A third Game 7 in Boston in the last six years will decide whether or not the Toronto Maple Leafs can end their 15-year drought without a playoff series victory tonight at TD Garden (7 p.m, CBC).
It’s always felt like the Leafs‘ road to the final eight was going to have to go through a Game 7 in Boston. And here we are.
A major talking point entering Game 7 has been the special teams difference tipping the scales of a tight series in the Bruins’ favour. Toronto allowed two more 5v4 goals against in Game 5 and the number of chances and amount of in-zone possession the Bruins have had on the power play all series long doesn’t look good for the Leafs. In just over 27 minutes at 5v4 this series, the Bruins have produced at a rate of 7.5 xGF/60, while the Leafs have only managed 5.9 in 22:52 of ice time.
Toronto has actually managed more shot attempts per hour on their power play, but the Bruins have been far superior in getting pucks to the net and the most dangerous areas of the ice. Boston has moved the puck extremely well on their power play when set up — something they did far too easily in Game 6 with the Leafs‘ faceoff struggles.
Outside of limiting their opportunities on the man advantage by staying out of the box in the first place — and winning more faceoffs if they don’t — the Leafs are going to have to be much more aggressive about closing down time and space so that the Bruins can’t comfortably move the puck around and slowly but surely pick them apart.
At 5-on-5, this series has gotten tighter and tighter as it’s progressed. In Game 1, the combined expected goals total at even strength was 4.9 compared to 2.6 in Game 5 and 3.1 in Game 6. That trend hasn’t necessarily favoured either team heavily, as the Leafs outplayed Boston in a very low-event Game 5 and the Bruins did the same to the Leafs in Game 6. It does put more emphasis on what happens on the respective power plays, however, and the concern is that puts Boston at a slight advantage unless something changes soon on both sides of the Leafs special teams.
You can often throw out the series script when it comes to Game 7s, though. As Mike Babcock has mentioned before, he’s lost more than a few Game 7s his team should’ve won on a bounce here or there (or a “sifter” that went in, as he put it last Spring). Ultimately, this is one hockey game that comes down to who executes better when the lights are shining brightest and the intensity is at its peak — and who gets the bounces.
From the Leafs perspective, you’d like to think the team being in this position for a second straight Spring prepares them better for it this time around, from Auston Matthews to Mitch Marner to William Nylander (Matthews enters the game in a much different position this time around, with five goals in six playoff games). You’d also like to think the added experience and talents of John Tavares and Jake Muzzin are going to come through in the most important of moments and help flip the Game-7-in-Boston narrative on its ear.
No matter the result, let’s hope the officiating doesn’t warrant a central role in the post-game story. Officiating at playoff time is often a guessing game as to what’s going to get called on a given night or even period to period, but hopefully, we’ll be talking about specific plays and heroic moments after the game and not what penalties were or weren’t called.
Strap yourselves in and try to enjoy the thrill of this whole experience. It was only a few short years ago that Leafs fans were only dreaming of one day cheering on a team good enough to put themselves in this kind position: A winner-takes-all Game 7 against the second-best team in the NHL regular season. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on if a loss tonight changes how the season overall will be viewed:
I think you guys get to do whatever you want. I think it’s two really good teams that are playing, and as you look at the NHL, you see how tight it is. The big thing for me is we’re going in the right direction and we’re building a program that I think has given us a real opportunity. We’ve been here before, we feel like we’re better set up to do it. You’ve got to keep pushing until you get these opportunities, then you keep advancing. I’ll let you do the evaluation, I’ll just watch the team play.
Babcock on his message to the team tonight:
Enjoy it. Just what I talked to you about. If you’re Marner and you’re seven or eight playing road hockey, which guy were you? You were whoever scored the overtime winner the night before, that’s who you were. Be that guy again. But enjoy what you’re doing, and the feeling of anxiety and the feeling of a little tightness — that’s what you’re supposed to feel. It helps you react better, it helped you be quicker, it means you’re alive. Don’t we all want to be alive?
Bruce Cassidy on his scratches tonight (same as Game 6):
The lineup that we dressed the other night, we played our best game. I thought Game 2 was excellent for us; a response game. It was definitely a good game for us, but it was as much a response to Game 1. Game 6 was our identity, our type of game in terms of pace, physicality, finishing, all aspects of the game — especially our special teams, so that’s probably the biggest thing that goes into the decision of which guys go in and out.
Game 6 matchups from corsica.hockey (size is scaled by TOI and colour is scaled by adjusted xG differential)
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #29 William Nylander– #28 Connor Brown
#42 Trevor Moore – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #63 Tyler Ennis
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#8 Jake Muzzin – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#51 Jake Gardiner – #23 Travis Dermott
#31 Frederik Andersen
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Scratched: Nic Petan, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov
Suspended: Nazem Kadri
Boston Bruins Projected Lines
#63 Brad Marchand – #37 Patrice Bergeron – #43 Danton Heinen
#74 Jake Debrusk – #46 David Krejci – #88 David Pastrnak
#90 Marcus Johansson– #13 Charlie Coyle – #83 Karson Kuhlman
#20 Joakim Nordstrom – #52 Sean Kuraly – #55 Noel Acciari
#33 Zdeno Chara – #73 Charlie McAvoy
#47 Torey Krug – #25 Brandon Carlo
#48 Matt Grzelcyk – #27 John Moore
#40 Tuukka Rask
#41 Jaroslav Halak
Scratched: Chris Wagner, Steven Kampfer