Heading into Game 4, there was a lot of discussion surrounding how hard the Boston Bruins were going to come out and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ need to weather the proverbial storm.

I found this strange. The Leafs were the home team, have a great crowd, and should be feeling about themselves and their game. They should be the ones dictating play, particularly in the comforts of their home building.

It got kind of lost in all the goals that ended up being scored, but they actually did have a good first few shifts.  However, they took a penalty, the Bruins scored and then they scored quickly again, and there seemed to be some shell-shock that set in.

Many of the Leafs players, particularly John Tavares and Frederik Andersen, admitted it was not their best start and that the Bruins came out harder than them.

Of concern for the Leafs is the Bergeron line started scoring in the Tavares matchup. For the game, Tavares was on for three against in that matchup. There is an additional concern in that the Bruins moved Pastrnak to the second line and the top line scored with Heinen in his place. Pastrnak ended the game with two goals as well (one scored back with the top line at 5v5, one on the power play), so the Bruins, in general, have to be feeling good about the changes they made. They now go home, where they have the ability to completely control whatever they want the matchups to be.

To the Leafs‘ credit, though, the team did battle back. Andersen made a huge save to keep the game at 2-0 and then the Leafs started to tilt the ice in their favour. Nylander was robbed in tight, the team finally broke through, and then they managed to tie the game up.

While the tying goal was weak, one thing that was nice to see is the pressure the Leafs applied all over the ice to regain the puck. This is something we have talked about throughout the season — the team using their speed to create turnovers (similar to what Vegas does).

When you have to work really hard to tie the game, you can sometimes run out of gas a little bit once you do, and the Bruins capitalized. The third goal was a really bad pinch by Muzzin, which Babcock made reference to after the game, as he wasn’t even close to the play on the wall and didn’t have the support. There was no need for it.

The Bruins then scored yet another power play goal and are now clicking at 45.5% in the series. This is clearly a legitimate concern and the Leafs have been running around in their zone – in particular, the forwards don’t appear to have any structure or positioning. The forwards and defense as a whole are not synchronized at all right now and the personnel options are limited.

When Boston scored another one to make it 5-2, it appeared the game might be a laugher, but again to the Leafs’ credit, they battled back. This is something we have seen throughout the season – you can’t sleep on this team. They are too talented to think any lead is safe. Suddenly it was 5-4, the crowd was buzzing, and the chance to tie it was very, very real.

Looking back at the final minutes, the Leafs definitely rushed a bit. In particular, Nylander and Marner both had the puck in the zone and forced shots through instead of setting it up, both of which led to easy Bruin clears of the puck out of the zone. That will probably be worth reviewing for Toronto – they have shown multiple times throughout the season that they can tie the game when they set up shop in the final few minutes with the goalie pulled.

But there are positives for the Leafs. Nylander definitely played his best game of the playoffs – he created and had chances all night and finished with his highest ice time total in the playoffs. Matthews continued scoring, which is a positive to continue building on (he also had seven shots on net). The team put up 42 shots and took over the offensive zone in the second half. Boston was generally on the run.

But they can’t start games the way they did, and they can’t continue to not be able to kill penalties. Heading into what will be a loud Boston crowd, those are the two main concerns to be mindful of.


Notes

  • How did the matchups play out with these lines changes? The Tavares line still went up against Bergeron and Marchand. The Krejci line still went up against the Matthews unit for good chunks of the game. Boston also started relying on Charlie Coyle more as he played his series-high 18:57 and almost nine of those were 5v5 minutes against Auston Matthews. That spread allowed the Bruins line with Krejci and Pastrnak the opportunity to play over five minutes against the Nylander line. Cassidy’s plan was essentially to split that second matchup against Matthews to give Pastrnak really soft matchups.
  • There has been some discussion about why the Leafs are playing Jake Gardiner if he’s hurt and struggling so much – with the Leafs down, he played over 20 minutes and picked up an assist. He’s still good along the offensive blue line, although he’s not moving well. There were a few opportunities where he had shooting lanes and passed on them. Without his mobility to maneuver into good spots, he might not have the confidence for those shots.
  • Conversely, with the Leafs down, Nikita Zaitsev didn’t even play 17 minutes and Ron Hainsey played under 16. If you’re looking for a potential bright spot, limiting their minutes for a game could ultimately prove to be a good thing.
  • The Leafs were able to gain the zone at will for large parts of the game – in part leading to those 42 shots on net. If the Bruins think they can get away with that for the rest of the series, that will be to the Leafs benefit. Andreas Johnsson has strung together two good games now with his ability to use his speed between the blue lines, gain the zone, and make plays. He had three shots on net, four hits, and an assist in just over 18 minutes of ice time.
  • Toronto is putting a lot of pucks back to the point for shots in this series as the Bruins collapse – 14 of their 42 shots on net were from defensemen, two directly leading to goals.
  • Part of this is that the Leafs forwards just aren’t driving the net enough. I don’t think this was an actual breakaway, but we have seen this kind of play often throughout the series where the Leafs forward has a step on a Bruins defender and pulls up. Put your shoulder down and drive the net.


