BOSTON – Here’s the stark piece of reality for the Toronto Maple Leafs in this playoff series against the Bruins.
The two games where the Leafs claimed victory in this best-of-seven first round series have featured two things: A superhuman performance by Frederik Andersen between the pipes, and a Bruins team that didn’t wield their ‘A’ game even as they still dominated for stretches, kept it close and made the Leafs hang on for dear life in the third period.
That was the formula behind a Game 3 win for the Maple Leafs in Toronto, and that was once again the hockey script behind a 4-3 victory for the Leafs in Game 5 at TD Garden on Saturday night where the Bruins onslaught included 20 shots on goal in the third period. Both of the Toronto wins have felt more like they escaped than accomplished anything significant, and the Bruins certainly have learned they can’t afford to keep submitting their ‘B’ game if they want to close out the Maple Leafs in this series.
“We knew they were going to play that way. Shame on us for not coming out better and having a better first ten minutes,” said Bruins rookie D-man Charlie McAvoy, who didn’t have a particularly strong game for the B’s in Game 5. “We knew they were going to come like that with their backs are against the wall, and they’re going to continue to come like that. So we got to go back and make sure we’re prepared to start the next game.
“We knew they were going to come out hard. We just got to match that intensity, you know? A couple good bounces for them, couple good plays and we’re down 2-0 early, so we’ve got to assess that. But we’ll be fine. We’re as confident as ever in here. I thought we really held the play starting there when Backs [David Backes] got us on the board in the second all the way through the end of the third. I thought that we carried the play and the shots, you know? We definitely showed that and we’re fine. We have positives we can pull from this game and we’re going to be fine for game 6.”
Sure, there were positives in the Bruins fourth line kicking in a couple of goals, the Bruins once again amassing 40 plus shots against a Toronto defense that can’t consistently slow them down and once again David Backes cleaned up with a power-play goal battling at the front of the net.
But the negatives far outweighed the positives for the Black and Gold in a missed opportunity at home. Whether it was the Bruins defense losing battles all around the front of the net, Tuukka Rask getting pulled after a “meh” effort where he surrendered four goals on 13 shots or the Bruins only cashing in one power play with six golden chances to score on a middle-of-the-road Toronto penalty kill, it was clear Boston wasn’t at their playoff-best on Saturday night.
“It clearly wasn’t good enough,” said Bruce Cassidy. “We let them get to the top of the paint for a couple of goals that we’re generally solid on. We had a couple of 2-on-2’s that turned into two very good chances. So clearly, we’ve got to address that. Those aren’t odd-man rushes, that’s not stretch plays, that’s just basic two on twos that we need to communicate better, square up better and defend better. “Then obviously, you want a save, as well, mixed in in those, and that didn’t happen either. So the stuff that we’ve done lately…defend and get saves? That didn’t happen early on. We found our legs eventually and fought our way back in, but the start wasn’t good enough.”
Once again it was a game similar to Game 3 with the Bruins top line getting held off the scoresheet in Patrice Bergeron’s return from injury, and that line also got dinged for a couple of goals versus Mike Babcock’s mixed-and-matched lines. But once again that line had 18 shots on net, 33 shot attempts and both David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand had high-quality chances that needed spectacular saves from Andersen in order to swing it in Toronto’s favor.
In other words, nobody is under any illusions the Leafs are going to consistently stop that group.
The Leafs have proven they can win two playoff games with the formula of hanging onto Andersen for dear life and feasting on a Bruins team when they show the playoff sharpness of a pair of dull, safety scissors. They might even be able to win a third following that kind of unsustainable formula if the Toronto’s inconsistent goalie snaps his personal pattern of alternating good and bad games in this series.
But Toronto isn’t going to win four games in a playoff series against Boston provided one simple thing happens: The Bruins bring their ‘A’ game and decide they want the series to be over. Five games into the playoff series it’s readily apparent Boston is better, deeper and certainly the better-rounded, two-way hockey team when compared to a young, inexperienced Maple Leafs. If the Bruins start on time, play sound defense and bring the kind of singular focus that’s been the hallmark of their best performances during a 50-win regular season, the Leafs aren’t going to go 2-for-2 with two chances for the Bruins to close the first round out in this coming week.
Certainly, some of the issues in this Toronto series may become very real problems if/when they square off with the Tampa Bay Lighting in the second round, but that’s a different story for a different playoff round.
Right now it all comes down to the Bruins leaving their ‘B’ game behind for the rest of this series, and kicking the habit of feeling like they can always come back against other teams in the third period. It made for some adrenaline-pumping comebacks during the regular season and it caused some serious heartburn for the fan bases of the opposition.
But it’s no way to go through life if you want to have a long one in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that’s something the Bruins are still counting on heading into Game 6 in Toronto on Monday night.