The list of positives for the Toronto Maple Leafs so far in these playoffs could be a reasonably lengthy one, depending on your perspective.
For one, this young, inexperienced bunch have held the Boston Bruins top line of Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand to just a single assist combined in the series, keeping them off the scoresheet for almost all of the three games.
For another, Boston captain Zdeno Chara has been quiet offensively, too, with only one point, despite logging roughly 26 minutes a game.
And the normally stingy Bruins have even given up an average of 33 shots a game.
For all the good, however, Boston has taken a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series in large part due to its secondary scorers capitalizing on key mistakes, with all three members of the Bruins second line sitting in the top 10 in NHL playoff scoring prior to Tuesday’s games.
The combination of Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton has been particularly devastating, with the two big wingers in on a total of six goals in Boston’s two victories, as they victimized the Leafs’ weaker depth.
“Obviously, the two games they won, they had a huge impact on the games,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. “We just have to do a better job defensively with whoever we choose to play up against them.”
“A couple of the goals, we thought we kind of gave to them,” alternate captain Joffrey Lupul added. “We’ve got to make them work a little harder for those.”
Overall, with Wednesday’s Game 4 now looming as basically a must-win for the underdogs, this series has showcased just how many layers there are to the Bruins, one of the few top teams that hasn’t been dismantled by the salary cap.
If, for example, Bergeron’s line is quiet while playing a more defensive role, then Lucic or Horton can beat a team. If not them, then it could be a checker such as Dan Paille or a legend on the third line in Jaromir Jagr, who had everyone marvelling at his moves after Game 3.
“You literally just have to try to contain a guy like that,” said Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser, who has struggled to log 20-plus minutes a game in the series and was burned badly on Horton’s winner last Monday. “Keep him to the perimeter.”
The Leafs’ issues with their own lineup offer a considerable contrast with that depth, as after changing their roster dramatically and receiving a spark in Game 2, they had underlying matchup problems in their latest loss.
The Bergeron line, for example, has most often squared off against the Leafs top line centred by Tyler Bozak and the defence pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, a group of players that generally tackles the tough assignments for Carlyle.
While the Bruins have yet to get a goal from Bergeron, Seguin or Marchand in the series, they have outshot the Leafs best players better than 2-to-1, meaning it may be a matter of time before they, too, do some damage on the scoresheet.
That dominance is part of the reason Toronto has scored just three even-strength goals, with all of them coming from the usual suspects – Phil Kessel, Lupul and James van Riemsdyk – and without Bergeron or Chara on the ice.
The Leafs will likely need more from their depth players – some of whom have looked nervous and out of sorts in the pressure situations they’ve been thrown into so far in the playoffs – if they’re going to tie up the series.
Given the historical precedent, a Toronto loss in Game 4 on Wednesday would obviously be very difficult to recover from. Only 13 of the 167 teams (7.8 per cent) that have fallen behind 3-1 in a series without home-ice advantage have rallied to win.
Rather than be uptight about their situation, however, the Maple Leafs insisted they would be ready to play, with a nothing-to-lose attitude perhaps their biggest asset.
“You try to build the confidence back in your group,” Carlyle explained of his approach. “What did we do well? That’s what we’re trying to pick out. We’re trying to focus on the things we did that gave us a chance [in Game 3] and those are the things we’re trying to build on. That we weren’t that far off.”
“There’s nothing you really need to stand up and say in front of the team,” Lupul said. “We’ve just got to eliminate some of those mistakes. Everyone knows that this is a game that we’ve got to have. And we’ll come out with a good effort.”