Call it the teeter-totter series.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs played so poorly and were spanked so soundly in the first game of their playoff series with the Boston Bruins, all they heard was how they had to adjust, find a way to get Zdeno Chara away from Phil Kessel, motivate Kessel and several other of their best players into showing up and do it all in a hostile environment.
Now, after the Leafs showed up in style in Game 2 to tie the first-round NHL series 1-1, with head coach Randy Carlyle outwitting Boston coach Claude Julien in springing Kessel free from Chara and the rest of the Leafs out-skating and out-hitting their opponents, it is the Bruins who have to rebuild their game in the teeth of a storm for Game 3 Monday night.
Sure, the Air Canada Centre crowd is mostly corporate with a well-deserved reputation for passivity. After all, when is the last time you saw your banker or your lawyer or the CEO of your company with their faces painted blue, wearing a beer-stained Leaf sweater and screaming their heads off with a drink in each hand?
But this will be different. Monday’s game will be the first NHL playoff game in Toronto in nine years and two days. Saturday’s 4-2 decision over the Bruins was the Leafs’ first playoff win in nine years and four days. There will be a lot of pent-up emotion. A lot of the fans might be in suits but there will be noise.
And the Bruins, who have had a running battle with consistency all season, just like the Leafs, will have to rediscover that banging, fore-checking, net-crashing game they used to rattle the Leafs in Game 1. But the Leafs, who showed all of their youth and inexperience in the first game, received a huge shot of confidence on Saturday which, combined with the home advantage of last player change when it comes to keeping Kessel away from Chara, bodes well.
The Bruins, though, who went into the series talking about “flipping the switch” from their inconsistent regular season to efficient, hard-nosed playoff hockey, say they can do it.
“Recently, especially the last month of the season, the biggest challenge for our hockey team was consistency in our game night-in and night-out,” Bruins winger Milan Lucic said. “There’s no better time to find it than now. It’s the hardest part of being a good team.
“We’ve done it before. I think there’s a lot of confidence in this dressing room.”
As for that matchup with Chara, Julien made one adjustment in Sunday’s practice in preparation for it. He reunited Chara with his regular defence partner Dennis Seidenberg. They were the top shutdown pair all season but with Andrew Ference serving a one-game suspension on Saturday, Julien split them up to spread the experience around. But it only made each of them a little less effective especially with Kessel jumping on and off the ice to get away from Chara.
Chara said it is best not to obsess too much about matchups.
“Could be, could be,” he said when someone asked if he expected to be jumping on and off the ice in pursuit of Kessel. “But as I said, we’ve just got to play the game and can’t be always worried about matchups. We all believe in every player we have, that they can play against anybody.”
However, Julien made it clear he will be doing everything he can to keep Chara on Kessel and the big defenceman had better be ready to do the same changing Kessel did in Boston. He said he thinks about it a lot but realizes it doesn’t work every time.
“You do,” Julien said. “But as the game goes on somebody changes on the fly and you get caught in your own end, you can only do so much.
“Both teams are trying to get the right matchups here, so that’s where the challenge is for both coaches: When to get the guy [Kessel] on when he’s [Chara] not and us to get him [Chara] on when he’s [Kessel] on. Basically, it’s pretty obvious that that’s the battle going on right now.”
Julien said the Bruins’ problems were easy to identify and mostly concerned the mental side of the game. The Bruins played into Carlyle’s line shuffling by changing on the go poorly and the defence pinched too often in the Leafs’ zone, which gave them a lot of odd-man rushes the other way. Also, the forwards need to crash the net more.
And going into a loud, hostile building doesn’t faze anyone, according to the coach. Not when you’ve hushed that crazy mob in Montreal a few times over the years.
“I don’t think we’re a team that lets those things distract us,” Julien said. “We’ve been through that before. We played Montreal so many times in the playoffs, and that’s a hostile environment.”