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Sports With bounce-back win, Leafs show why this playoff battle against the Bruins is different

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen (31) and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) go after a loose puck as Boston Bruins forward Chris Wagner (14) looks on during game three of the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.

John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Going into this NHL playoff series not many people gave the Toronto Maple Leafs a chance.

They surprised everybody with a win in the first game but then were pushed around by the Boston Bruins in the second game, lost one of their most important players for the rest of the series to a suspension and the doubters were back in force.

But the Leafs showed once again Monday night that they have grown from the team that lost to the Bruins in the first round a year ago. For the second time in three games they put up a solid team effort with contributions from everyone from the fourth line to stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and goaltender Frederik Andersen stepping up. This allowed the Leafs to tip-toe home with a 3-2 win.

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Just about all of the questions people had about the Leafs were answered in this game, starting with how would they react to losing centre Nazem Kadri to a suspension for cross-checking Boston forward Jake DeBrusk on the head in Game 2.

They reacted with the following:

  • Not wilting under the Bruins’ fore-checking as they did in Game 2.
  • Getting a big goal from the fourth line.
  • Matthews stepped up with his best game against the Bruins in two playoff series.
  • Andersen was a wall for the third game in a row.
  • The power play was firing again with two goals. Andreas Johnsson stepped in for Kadri on the top unit and produced two points, as did Matthews.
  • John Tavares and linemates Zach Hyman and Marner kept the Bruins’ big line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in check.

“That was a team win,” Hyman said. “It was really tight out there even-strength, there’s not much room. But we got one even-strength and the other ones on special teams. It was tight, physical playoff hockey. If you can script what playoff hockey is, it’s that. No room but those are the games you want to be part of, especially when Freddy [Andersen] makes a big save at the end to seal the win. It’s huge for us.”

Marner put the exclamation point on it all in the dying seconds of the third period with the Bruins pressing hard with goaltender Tuukka Rask on the bench for a sixth attacker. Pastrnak, dangerous all night, took two consecutive shots from the high slot and Marner blocked both of them from close range, the second one coming as he was down on the ice. The puck just missed his face and he blocked it with his shoulder as the crowd roared its approval and the horn went to end the game.

“It was great. I love it. I think that was probably the biggest reaction our bench had tonight,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said of Marner’s heroics. “There was never a question of the character of our team but that was just a good display of it. That can be good to see and we’ll feed off it.”

For the second time in three games, the Leafs took a lead into the third period and held on to it. It was not that long ago this young team was famous for undoing all of its good work in the first 40 minutes by falling apart in the third period.

“I think we did a good job. We’re not crumbling, we feel good,” Rielly said. “We’re not changing the way we played. We still go after them, we still play the way that put us in that position., which is important. I think in years past you’ve watched us play well for two periods and then get a little bit nervous and tense up a bit.

“I don’t think that’s happening right now. We have confidence in ourselves and we’re going out there for the third up one and we’re playing the same way. I think that’s important.”

The fourth line produced the first goal of the game, with Trevor Moore finding the net early in the second period. Matthews and Johnsson scored the other goals, both on the power play. David Krejci and Charlie Coyle scored for Boston.

Unlike Game 2, when they crumbled under the withering Boston fore-checking, the Leafs managed to withstand the early Bruins push and get the better of the scoring chances in the first half of the period.

When the Bruins came on in the second 10 minutes of the first period by taking advantage of some Leaf turnovers to mount a push of their own, Andersen was there to hold them off. He finished with 34 saves.

The Bruins, probably mindful of a potential crackdown by the referees after the mayhem from Kadri, DeBrusk and many others in Game 2, did not hit quite as hard as they did in winning that game 4-1. That helped the Leafs keep their equilibrium but the Bruins were defensively sound, getting in front of a lot of Leafs shots in the early going.

Referees Chris Rooney and Kyle Rehman did not come out whistling down even the slightest infraction, which often happens in the wake of rough games. However, they did call it more like a regular-season game, which worked in the Leafs’ favour.

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The Leafs opened the scoring with a five-on-five goal from the fourth line – easily their best one shift-to-shift in the first 40 minutes – and added two power-play goals in the second period to take a 3-1 lead. But the Bruins were not about to go quietly and responded with a power-play goal of their own to cut the Leafs’ lead to 3-2 going into the third period.

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is fond of saying teams’ big stars cancel each other out in the heightened checking in the playoffs and it is the foot soldiers who make the difference. So it was Monday night with the Leafs’ fourth line of Frederik (The Goat) Gauthier, Moore and Tyler Ennis, who dressed for his first game of the playoffs thanks to the loss of Kadri.

That line put in a solid 20 minutes in the first period, creating some good scoring chances, and was rewarded in the second. Moore scored his first NHL playoff goal at 2:38 when he slapped in Rielly’s rebound at the net.

The Bruins came back quickly with Krejci’s goal less than a minute later, just as they did in the third period when Coyle scored on the power play two minutes after Johnsson did the same on a Leafs power play.

But then the Leafs went into survival mode in the third period and came out with the series lead.

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