Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s Alec Brownscombe discussed the start of the Bruins vs. Leafs series and the adjustments that are likely to take place in Game 2 on TSN1200 on Saturday afternoon.
On how Game 1 shook out:
The game went exactly according to script from the Leafs perspective.
They ratcheted up a notch as far as their competitiveness and physicality, they skated well through 60 minutes, and they outplayed them at 5v5 by outskating them, playing the game at their pace in their preferred style of play. Their transition game was going. They were able to get in behind the Bruins defense a number of times and stretch out the ice on them.
It’s what I said last week about how the Leafs have the ability to make this series be played at a pace that is uncomfortable for Boston if they execute their game plan, and while Boston certainly didn’t have their best stuff, I thought the Leafs did a really good job of that.
Their best players were their best players. Marner was on another level. Matthews and Tavares were really good. Andersen was really good.
We talked about X Factors — Kadri, like we talked about last week, was he gonna be able to find that next level after a bad year? He did. His line started kind of slow but he was engaged by the end of it, throwing his body and running his mouth, and set up a huge goal on that beautiful stretch pass to Nylander. Getting Nylander and Kadri going early in this series was another thing I thought was really important to winning the series. That happened. Nylander’s goal went straight to his legs, as did Kadri’s assist.
They’ve got their guaranteed split, but it’s not just that they split, it’s how they won, who showed up, and the manner in which the game played out, which were all encouraging from the Leaf perspective.
On the Leafs‘ team speed advantage:
When I talked last week about how this team is faster and deeper at 5v5 than the Bruins, we tend to think about speed in the offensive sense a lot and how it helps to generate offense, and we tend to talk a lot about the stretch pass and the rush offense. But what the Leafs team speed helps them do if they’re executing and dialed in is play very fast on defense.
It’s how they close and hurry mistakes and make the Bruins D uncomfortable on the forecheck. It’s especially important in how they track back through the neutral zone — the Leafs did a great job for the most part in Game 1 of skating, tracking back hard and supplying good back pressure, which then sets up your D to play with aggressive gaps and step up on guys at the line because that support is there. The Leafs gave the Bruins top line very few opportunities to gather speed through the neutral zone and gain the line clean.
That then sets up your transition game. If you’re backchecking fast and the D is keeping its gaps, holding the line and playing with good sticks defensively — which their blue line group did a pretty good job in general — then you’ve got opportunities to turn back the other way on the transition and really do some damage. And the Leafs can transition from defense to offense so quickly and create scoring chances so quickly.
On adjustments for Game 2 for the Bruins:
From the Bruins perspective, they played a bad game. They’ll be better and Babcock should be getting his team well prepared for that.
The Bruins gifted the Leafs some things with how poorly they managed the puck in general and at the offensive blue line in particular. Some of that stuff they won’t do again. Their template is really what they did to the Leafs for about 5-7 minutes in the second period where they really got on top of them with consecutive heavy shifts in the offensive-zone. They’re able to tilt the ice like that more than they showed in Game 1 if they manage the puck better and up the physical factor.
They’ll adjust to try to clamp down on the neutral zone more. What we’ll also see is whether or not they try to up the dirtbag factor.
I’m not a complain-about-the-refs guy, and this is how playoff hockey works. But the only thing that got called in that game was two high sticking calls that are basically automatic and then one open-ice interference penalty by Chara that was so blatant the refs couldn’t find a way not to call it. Everything else was fair game. The Leafs did a good job of elevating their physicality and the Bruins mentioned they noticed that — but the Bruins are the slower-skating, more physical, dirtier team. So we’ll see what happens if and when they start to try to push the edge on it more and what they can get away with.
They’re going to put Backes back in. He’s pretty irrelevant now if you ignore him for the most part, but he can definitely get some licks in on you and his goal will be to get the other team thinking about him, so we’ll see. The Leafs need to ignore him when he starts up.
Bruce Cassidy’s line about how they decided they need to ice the fastest lineup available to them because they felt they had to — it raised some eyebrows because the perception was the Bruins way to win this series was playing physical on the Leafs and grinding them down. And I think his concern that they needed enough speed in the lineup was legitimate, but the way in which they played the game was like they were going to go out and skate up and down the ice with the Leafs and beat them at their own kind of game. You’ll lose that in five games if you do.
On the Leafs’ counter adjustments:
There is a fixation on this stretch pass stuff the Leafs do where they release wingers and try to either catch you out or force your D back and create space underneath. The Leafs do this a lot for sure and if they’re picking their spots, it can be quite effective. But what’s notable is that they also executed some nice breakouts where they used their low support and broke out with numbers. As the Bruins try to adjust by turning the dials back a bit on how aggressive they are going to be in order to account for the Leafs stretching it out on them successfully at times in Game 1 — if they start sagging back a bit through the neutral zone to ensure they have numbers there and aren’t getting caught out — the Leafs are going to have to do a lot of that to get their speed game going.