The Toronto Maple Leafs were done in by equal parts fear, brain cramps and fumble-fingers.
And the sad part for them is it could have been so much different given that the same problems afflicted the Boston Bruins until the last couple of minutes in the first period. But the Leafs were unable or simply not smart or experienced enough to take advantage of their good fortune and the inevitable collapse came in the second period Wednesday night once the Bruins sorted out their game.
Now, Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle has to be frantically reviewing his options, which are few, given the thorough schooling his entire lineup received from the battle-hardened Bruins on Wednesday night in the 4-1 loss that opened their first-round NHL playoff series. The Bruins’ domination was such that there is no reason to believe the best-of-seven series is not going to be a sweep.
Yet the chances were there for the Leafs to establish an edge early in the game and give their inexperienced players the confidence they needed to pull off an upset. In the first two minutes, it looked like that was going to happen, as the Leafs took advantage of a tripping penalty to Patrice Bergeron to grab the lead on a power-play goal.
For the first five minutes, it was the Bruins, with much the same lineup that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, who looked like the tentative, nervous team with little playoff experience. They were squandering opportunities by missing passes, shooting wide or high or turning the puck over themselves. And when they weren’t doing that, Leafs goaltender James Reimer was coolly turning them away in his first NHL playoff game.
Shortly after James van Riemsdyk’s power-play goal, the Leafs got another power play. A goal there would have given them a 2-0 lead and the boost they needed. But it didn’t happen and later, with the score tied 1-1 and the Leafs helpless in their own end, van Riemsdyk interrupted the onslaught with a rush but hit the post. As often happens in that situation, the Bruins brought the puck right back down the ice and scored with 12 seconds left in the period to take the lead for good.
The Bruins were getting those opportunities because the Leafs were busy coughing up the puck. The first period was one long series of turnovers. The Leafs compounded this by standing around in their own end, seemingly paralyzed by nerves, while Reimer kept them in the game.
There was more of the same when the Leafs came out for the second period. More giveaways, the most notably by centre Nazem Kadri, who looked overwhelmed in his first NHL playoff test, and defenceman Mark Fraser, followed as did more Bruins goals.
“We didn’t play strong enough and we didn’t win enough one-on-one battles,” Carlyle said. “We didn’t do enough with the puck create anything. We just constantly turned the puck over.”
The only break the Leafs got is the extra day off until Game 2 on Saturday. They can count on some loud input from their coach.
“Our focus has to be to simplify our game,” Carlyle said. “There some things that we did that were totally, totally unacceptable from our standpoint, from a coaching standpoint and we have to correct it. Now we have two days of practice to get better.”
The problem is, there isn’t much Carlyle can do to shore up his leaky defence. John-Michael Liles, Mike Kostka and probably Fraser should all be banished to the press box. But Franson took a shot off his foot and played sparingly the rest of the night.
While it is a good bet defenceman Ryan O’Byrne will dress for Game 2, chances are it will be to replace Franson rather than one of the deserving candidates. Carlyle’s only other option is youngster Jake Gardiner, who many people would love to see in the lineup.
But Leafs need steady, physical play in their own end a lot more than puck movement and Carlyle has already shown a disinclination to put Gardiner into tough situations.
Nevertheless, Carlyle said, “there will be changes.”