BOSTON – The Bruins went into Saturday night’s game hoping to break the stranglehold the Maple Leafs had held over them as of late.
That’s exactly what they did against a Toronto team that’s dominated them in recent years, and the Bruins did so in the same method they’ve dispatched nearly every other team over the last three months. The seven wins in a row for the Maple Leafs against the Black and Gold came to an abrupt end in Saturday night in Boston’s 4-1 one-sided domination of Toronto, and the Bruins are now five points ahead of Toronto for second place in the Atlantic Division.
For a Bruins team that went into this weekend with a clear mandate to establish a higher ground against a Maple Leafs team they may see down the line in the playoffs, it was mission accomplished in a big way. With 30 plus games to go and the Bruins and Leafs seemingly on a collision course to meet in the first round of the playoffs, Saturday’s unmistakable result has to give the Leafs plenty of pause about potential matchups in the postseason.
“We talked about it before the game. [The Maple Leafs] play really well. They get on top of you, they skate, they make simple plays – but very effective plays. But, obviously [on Saturday night] we were on top of them and I felt that we were skating really well,” said Zdeno Chara. “We were putting pucks where we could put a lot of pressure on them. We were on our toes and anticipating some plays and it obviously paid off and we scored some big goals – two power play goals were I think making the difference in the game – and guys did a great job.
“And then we killed their power plays. Obviously the one was a very unfortunate bounce, but other than that, we did our job and we won the special teams. So, yeah, it was a great team effort and everybody really contributed. Everybody did their job.”
It was a game where the Bruins never trailed after scoring a goal on a Patrice Bergeron one-timer in the first period, and eventually took over in the second period by extending the lead with a pair of power play strikes. It was a game that featured stellar goaltending from Tuukka Rask with 29 saves in 30 tries and only a fluky deflection off Charlie McAvoy’s stick that beat him, and it also featured some explosive special teams work with the aforementioned power play goals and some huge penalty kills in the game’s final period.
Mix that in with Boston’s suffocating defensive work where Chara and Patrice Bergeron shut down Auston Matthews (zero points, one shot on net, a minus-2 and three giveaways) like he was the Invisible Man on the ice, and the Bruins certainly gave the Leafs plenty to think about if they do meet in the postseason a few months from now. Part of it was about the Leafs probably not being at their best for their third game in four days, but a bigger part of it is about a Bruins team that looks fully prepared for what’s to come after a bit of a wakeup call vs. the Anaheim Ducks earlier this week.
“There wasn’t a lot of down moments for us. Clearly our penalty kill with the backdoor plays is something we talked about. They were able to make one early on as Tuukka made a hell of a save, so we got away with it. We kind of straightened that out,” said Bruce Cassidy. “The battle level, the pace – like Toronto, when we played them, I remember last year, early this year, they were really skating.
“I thought we out-skated them tonight. At least that’s the way I saw it. They’re on their third in four nights; could that have something to do with it? I don’t know. It seems like every team has a busy schedule, but I liked the way we skated. We were winning pucks, and we were killing plays in the neutral zone and getting back and re-attacking them. I thought that was the difference in the game, us being able to sustain that transition game where we’re back in their end, and eventually wear them down.”
Certainly the right now won’t mean as much as a possible postseason matchups down the road between Atlantic Division teams way ahead of everybody else not named the Tampa Bay Lightning. Instead it’s about finishing strong against the Leafs with one more regular season meeting in Toronto prior to the end of this month, and continuing to roll with a Bruins record that’s a ridiculous 25-4-4 since the middle of November.
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Clearly Toronto had the drop on Boston earlier this season with the home-and-home sweep of the Black and Gold back in November, and they took advantage of a young, injury-ravaged Bruins group that was still finding their way. There was a different respect factor, perhaps, for the Black and Gold once Saturday night had been decided.
“I really like [Boston’s] game. I think they play well,” said Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “I think they have got unbelievable leadership in Bergy, Chara and Krejci in key positions for them. Then, they’ve got kids; they are good players and do it right.
“Marchand isn’t playing [but he’s] a star. Pastrnak is a real good player. They play fast; they play right, a good pace to them. So it should be fun. They don’t give you much.”
Now the Maple Leafs know what everybody else around the NHL has learned over the last three months: The Bruins are one of the best teams in the league this season, and are going to be a very difficult out once the postseason finally gets going in April.