The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins went into the NHL playoffs with the same problem – how to end a long stretch of listless play at the end of the regular season.
The line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, a source of concern for Toronto going into the first-round series, provided most of the solution for Boston by finding their game in time to bury the Leafs in the first game with a 4-1 win. All of them contributed heavily to a fore-checking onslaught that rendered the Leafs’ defence helpless by the second period, and all were on the scoreboard, Krejci with a goal and two assists, Horton a goal and Lucic two assists.
It was the sort of performance Bruins head coach Claude Julien was hoping for after an indifferent regular-season campaign for his second line. Krejci was the best of the group with 33 points in 47 games, but Lucic managed only seven goals and Horton 13.
Krejci, 27, is used to turning it on in the playoffs after an inconsistent regular season. In 2010-11, for example, he produced a ho-hum 13 goals in 75 games.
But when the postseason rolled around, he cranked it up to lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup. He finished as the points leader in the playoffs with 23 in 25 games. In 60 playoff games over seven seasons, Krejci has 50 points.
Krejci showed that 2011 form in the series opener against the Leafs. He not only led the scoring effort, he was right there with Lucic and the other Boston bruisers when it came to knocking down Leaf skaters.
“When David is skating and he’s also, I would say, pretty intense, meaning he’s not afraid to go finish his hits and not afraid to go into the corner and battle for pucks,” Julien said, “he’s one of those players that fears nothing, he never has. In other words, when he really gets his mindset to compete hard and get involved, he’s a really great player.
“He’s been pretty good lately, not just [Wednesday night], but before that, so I felt that his game was turning the corner as well, getting better. He proved that again.”
While it was no surprise Lucic was a force, since hitting is his game and he showed signs in the last couple of regular-season games of getting the scoring and physical sides of his hockey back in order, Horton was the biggest worry. He missed the last five games of the regular season after suffering an undisclosed injury in a fight with Jarome Iginla. But when the puck dropped Wednesday, Horton quickly showed his willingness to go to the net.
So when the Leafs were across town on Thursday at Boston University, counting their bruises and injured players before going on the ice for a practice, the Bruins enjoyed the first of two days off in the series by staying away from the ice. Their only concern was not letting their success go to their heads for Game 2 on Saturday.
“For us, it’s just playing game by game,” Julien said. “It’s about doing your job on a daily basis. It’s a pretty simple concept and that’s the way we approach it every year. It’s a seven-game series and we just have to remain grounded as we have in the past, go out there and play hard, hopefully the way we did the other night.”
Line by line, the Bruins overwhelmed the Leafs. Some big hits took the starch out of the Leafs’ forwards. Lucic flattened Clarke MacArthur, Dennis Seidenberg neutralized Joffrey Lupul with a monstrous hit, and Johnny Boychuk splattered Mikhail Grabovski, who had earlier taken an elbow to the head from Andrew Ference.
A day later, though, the Bruins were respectful toward the battered Leafs.
“For us, it’s part of our game to play that way and we need to continue that,” said fourth-liner Daniel Paillé, who knocked Leaf defenceman John-Michael Liles off the puck to set up a goal. He agreed the Leafs, who had 15 players making their NHL playoff debuts, appeared to be the victim of nerves.
“I think maybe they were a little bit nervous and we kind of capitalized on the pressure,” he said. “But they’re going to be a hungry team and they’re not going to want to fall short like they did yesterday. It’s important for us to match the effort because we know they’re going to come hard.”