The scene was eerily, disturbingly similar.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were up and scrambling all over the ice. The Boston Bruins were down and in dogged pursuit of every loose puck.
And what had appeared to be an oh-so-comfortable Toronto lead in the third period at the TD Garden quickly became anything but.
But eight months and a day after Toronto’s unforgettable, calamitous playoff collapse last spring that became known as the Meltdown in Beantown, they held on, white knuckling their way to a win.
This time, the reward wasn’t a long awaited trip to the second round. Just two points.
The Leafs pulled off a 4-3 win over the Bruins in Boston on Tuesday in a game that had their fan base suffering flashbacks and panic attacks throughout the blue-and-white sections of Ontario, even though this was merely Game 48 in an 82-game campaign and not a do-or-die Game 7.
Despite two power plays, the Leafs were hemmed in their own zone for most of the final 20 minutes, as the Bruins hammered shot attempt after shot attempt in a bid for the tying goal. Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier was their punching bag, but he had some company, with Toronto blocking 19 shots overall, including two stops by defenceman Tim Gleason in the game’s dying moments.
This was utter chaos, with bodies flying and diving in front of pucks, and Toronto exiting its zone only temporarily to dribble the puck to centre ice and get a change.
The Leafs were again badly outshot – including 31-17 at even strength – and Boston held a 15-6 advantage in the third alone.
Yet, unlike that fateful game back on May 13, the equalizer never came.
“It was a little hairy,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “Because they got caught out and they were tired.”
That absolute craziness of the final frame is part of a trend under Carlyle, whose teams are quickly becoming known for hanging back far too much with the lead. Toronto has blown several games in regulation this season and had to settle for playing in shootouts. However, the most troubling part of the issue is it was evident going way back to Carlyle’s teams in Anaheim for years.
Whether that’s his system or how players are being deployed or a combination of both, this is one integral aspect of the Leafs game that absolutely must be ironed out in the coming weeks.
The shame of how it ended was Toronto had played a solid road game through 40 minutes, taking a deserved 3-2 lead into the final frame and adding to that when James van Riemsdyk flung his 18th of the season past Tuukka Rask one minute into the third.
Phil Kessel assisted on the first three Toronto goals – including a brilliant cross-ice pass to Jake Gardiner on the power play for the go-ahead goal – while linemate Tyler Bozak continued his surprisingly productive run by scoring the first two markers and adding an assist.
Bozak now has six goals and 16 points in his last 12 games as part of a breakout fifth season that’s been part luck, part misfortune (with two injuries limiting him to 24 games) and some really dependable play even as many teammates have struggled.
His big night – including nearly 24 minutes in ice time – was all the more remarkable given he came into the game with only four points in 19 career games against Boston, one of many Leafs with an awful history against this team.
The bigger lineup story was coach Randy Carlyle mixing and matching his lines to great effect, getting Kessel away from Bruins captain Zdeno Chara at several key moments, working in rookie centre Peter Holland in bigger minutes and switching up his blueliners on what had become a stagnant power play.
A serious bout of the flu was partly to blame, as it knocked out at least a half dozen Toronto players. The majority played through the illness, however, and it gave the Leafs a nice balance to their lines that they have rarely had this season.
Checker Jay McClement, for instance, settled for 12 minutes instead of the 19 a game he had averaged the last few weeks, and his focus on penalty killing paid off as the unit blanked Boston on the man advantage.
And Holland’s speed and size mixed in well with wingers Nikolai Kulemin and David Clarkson to give Toronto some rare zone pressure from its third line in the first two periods, helping tire out the Bruins back end.
There were still too many defensive miscues, 2-on-1s and breakaways, and Bernier had to be excellent far too often, but there were positive elements to build on, which is more than you can say for many of Toronto’s recent wins.
For a Leafs team that has laboured to win in regulation for the last two and a half months, they’ll take this one, on the road in Boston, where they’re going to have skeletons in the closet for years to come.
“Hopefully, it bleeds some of the demons out of us,” Carlyle said.