So much for a soft send-off into sunny weather and the all-star break. The Maple Leafs played their final game before the NHL’s winter recess not against an also-ran but against their arch-enemy, the Bruins, the No. 1 team in the league.
As bad luck would have it, they wake up on Feb. 2 licking their wounds after a 5-2 loss on Wednesday. This is the third game between the Atlantic Division rivals and two of the three have been like Groundhog Day. One goal decided them. This time, not so much.
The match-up at Scotiabank Arena had a playoff atmosphere with the Maple Leafs coming in ranked third among the circuit’s 32 teams. The fact that the Bruins have rained down more than their share of misery upon the royal blue and white in postseason only heightened the intensity.
“A game like this is a nice one to have right before the break,” Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto coach, said in the morning. “I am sure the guys’ wives or girlfriends have their bags packed and are ready to go. It’s only natural, but this one here you can’t overlook.”
And what a game it was. End-to-end hockey. Dangerous chances. One fight and fans lustily booing Brad Marchand. Superb goaltending at both ends – at least until the third period when Boston put up three goals and pulled away.
The Bruins were the league’s first team to win 30 games this season and became the fastest in history when they reached 80 points in their 47th outing. They bolted from the gate and have not had to look back, even after three successive losses.
The Maple Leafs started erratically but sail into the furlough from the deep freeze a distant second in the division, 13 points back of you-know-who.
They are five points ahead of third-place Tampa Bay, but the Lightning has four games in hand.
“The first two periods were close,” Keefe said afterward. “They are a team that puts themselves in a spot to win a game and that’s what happened here.
“The margins are thin but over the course of the season there is a significant gap between them and the rest of the league.”
The loss dropped the Maple Leafs to 31-13-8 with 30 regular-season games to grind out from here. Boston is 39-7-5.
For Toronto, it was the final game of five in a row at home, where the Maple Leafs are 20-5-4, the second-best record in the NHL. They won’t play again until Feb. 10 at Columbus against the Blue Jackets.
“This is as big a regular-season game as we get,” Alexander Kerfoot, the Toronto forward, said after a team meeting early in the day.
At the beginning, both teams came out flying.
In his seventh successive start, Ilya Samsonov stifled a shot from in close by Boston defenceman Brandon Carlo. At the opposite end, Linus Ullmark, making a strong bid to win the Vézina Trophy, stymied Mark Giordano.
Back and forth it went: Samsonov extinguished a break-away by Connor Clifton; Ullmark stuffed a give and go between Rasmus Sandin and Pierre Engvall. With a little more than a minute left Samsonov made a pad save to deny David Pastrnak from a few feet out.
It was 0-0 after 20 even minutes, with Toronto holding a 14-13 advantage on shots.
With 38 goals, Pastrnak is second in the league to only Connor McDavid. The Oilers captain has an otherworldly 41 goals and 92 points in 50 games.
“Pastrnak is as dynamic as they come,” Kerfoot said. “He is one of the elite players in the league. There is not a lot you can do to stop those guys. You just have to play as a five-man unit and limit their chances.”
Toronto kept the Bruins’ big guns off the score sheet but got thumped nonetheless.
In the second period the excitement notched up. Boston went ahead short-handed on a snipe by defenceman Derek Forbort with 13:03 left. Mitch Marner then tied it at 1-1 with a sharp wrist shot with 10:35 remaining, his 19th goal of the campaign. On the play, Samsonov earned his second assist of the season.
Carlo put the Bruins ahead 2-1 7 minutes 27 seconds before the second intermission. A.J. Greer stretched the margin to 3-1 with a wrist shot from the left wing a little more than two minutes into the third period. Two seconds later, Greer found himself getting hammered by punches from Wayne Simmonds, who was inserted into the lineup for just such an occasion.
“He brings a lot to our team in terms of the energy, and the voice and the experience,” Keefe said. “There is lots to be said there. There are elements Wayne brings in these games that we expect to be very competitive and physical.”
It seemed to light a spark; the Maple Leafs got to within 3-2 when Calle Jarnkrok slapped one in from in close, his 12th goal of the season, with 11:22 to go in the third. Thirty seconds later Pavel Zacha replied in kind and the Bruins again had a two-goal lead. Then Zacha scored again with 7:41 to go.
For Boston it was another hard-fought victory, for Toronto a difficult defeat. Ullmark made 33 saves in the victory to improve to 26-4-1. Samsonov stopped 24 of 29 he faced.
“You have to play 60 minutes against them, finish the job, those sorts of things,” Keefe said in the morning. “They are who they are because they thrive in all facets of the game.”
The Maple Leafs hoped to head into the all-star break with a little bounce in their step. The Bruins – yes, those guys – made certain it didn’t happen.
“They are the class of the league at this point,” Keefe said.
Curses, foiled again.