After all of the silliness that transpired in Game 2, the Toronto Maple Leafs came back home and focused on what mattered most in Game 3 – playing hockey.

The Leafs were focused on playing whistle to whistle. There were few scrums in this game and few extra shenanigans in general. That plays to the Leafs’ advantage.

Home ice advantage and its significance is often debated, but so far we have seen notable differences in play, particularly the physicality. In Game 2, the Bruins came out and hit everything that moved. In Game 3, they came out and did not land a hit of significance. The Leafs came out and were the aggressor. They got in on the forecheck, had a few strong energy shifts — one in particular from the fourth line — and the crowd was going early.

But after the Bruins weathered the storm, they came on strong in the second half of the period and outshot the Leafs 15-10 by the end. They had a series of chances, including David Pastrnak all alone in front, Brad Marchand walking down the ice for a shot in the slot, and Brandon Carlo hitting the post.

The second period was a bit of a seesaw battle – The Leafs scored early, the Bruins responded essentially immediately, both teams traded some good chances (Tavares in tight all alone, Krejci again in front with a tip and missed net right after), and then the Leafs scored twice on the power play before the Bruins answered with a power play goal of their own (it’s noteworthy that they are now 3/9 on the power play this series).

What was impressive about the Leafs’ power play was all the battles they won to keep the attack alive, which is an area the team has struggled in on occasion. Mitch Marner and Andreas Johnsson engaged with Patrice Bergeron, got the puck back, and both picked up assists on Auston Matthews’ goal. Tavares forechecked hard and Matthews was strong on the puck leading to Johnsson’s goal on the next power play. It’s an old cliché, but power play units have to outwork penalty killing units to have success (at times), and the Leafs did that in Game 3. The goals definitely went to the Leafs legs. This fourth line shift speaks for itself:

In the third period, the Leafs worked towards answering a question many have had of them – how they would close out a tight, low-scoring game with a one-goal lead. Although the shots will show 10 – 8 for the Bruins, they were in the Leafs zone for stretches in the third. The Leafs were able to counterattack, though; in particular, Zach Hyman broke in after crushing Zdeno Chara and Matthews was alone in tight, too. But the third was about the Leafs gutting it out. Babcock went down to two lines and really only four defensemen, and it was hard to blame him. The Matthews and Tavares lines had shifts eating the puck in the offensive zone at times (Matthews had a great one in the final few minutes that got a roar from the crowd). And of course, there were Mitch Marner’s shot blocks.

For me, other than Frederik Andersen, Marner has consistently been the team’s best player and the guy driving the bus since the season started (and of course, he led the team in points, too). To see him be the guy that lays out and sacrifices his body with the game on the line… I mean, what a powerful message that sends to the rest of the group.

I was at the game and I’ve watched the replays of the blocks and celebrations right after multiple times, but on TV, you really couldn’t appreciate just how fired up the team got over that. In particular, the cameras didn’t really capture how after the initial hugs he got — including Muzzin lifting him off his feet — Matthews circled back for another round of screaming and cheering. It was a big play in the game, of course, but it could be a play we look back on as something a lot bigger.

Going into the series, I discussed the Leafs’ competitiveness and how Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock wondered aloud about it. So far, the Leafs have answered those questions for two games and have one game they would probably like back. That’s how playoff series go. Look at what Tampa and Pittsburgh just did (or didn’t do). Twice in the last six years, the Bruins have eliminated the Leafs, and the Leafs never once had a series lead against them — until now. They look comfortable and they have a winning formula. Now, can they stick to it?


