Randy Carlyle sounded like a broken record.
But, on this day anyway, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach's message was also a prescient one.
“When you talk about turnovers, they’re not something that just goes away,” Carlyle had opined on Monday afternoon, hours before his team took to the ice against the Boston Bruins for Game 3. “Every team turns the puck over. To limit the number of turnovers and where they happen is the most important thing.”
Knowing that was one thing.
Preventing it from happening to his club proved a very different one.
Back playing a home playoff game for the first time in nine years and two days, the Leafs were the weaker team with the puck in Game 3, coughing up several choice opportunities despite owning the shot clock in what became a relatively efficient 5-2 win for the veteran Bruins.
The culprits for Toronto came from all over the lineup, too, but the biggest problem was so many of the turnovers came from big minute players high up in the lineup.
Captain Dion Phaneuf led the game with five giveaways – all of which came in the first two periods – but Phil Kessel was guilty as well, with his gift on a late second-period power play giving fourth-liner Dan Paille a breakaway that became a backbreaking goal and a 4-1 lead.
It was the kind of outing – much like the Leafs' 4-1 loss in Game 1 – that highlighted just how persistent and disciplined the Bruins can be, with players like 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr giving a clinic in how to control and distribute the puck early in the game.
“They play a patient system,” was how Leafs defenceman Cody Franson termed it, adding that “they don’t give themselves up and play tight defensive hockey.”
While Toronto got off to a great start and led on the shot clock 8-4 early on, Boston came roaring back and was first on the scoreboard when a point shot from defenceman Adam McQuaid beat Leafs netminder James Reimer through a screen.
Then came the Jagr show, as the Czech star picked defenceman Ryan O’Byrne’s pocket behind the net and fed teammate Rich Peverley out front for a 2-0 early in the middle frame.
To their credit, the Leafs didn’t roll over and play dead until Game 4, as Jake Gardiner belted in a power play marker that had the Air Canada Centre crowd finally back on its feet for the first time since a raucous opening number.
But Nostradamus – err, Carlyle – proved clairvoyant yet again.
“They transition the puck as well as anybody,” he had warned of the Bruins. “Turn that puck over consistently, you’re going to be on the receiving end.”
Receiving end No. 3 was a brilliant rush by Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, with Lucic finding Horton alone in front to make it 3-1 exactly a minute after Gardiner’s goal.
Receiving end No. 4 came just two minutes later, with Phaneuf and Kessel getting cute at their own blueline and Paille making them pay.
Down by three, Toronto still made a noteworthy comeback attempt. Kessel scored 47 seconds into the third and he and his teammates peppered Tuukka Rask with 19 shots as the ice tilted their way.
Problem was, by that point, the damage had been done.
“Our third period in this game was pretty solid,” Franson said. “Our first was okay but our second was what bit us. We can’t have big periods of time like that where we aren’t on the top of our game.”
“That takes the wind out of your sails,” Carlyle said of the 3-1 goal, noting as many of the players did how impressive the crowd had been until that letdown.
The unfortunate part of this one for the Leafs was that they had actually played a much better game in many areas than their lopsided Game 1 loss. Toronto had far, far more offensive zone faceoffs than defensive ones – something they finished dead last in the league in during the regular season – and kept pace with Boston on the shot clock early before overwhelming them there late.
But one significant issue was the Leafs couldn’t win any of those draws. Toronto’s top man, Tyler Bozak, was tossed repeatedly from the circle and went a dismal 33 per cent in the ones he took in the Bruins zone, allowing them an easy out again and again.
“They’re pretty good at cheating,” Bozak said. “They’re the best team in the league at them… I mean, I cheat, too, we all cheat – they just were cheating a little better than we were tonight I think.”
“I asked the linesman what was going on,” Carlyle said. “He felt our guys were impeding on the circle.”
This wasn’t, in other words, a game won or lost based on pure, overwhelming dominance on the puck, as Toronto had given up so many of late. Instead, it came down to the Bruins sitting tight and waiting for critical errors to capitalize on, just as they did to great effect in winning a Stanley Cup two years ago.
Seventeen members of that club are still on board, and for all the talk of writing them off as old and out of sorts after an ugly 2-5-2 finish to their season, they very much remain a canny, veteran team.
They like turnovers, as Carlyle will tell you, and they know what to do with them.
“We made some mistakes that ended up in our net,” the Leafs coach lamented afterwards. “When you do that, usually it ends up you’re on the wrong side of the score...
“You try to explain to your team that it’s a test. Every game’s a test. Every shift’s a test. This is a war of attrition and there’s skill involved in it, there’s will involved in it and there’s luck involved in it. But you have to earn every one of them. We didn’t do enough.”