Given the youthful average age of the Toronto Maple Leafs, hockey life for them right now is a series of big steps and learning experiences.
Game 3 of their first-round NHL playoff series with the Boston Bruins was a big step. The Leafs came back from a thorough spanking at the hands of the Bruins and played a tight team game in which everyone contributed.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, Game 4 was a learning experience, also known as a 6-4 loss. They are still in position, albeit a difficult one, to turn that lesson into success, but chances are the Leafs will look back on that one as the most painful learning experience of all.
Going into the game, the Leafs had the upper hand. They had a 2-1 series lead and the topic du jour was how the John Tavares line did such a good job shutting down the Bruins’ big line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
A lot of the talk concerned the possibility of Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy breaking up his big line by sending Pastrnak to play with second-line centre David Krejci and promoting Danton Heinen. When that happens, you know you have managed to plant at least some doubts with the enemy.
Cassidy did indeed play Pastrnak with Krejci. He also moved him back with Bergeron and Marchand on power plays and some other situations.
The Leafs did not start well on Wednesday night but neither did they wilt as they did in Game 2. They could claim to have dominated five-on-five play, as they held a 40-22 edge in scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.
They also caught Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask on a night when he was vulnerable. Outside of a nice diving save on William Nylander in the first period and a great toe save on Connor Brown in the second, Rask was not otherworldly.
But, and here is where the lesson comes in, the Leafs did not have a killer instinct. They had a chance – not a big one but still a chance – to put their feet on the Bruins’ necks by taking a 3-1 series lead. Great teams do not pass up chances like that.
Sure, the Bruins’ big three had a big night, both separately and collectively, and the Tavares line did not. But the Leafs’ other lines had their moments. For the second game in a row, the fourth line of Frédérik Gauthier, Tyler Ennis and Trevor Moore made the most of their limited minutes and were a handful on every shift. William Nylander was at his shifty best, although being a bit more dangerous around the net would have been even better.
The opportunity was there for the Leafs to put this series out of reach. They even had the incentive of the Columbus Blue Jackets blowing away the Tampa Bay Lightning to set up a really intriguing second-round matchup.
Yet for all of their 40 even-strength scoring chances, which they turned into three goals, the Leafs came away with a loss. Now the best-of-seven series is tied 2-2, Cassidy gets to pick his matchups in Game 5 on Friday in Boston with the home advantage of last change and the Leafs have to win a big game in a place where so many of their nightmares have occurred.
They sabotaged themselves with horrendous penalty killing (the Bruins scored on both of their power plays and have a 45.5-per-cent success rate in the series, second-best in the playoffs), untimely mistakes in their own zone and simple bad luck. An example of the latter came early in the first period when a shot by Marchand hit Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev on the hand. He was still at the net shaking off the stinger when Marchand sneaked in on his side and scored to make it 2-0 Boston.
The thing is, that goal is also a great example of killer instinct. Marchand saw an opening and exploited it. There weren’t many of them but the Bruins seemed to take advantage of all of them.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is well aware his team let a winnable game slip away. But in a conference call on Thursday he did the only thing he could, cast it as regrettable but a great learning experience for his young charges.
“Well, the way I look at it here, is it’s a real good opportunity for our group,” he said. “In the end, to get to where we want to go, we’ve got to push through and overcome opportunities like we’re about to face. I’m excited for our group, it’s all about growing as a team and building a program here that has a chance each and every year.
“Even [after Wednesday’s game], we’ve liked three of the four of the games we’ve played, the energy, the way we’ve moved. We just made too many critical mistakes [Wednesday]. We just did. We can’t make those mistakes but we’re looking to have an opportunity here [Friday].”