First test passed.
Heading into the series, we discussed how it would be a primarily 5v5 series (there were three total penalties in the game) and how different the two teams are in their style of play.
The story of game, then, was that the style of play favoured the Leafs. The neutral zone was wide open all game, the stretch pass was there, and once the Leafs got the lead, they were counterattacking with ease. In the second period alone, they generated three breakaways and a 3v1.
In the first period, the Bruins came out and had some chances, but it was not the physical, aggressive and perhaps dominant start that many expected for Boston. The first shift was a little shaky as Nikita Zaitsev committed a relatively unforced turnover and the Bruins spent the first minute and change in the Leafs zone, but after that, it was a relatively low-event feeling-out process, which worked for Toronto just fine. When the Bruins did score, the crowd piped up and there was a slight feeling of “Here we go again,” but this time the Leafs responded well and did not let up in their play, leading to a Mitch Marner tying goal.
The second period was a different story. The Bruins came out ready to go and put 21 shots on net. They missed multiple chances and it was the Leafs who were opportunistic, taking the lead and then scoring what really felt like a back-breaking goal (somehow, despite tons of time left in the game).
In the third, the Leafs played as good of a road third period in a playoff game as you could ask for. The shots on net were 9-9, the Bruins were generally kept at bay, and the composure was there from the Leafs’ point of view.
The story was the style of play in Game 1, though. At one point in the third period, William Nylander picked up the puck in his own zone, wound up and skated up the ice without pressure from a Bruin until essentially the Boston blue line. If the Bruins are giving the Leafs that much space every game, it’s going to be a short series for them. When the Leafs defense were in possession of the puck, they were able to find stretch passes and the Leafs forwards were actually getting in behind the Bruins defense:
Rielly with a stretch pass to spring Johnsson for the short side attempt. pic.twitter.com/zU9HoKP3Me
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) April 11, 2019
One thing that most people noted is that there was no point in looking at the regular season games between the two teams knowing they had not played each other in months. Shockingly, the Bruins were not ready for the Leafs’ speed. Zdeno Chara was repeatedly beaten and looked his age all night (42). Earlier this week, a quote from Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy caught my eye:
“I think we’re going to dress our fastest lineup. I just think that’s how the series is going to start out.”
That caught me off guard because it’s not really their identity. If the Bruins want to play fast against the Leafs, they are going to be in for a rude awakening, as they were in Game 1.
Once the Leafs took the lead, it was rarely nerve-wracking. They were in control and fairly composed in the third period. When the game was officially over, there wasn’t much in the way of celebration or emotion as it was a pretty business-like end to the game. From the Leafs side of things, it was about as good a start as you could have asked for.
- We’ve talked about the top-line matchup a lot — I thought Babcock sent a really strong message to start the game by putting the John Tavares line on for the first shift. Basically, “We’re not running from anything, we’re starting our top players, and now it’s your call since you have last change.” That was an excellent game from Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman. Marner and Tavares were the two best players on the ice. Period. Look at the work of Tavares against the top competition in this game, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. This is what they paid him for.
- In the last six games of the regular season, the Leafs went to two shootouts, their first two of the season. Mitch Marner shot both times and missed both times. Against Montreal, I actually wanted a second look at it because it seemed like it went in, but he made a very similar move in that shootout attempt. Wonder if those “practice” attempts in the regular season not that long ago helped him feel just a bit more comfortable taking his shootout attempt against Rask.
- What a great response shift from the Auston Matthews line after the opening goal of the game. They got the puck in the offensive zone and went right back to work, looking completely unaffected by the crowd and score. Shortly after line four made, to me, their biggest contribution of the game with a pure energy shift highlighted by a heck of a battle by Trevor Moore behind the goal-line. The physicality of the team, or lack thereof, has been a hotly-debated topic, but at minimum, this is the type of play that’s necessary: Second efforts, digging in when engaged in battles, and showing fearlessness up against Bruins players regardless of how big they are. The Leafs have not always done that throughout the regular season, but they brought that in Game 1.
