Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, much like how Game 1 started in this series last Spring. The immediate response was positive from the Leafs as they generated consecutive push back shifts started by the Auston Matthews line and didn’t stray from the gameplan. As 90% of the audience watching went, “Here we go again,” that was a mature response from the Leafs and a good sign that Game 1 was going to be a much different story this time around.

2.  All eyes entering the night were on how the Marchand/Bergeron/Pastrnak matchup was going to play out at 5v5 for the Leafs and if this time around would be any different. John Tavares and Mitch Marner answered that question pretty emphatically tonight. Marner was the best player on the ice for either team, putting on a display of 200-foot excellence (constant second and third efforts tracking back defensively), and of course, he swung the game in the Leafs’ favour with the 1-1 goal followed by the beautifully-taken 2-1 shorthanded penalty-shot goal. Boston didn’t have an answer for Marner last Spring and it looks like they’re going to struggle to find one again this year.

Tavares was right behind Marner in the conversation for the best player on the ice — he won 62% of his draws, including big wins over Patrice Bergeron for the 1-1 goal as well as the 4-1 goal where he iced the game with an excellent effort from his knees. The Leafs won the matchup at 5v5 both on the scoresheet and in the possession battle. Any time that’s the case in the marquee matchup, the Leafs’ odds skyrocket with their depth advantage.

So much of any series comes down to which team’s best players outplay the others, and this was a very encouraging start from Tavares, Marner and Matthews in that respect. That said, there is an amazing top line with a lot of pride on the other side of this series and a good start is just that — a start.

3.  Couldn’t have scripted it any better from the Leafs’ point of view than Nazem Kadri and William Nylander connecting for a beautiful 3-1 insurance goal off of a threaded stretch pass by Kadri. Both players had disappointing seasons but have the opportunity in front of them here to completely flip that script in the playoffs by taking advantage of some advantageous matchup situations in the third-line role. The goal instantly went to their feet; Nylander was engaged throughout and found another level to his game as far as stopping on pucks and competing down low in the offensive zone. Kadri, after a bit of a rough start for him and his line, started throwing the body, running his mouth, and looked more like Kadri of old again.

Ensuring the split in Boston is huge, but how they did it was just as notable — they won the Bergeron matchup at 5v5, Frederik Andersen was rock solid, and they also got these two (Nylander and Kadri) going early in the series. The Coyle line took it to them early, but they turned it around and if they can come to life going forward in this series, the Leafs could really exploit some mismatches with this pair.

4.  Anyone that thought this was going to be an easy series for Boston clearly stopped watching the playoffs after the Leafs lost out last year (in seven, by the way, after leading entering the third) and didn’t see what Tampa Bay did to this Bruins team. The Leafs may not be Tampa Bay, but a year more experienced now (Matthews, Nylander, Kapanen, Johnsson, Marner, Dermott, etc) and with Tavares added to the fold, they can push the pace on the Bruins and create serious matchup challenges over four lines.

This game was played the way the Leafs want it to be played and they looked like the faster and deeper team at 5v5 — the neutral zone was pretty wide open, the Leafs were able to hurry the Bruins into turnovers on the forecheck, and they stressed Boston constantly in the transition game. Significant parts of the Bruins defense did not look like it could cope with the pace of the game in open-ice play; the Leafs’ right-wing group lining up against Zdeno Chara throughout this series looks like it could be a major conundrum for Boston as the Leafs were pretty deliberate about attacking that side of the ice with flips and chips in behind him.

That said, we’ll see how the Bruins adjust and if they can clamp down on the neutral zone more in Game 2 as the Leafs will take that kind of play style all series long if they can get it.

5.  We could see early signs that Mike Babcock has more comfort in what he’s got at his disposal down the middle of the ice this time around.  There were a couple of opportunities to slip in Tavares or Matthews’ line against the Bruins bottom six following icings, but he mostly let it unfold as Boston wanted it for the first 40 minutes (the matchup game then changed considerably once the Bruins were shortening their bench chasing the game). He looks like he’s going to let those matchups roll if he can and keep the flow off his bench a high priority; it’s a nice luxury if you can say, “We’re confident enough in what we have here not to over-coach this,” and in a perfect world, it helps the Leafs skate the other team into the ground over 60 minutes. Of course, best-laid plans are one thing, but game situations (chasing vs. leading) dictate everything at the end of the day.

6.  Just 6:40 in ice time at 5v5, but it was a big game from the Leafs’ fourth line, who several times helped tilt the ice and set up the Leafs’ scoring lines for the next shift with some momentum and/or an offensive zone face-off by providing the kind of down-low grinding that was a serious question mark for this Leafs team entering the series. Connor Brown landed the first big hit of the first period and was driving the net and mixing it up throughout (his best game in a long time); Trevor Moore was grinding away on the forecheck, keeping his feet moving, and withstanding tons of abuse down low to extend cycles. While they played under seven minutes, the fourth line was trusted with four shifts in the third period (one more than the second and one fewer than the first).

7.  The other bit of adversity the Leafs needed to weather came in the second period in about a 5-10 minute spell where the Bruins got on top of them with consecutive heavy o-zone shifts (the only time that really happened all night). They needed some crossbar help on a Charlie Coyle scoring opportunity and a few big saves from Frederik Andersen, but the Leafs withstood the wave and generated three grade-A scoring opportunities on the counterattack — one ended in a crucial insurance goal from Nylander before Rask turned aside a breakaway for Tavares and an odd-man chance for Auston Matthews. If the Leafs can get Boston chasing the game more often than not in this series by dictating the pace of games early and burying on their opportunities, they will create plenty of chances to put games away by catching Boston gambling; their blue line group as a whole does not have very good recovery speed.

8.  The defense pair that ended up drawing the most of the Bergeron matchup was the Muzzin – Zaitsev pairing; the Rielly – Hainsey pairing saw only a little bit more of Boston’s top line than they did their fourth line. The pairing had some nice moments defensively — Muzzin settled in made some key defensive plays + first passes, and Zaitsev, while he struggled moving the puck and completing plays at times, made some key defensive stops as well. Muzzin and Zaitsev finished the game top of the team in scoring chance share (66%).

The thinking here with this matchup in Babcock’s mind is that these two stop cycles better than anyone else on the Leafs blue line (I certainly agree in Muzzin’s case), but there were definitely a few moments when moving the puck out of their own zone that were less than confidence-inspiring. It helped greatly that the Leafs have a forward line that was providing proper support and generating offensive zone time in the Tavares line. This will be an interesting situation to monitor.

9. One defense pair that is going to have to gel quickly here is the Gardiner – Dermott combo as there was some jumpy play with the puck for those two and they didn’t seem totally comfortable or in sync with one another timing-wise. That in part contributed to the Kadri line’s struggles to start the game. Gardiner finished the night with just one on-ice shot for/12 against and played just 16 minutes and change. Undoubtedly, a big part of it is that they’re just a couple of games removed from returning from significant injuries. This is a pairing that has the potential to chew up secondary matchups, but they’ll need to settle in, and we’ll have to see how Gardiner’s ice time tracks from here as it will be indicative of how far off from 100% he is at the moment.

10.  Frederik Andersen started the Bruins series last year by giving up five on 40 shots in Game 1 and three on five shots in Game 2 (making way for Curtis McElhinney afterward). It goes without saying another big must for the Leafs was Andersen getting off to a good start to this series. He did exactly that, stopping everything asked of him outside of an unstoppable seam-pass PP goal from Patrice Bergeron. His biggest sequences came in that second-period spell of pressure from the Bruins, but he made timely saves throughout.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins, Game 1

Game Highlights

Post-Game: Mike Babcock