Notes

  • So, what did the Leafs do with matchups? The Matthews line went head to head against the Krejci line that had Jake DeBrusk and Karson Kuhlman on it. Interestingly, they got the Torrey Krug – Brandon Carlo pairing this time around. The Bruins sort of sold out in the head to head matchup, as did the Leafs with Tavares going right back to getting Bergeron in the big battle.
  • Both teams had their top six forwards each play at least 17 minutes – this was a top-heavy game that really came down to the top players on each team battling it out.
  • Of course, then, the difference was the Leafs got a contribution from a depth line — in this case, Trevor Moore and the fourth line pitched in with a goal.
  • Usual Leaf killer David Pastrnak is now at no goals and one assist with 10 shots on net through three games.
  • I believe William Nylander’s final shift came with just under seven minutes left in the third. Notably, a few minutes later, Babcock put Frederik Gauthier on instead of him. Nylander played only 13:31 and hasn’t played more than 15:08 so far in any of the playoff games. At this point, it’s fair to say the coaching staff does not have that much confidence in him.
  • Auston Matthews had a really good overall game – he’s going to watch the David Krejci goal, though, and realize he was staring at the puck, which led to Krejci being all alone in front of the net. In his own end, that’s the type of positioning he is going to need to continue to work on. You can’t lose your man that easily.
  • Few thoughts from being there live: Jake Muzzin is really good, which many of you knew. While speed can get to him at times, he is really patient with the puck and looks to make plays. I think that’s the big reason he has been solid with Zaitsev, who notoriously puts it off the glass and out at the slightest sense of pressure. In the third, Muzzin stepped up in the neutral zone, had the puck on his side of center, hesitated as if he was going up the wall, and then calmly hit a Leafs forward in the middle of the ice for a clean pass. It wasn’t a huge play, but the Leafs gained the zone clean and spent some time in there, which is much better than a dump-in giveaway.
  • On one icing in the third, Gardiner had the puck and waited as long as he could as Marleau had his back completely turned to him, skating up ice instead of giving him an outlet or getting open. Gardiner eventually threw it up the wall because he had no choice. Marleau had no idea, and it went for icing. Before the faceoff, Marleau swung by Gardiner and said “my bad,” acknowledging it was on him. It’s no wonder it has been a bit of an adjustment for Muzzin, having all these Leafs forwards constantly blowing the zone instead of opening up and getting open for an actual outlet pass.
  • Credit where it’s due: Nikita Zaitsev was good. He is physical along the walls and stops a lot of cycles, which Babcock has noted before. Zaitsev still struggles with the puck and misses open passes at times, but he is getting in the way of Bruins forwards in the defensive zone and he has been physical and aggressive, helping to knock pucks loose for Leafs players to swoop in and grab.
  • The Leafs could stand to use their speed more and drive the net off the rush. Often, the Leafs skated it into the corner or tried rounding the net (Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander were the most guilty of these two things) and the Bruins definitely have defenders the Leafs can stand to attack off the rush because of lack of footspeed (or they’re just small and weak). It actually felt like they respected them too much at times.
  • I’ve said this repeatedly, but being there live, I can’t stress how hurt Jake Gardiner is. This is the worst I’ve ever seen him skate and he has been here since 2011. Good for him for gutting it out and not complaining, but I really do feel for the guy. Hopefully, he can get comfortable and work his way into the games more.

Quotes

“It is always interesting to me. We are always talking about ice time, but what I do is just look at their shifts and how many shifts they had and did they go long enough. Our game, the way it is, if you play too long, you are building up lactic acid and you can’t perform at the highest level. In order to play defense, you’ve got to be fresh.”

– Mike Babcock on ice time and shifts length

Thought this was an interesting little nugget from Babcock on how he looks at the game and bench management. Something to keep in mind moving forward.

“It could change quickly. We met with them today and went over a few things and I think they recognize where they’ve left some offense on the table. It hasn’t been much of a line rush, offensive series. It’s been a bit of a battle of two offensive lines playing good defensively where they can’t get it going offensively.”

– Bruce Cassidy on keeping his top line together, which he intends do

This is a really interesting development in the series and splitting the line could have a significant impact either way. For now, the Leafs are feeling good about this matchup and should stick with it, but at some point, you have to figure the Bruins are going to get more out of these guys over a long series?

“Seeing all the blue and white in the stands and driving into Scotiabank yesterday was phenomenal.”

– John Tavares on playing at home in the playoffs

That was not my first playoff game, including Raptors game, and I am telling you: The crowd was awesome. There was a real buzz in the arena, and once the Leafs got the lead, it just got louder and louder the longer it lasted. The Frederik Andersen chants and cheers echoed throughout the whole arena. The place exploded when Matthews scored.

“It’s just another level when you score a goal in the playoffs especially at home … it feels like an earthquake under you. The atmosphere tonight was unbelievable.”

– Auston Matthews on scoring at home

Yep.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think the Leafs need an after-PP unit due to these lines now. After a power play goal, the fourth line started the next shift and got absolutely dominated; in-game momentum-wise, that’s not setting yourself up to build on what’s happening. It gets the Bruins right back in it. The Leafs can easily put together a Hyman – Nylander – Brown line (or dare I say Moore), then circle back with the Matthews line and get everything back in order neatly.
  2. Speaking of Trevor Moore, he clearly needs additional ice time. Patrick Marleau is really struggling — there really isn’t much else to say. Meanwhile, Moore is physical, he’s creating turnovers, and he’s controlling the puck in the offensive zone. His speed and energy has been difficult for the Bruins to handle and it is painfully obvious to the eye on pretty well every shift he takes. It won’t happen, but he should really be playing on the third line with Nylander and Brown.
  3. I know there was a debate about whether to put Patrick Marleau at center so William Nylander can play with Matthews, but I have no idea how you can do that. Marleau is struggling on the wing right now, so how would center look? And Nylander isn’t exactly going, either. Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson are not lighting the world on fire by any means, but both turned in really good second halves to Game 3 and that line is starting to grind out good, offensive shifts. You pretty well have to keep the top two lines together going in.
  4. If Bruins do split up their top line, I think there is no real adjustment the Leafs can make at this point. The Matthews line would just play against the Krejci line with Pastrnak on it and Tavares will get the Bergeron line without him there. I think you’d have to see that battle develop before actually making any adjustments against it.
  5. I think a big key for the Leafs is just playing whistle to whistle. They need to keep that up. Don’t engage any extra garbage with the Bruins and just play your game. One adjustment they should look at is sending two in deep on the forecheck more. It was a turnover almost every time.