- The Leafs did really limit the fourth line ice time – Trevor Moore and Frederik Gauthier played 6:40 each, Connor Brown played 8:25. That line did have good moments, but playoffs is about best versus best. Auston Matthews led all forwards with 20:42 TOI and Mitch Marner played 19:08. I was surprised to see John Tavares was actually fifth among forwards in ice time, clocking 17:48. Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman were ahead of him as well.
- Jake Gardiner played limited ice time (16:32) and at times struggled to pick up pucks in transition on d-to-d passes and pivot up ice. He is clearly not healthy and working back into game shape at the same time. If he can come on as the series progresses, that would be a significant development for the Leafs.
- The Bruins came out chasing the matchup we discussed – going head to head with the top lines, and they started Krug and Carlo with them, but the Tavares line was too good and Chara and McAvoy saw heavy time against them instead.
- At times, Babcock shifted William Nylander to play with Auston Matthews and bumped Kasperi Kapanen down. There was some lineup creativity happening throughout the night. Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly played over two minutes together as well.
- It has been a little bit forgotten about in the post-mortem, but that was a huge save by Frederik Andersen in the final minute of the first period against Patrice Bergeron all alone in tight. That would have been a huge swing in the game. Andersen was dialled in all night and, for one game anyways, looked rested, healthy, and ready.
“I thought our worst stretch there was in the second we didn’t execute there for a while and then I thought we settled in and played and made some plays.”
– Mike Babcock on the team holding the lead
The third was about as nondescript as a road playoff game can be while defending a lead. There was just nothing happening for Boston. It was a combination of a bunch of factors (including how the Bruins played), but kudos to the Leafs.
“If we just manage the puck better it will allow us to play to our strength and be heavier and win the battles on the walls, you know and that doesn’t come into play as much [their speed], and they get fatigued. Everyone gets fatigued defending.”
– Bruce Cassidy on the Bruins’ puck management
I expect them to simplify and slow the game right down moving forward – lots of dump-ins, neutral zone trapping, and hitting and cycling as much as they can.
“We just want to stay above them all night and make it hard on them to get to our line and get it in. Muzzy and Zaits did a great job stopping them at the line a lot of time and stopping the rush. For us forwards just making sure we are playing as hard as we can in their zone and when they do get out they aren’t fully fresh.”
– Marner discussing the matchup against the Bergeron line
Kevin noted how Marchand and Pastrnak can generate speed and gain the zone cleanly with the puck using their pace through the neutral zone. The Leafs clearly want to limit this, track back hard, have their defense step up and be physical, and make them work to get the puck back. So far, so good.
- I think the Muzzin – Zaitsev pairing wasn’t always pretty, but they were generally effective against the top line. Muzzin in particular, I thought, was very good. We had mentioned this before, but this is his pace and style of play. He fits into this series well. I think you keep that matchup going alongside the Tavares line. That leaves Rielly to feast with Matthews in other matchups, which is the ideal situation for the Leafs.
- I think the Leafs are still trying to figure out that third line to some degree, but we got a taste of how big that line contributing is to this series for the Leafs. The Tavares – Bergeron matchup is going to be relatively even. Matthews should feel good against Krejci, but that’s a tough matchup, particularly with how well Jake DeBrusk is playing. But the third line is there. What a pass by Kadri and finish by Nylander. The game never felt in doubt after that.
- I think Brown and Moore were really effective in limited roles. I would not be hesitant to sneak any of the top three centres out with them for the odd shift to get them some ice time and maybe even exploit a matchup against the Bruins.
- I think I would be monitoring Tavares standing in front of the net on the power play.On the Leafs’ one power play, he took a lot of abuse in front of the net and that’s just completely unnecessary abuse that adds up over the playoffs. I get that he’s good in front and if you are losing it’s a different story, but you don’t need to put Tavares out to get whacked for a minute-plus.
- I think I would expect a much better, and tighter, effort from the Bruins in Game 2. They won’t be that bad again. I am guessing David Backes will be inserted for an added element of physicality and emotion, which they lacked in Game 1. I would be ready for a different type of Game 2, but the Leafs should still focus on what made the team successful in game one – their speed and breaking open the neutral zone.