Quotes

“Heinen has played with Bergy and March when Pasta missed four or five weeks. He did a good job up there, tailed off a little at the end. I’m not sure Danton can sustain it at this point in his career every night against the top lines and top D, but he certainly does a nice job in spots. Pasta and Krech have played together so it was just a different look. Johansson’s back in so that gives us some balance on the third line, a threat to score with Charlie (Coyle), a little more than what we had.”

– Bruce Cassidy on shaking up his lines

I am curious if Cassidy reverts the lines back for Game 5. He’s back at home and in control of the matchups, he can get the top line away from the Tavares unit, and he probably feels great about that.

“I thought we were set up good for that, to be honest with you. I wasn’t concerned with that one bit… I thought our matchups were fine. That, to me, wasn’t it. We just made some mistakes. We pinched when we shouldn’t have. We gave up some opportunities we didn’t need to give up that we hadn’t been doing.”

– Mike Babcock on the matchups after the Bruins shook up their lines

I mentioned in the last notebook, but I wouldn’t stress on changing lines to match the Bruins if they did move Pastrnak around. I still think that was the right call. They didn’t lose the game because of the line changing by Boston.

“These games, this time of year it’s very small differences so just stay with it and build off the good things. Just be ready to bounce back. We’ve obviously done some good things here over the course of four games.”

– John Tavares reflecting on the series so far

There’s obviously apprehension about heading to Boston for a significant playoff game, but really, of the two past series that many are so fond of mentioning, this is the first time the Leafs aren’t playing catch up. In both those series, they were down 3-1 and stormed back. This time, the Leafs are right in and it’s a back and forth battle. There are a lot of positives the Leafs can draw on. While Game 5 will be in a hostile environment, they know if they stick to their game, they have a good chance to win.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. I think Babcock is in a tough spot when it comes to the lines. William Nylander was really good in Game 4 — easily his best game of the playoffs — and it would have been nice to play him with Matthews. But if he takes him off center to do so, the only player on the team with center experience that would be somewhat comfortable replacing him there is Patrick Marleau. He’s really struggled, and I don’t think you can feasibly feel confident in that. I think Babcock can’t really do anything else, at least at center ice.
  2. I think I’d also go down to two lines for the final few minutes of each period, thus getting Nylander up with Matthews for some extra shifts.
  3. I know I’ve mentioned this, but on this note, I think the Par Lindholm for Nic Petan swap is playing a bit of a factor in this series. Lindholm is not going to move the needle in any capacity, but they trusted him at 3C for nearly a month while Matthews was hurt and felt comfortable with him there. He could have conceivably taken some spot duty at the 3C hole, allowing Nylander to move up. The little moves add up. Babcock clearly has zero interest in playing Petan.
  4. I think the return of Sean Kuraly could be significant. In the last two games, the Bruins fourth line had a 27.27CF% and was outscored 2-0. Kuraly is a good player and if I was the Leafs I would be ready for that spark to their fourth line and possibly be ready to combat that by, yet again, giving Trevor Moore additional minutes up the lineup. He’s just making things happen when he gets on the ice and the Leafs should expect some better depth from the Bruins moving forward with Kuraly’s return.
  5. I think the Leafs really need to focus on no extra-curricular stuff with the Bruins tonight. Just play the game whistle to whistle. Use your speed. Keep the game simple early. If it’s 0-0 after the first 10 minutes, I think you can feel good about that and slowly take the game over, as they have done throughout most of the series.