When the Toronto Maple Leafs zipped around the Boston Bruins to handily win Game 1 of their NHL playoff series, the Bruins essentially said, “It wasn’t them, it was us.”
Then they went out and proved it Saturday night, getting back to a hard-hitting intense Bruins-style game that saw the Leafs quickly succumb in the first period. The Toronto defence could not operate in the face of the Bruins’ checking and the forwards did nothing to help out.
The Bruins took a two-goal lead in the first 20 minutes and then kept pounding the Leafs defence with their fore-checking to take a 4-1 win, tying the first-round series 1-1. Game 3 is in Toronto on Monday night.
Despite NHL’s many vows to change its ways — get away from all that hitting — the only time it keeps them is in the regular season. Sooner or later in the playoffs, a team like the Bruins will land a pair of referees like Brad Meier and Trevor Hanson, who are okay with old-time hockey.
And, as always it seems in these situations, it is the team that was getting knocked around that has to worry about the consequences. Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, who was targeted by the Bruins because he is the most feisty Leaf and the most prone to losing his cool, as he did in drawing a three-game suspension that hurt the Leafs badly when they lost to the Bruins in the opening round last year, will likely draw another suspension this time, too.
Kadri, who was understandably enraged by a knee-on-knee hit by Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk in the second period that was not called, completely lost it in the third period. DeBrusk ran Kadri’s linemate Patrick Marleau into a stanchion at the players’ bench. Kadri retaliated with a cross-check to DeBrusk’s head that drew a five-minute major for high-sticking and a game misconduct. He will have a hearing with the NHL’s player safety committee Sunday and possibly sit the next game or two.
The Bruins finished off the Leafs during Kadri’s major with Patrice Bergeron scoring a power-play goal at 15:03.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock did what many coaches do in this situation, avoiding further controversy by claiming ignorance when it came to Kadri’s cross-check.
“Obviously the league decides on all this stuff,” he said. “I didn’t see it. It was down the wall from us so I haven’t reviewed it so I don’t really know.
“It was a physical game. The referees, the way they reffed the game, let a lot of stuff go, obviously. But in the end you can’t let that get in the way of what you’re doing. Playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t supposed to be easy and it’s worth it. Just got to find another level to dig in.”
Meier and Hanson kept their whistles in their pockets for the first period, allowing the Bruins to set the tone with a series of punishing body checks. Depending on your allegiance, the Bruins either went right up to the line and played a solid, aggressive game or they were allowed to commit all sorts of mayhem.
The Leafs were assembled in the belief the NHL really is serious about changing its ways, even in the post-season, so responding is difficult for them. They can either keep their cool, try trading hits until they get their legs back or come unglued.
The Leafs took the latter course and by the end of the second period the game was effectively over. The score was 3-0 at that point and if not for goaltender Frederik Andersen’s superb work it could have been in double figures.
“It all can be debated,” said Leafs centre John Tavares, who was not as good as he was in Game 1 but was still better than most of his teammates, in brushing aside an offer to assess the referees’ work. “Whatever was called, what wasn’t called we were doing what they were doing.
“We just have to play better. I just think we didn’t execute as well. We weren’t as crisp with the puck and that didn’t allow us to really generate as much on the fore-check as we did in Game 1. We knew they were going to come hard and respond. We just didn’t execute at a high enough level.”
The Bruins’ No. 1 line of Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak re-established its dominance over the Leafs, this time against Auston Matthews and linemates Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. Matthews now has two points in nine playoff games, going back to last year’s playoff loss to the Bruins. He has not progressed at all in that span, which is a big problem for a team that invested so heavily in him.
The other Bruins lines got in on the fun as well, with Charlie Coyle scoring the first goal, followed by Marchand and then Danton Heinen. Kadri broke Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask’s shutout with a goal midway through the third period.
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy decided to dress winger David Backes for Game 2 in an effort to get more hitting into the lineup to slow down the Leafs. This could easily have backfired as Backes, who turns 35 on May 1, saw his playing time decrease rapidly this season because he couldn’t keep up in the regular-season games.
“We need maybe a little more leadership, a little more intensity in our lineup, so he obviously brings that,” Cassidy said Saturday morning. “We’ll see where it goes.”
Backes played it smart, resisting the urge to come out running at everything that moves. And it went very well indeed for the Bruins.
Less than five minutes into the game, Backes made the key play on a goal that summed up the entire game for the Leafs. He chased Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev for the puck in the Leafs zone and then both he and Heinen slammed Zaitsev into the boards in the fight for it.
This left Backes with the puck and he found Coyle in front of the net at 4:44 for the first goal of the game. Zaitsev’s partner Jake Muzzin was nowhere in the vicinity.
And so it went for the Leafs. The Bruins’ fore-checking was merciless and the main victims were Muzzin and Zaitsev, who did such a great job helping muzzle the Bergeron line in Game 1.
On the next Bruins goal they extracted some revenge for that great stretch-pass goal Kadri and William Nylander pulled off in Game 1. Bruins defenceman Torey Krug hit Pastrnak with the long pass and he in turn caught the Zaitsev-Muzzin pair with a great behind-the-back pass to a wide-open Marchand to make it 2-0.
Then Muzzin, Zaitsev and Nylander fumbled away the puck to hand the Bruins a goal in the second period. Nylander made the final faux pas, losing the puck at the side of the net to Heinen for an easy goal.
By this time the Leafs were in a complete meltdown and now they have to figure out a way to collect themselves for Game 3, probably without Kadri.
“My two options would be Marleau or Willy [Nylander],” Babcock said of replacing Kadri in the middle. “We’ll get that figured out and go from there. In the meantime it’s a regroup opportunity for us. We liked our game in Game 1, feel real good about yourself. We didn’t like our game in Game 2, don’t feel as good about yourself, get regrouped and ready to play.”