The Bruins barely blinked upon learning they’d play Game 4 minus their first-line center. Their underrated depth has the Leafs on the ropes – and should scare the rest of the East.
Patrice Bergeron is one of the world’s best hockey players and arguably the greatest two-way forward of all-time. But his Boston Bruins teammates are so confident in themselves that they brush off his absence as if the notion they can’t win without him is an insult.
“There is no panic button in this room,” insisted center David Krejci after Thursday’s 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of their Round 1 matchup.
“It doesn’t matter,” added left winger Brad Marchand. “You play the same way regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup.”
No Patrice friggin’ Bergeron, and it doesn’t matter? Wow. It’s easy to puff the chest out after a victory, of course, but the Bruins’ confidence seemed genuine. It was announced before pre-game warmups they’d play Game 4 without their top center, who’d succumbed to an upper-body injury. Defenseman Torey Krug slipped a seeing-eye shot past Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen in the opening minute, giving Boston a cushion before Toronto could even process the opportunity Bergeron’s absence provided. The Bruins weathered a counterpunch in a frantic first period but took away Toronto’s main advantage in the second and third: speed. Just as it had all year, Toronto succeeded in Game 3 by playing with furious, chaotic pace, connecting on stretch passes and trading chances. In Game 4, Boston funnelled the Leafs back into the grinding, stationary cycle game, which isn’t their forte to say the least. Instead of moving their feet, they were left firing puck after puck from the point into the Bruins’ shin pads. And the strategy was all by design.
“We couldn’t lose the second period,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “That happened the other night with the way they play. They don’t give you any breathing room. They’re fast with the transition, catch you in between, so we were very mindful of that, tried to be cognizant of our line changes, where we put pucks on the forecheck, and limit their chances.”
The opportunistic Bruins converted 2-on-1 chances for Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk to stake a 3-1 lead and kept the Leaf forwards – most notably Auston Matthews’ line – stuck in molasses and playing on the perimeter. One key reason for that: the play of Riley Nash, elevated to the No. 1 center chair between Marchand and David Pastrnak. Nash’s 19:01 of ice time in Game 4 was second only to Marchand among Bruins forwards.
“He’s a smart player and very good defensively, and he did a really good job with us today,” Pastrnak said Thursday night. “It’s not easy to play with me and ‘Marchy,’ especially in the D-zone, so he did a great job. Obviously we miss ‘Bergy,’ but (Nash is) a big piece to our team.”
As Cassidy put it, Nash has always “had the offense in him.” It’s easy to forget Nash was a first-round pick in 2007, chosen 21st overall, higher than Pastrnak in 2014. That’s not to say Nash’s raw talent is anywhere near the same planet as Pastrnak’s and Marchand’s, or Bergeron’s for that matter, but Nash is no slouch in stopgap duty. When a broken foot sidelined Bergeron from late February to late March, Nash stepped in as the No. 1 pivot and amassed five goals and 13 points in 13 games while playing 17:19 a night. The Bruins’ record during that Bergeron hiatus: 9-2-2. It’s thus pretty easy to believe they weren’t remotely rattled upon learning they’d play Game 4 without him.
The Bruins ice the best line in hockey when they deploy Bergeron between Marchand and Pastrnak, but efforts like Game 4 remind the rest of the league this is no one-line team. Tuukka Rask was extremely steady in net, holding down a 1-1 score until Boston could strike. Rookie Jake DeBrusk was a force, scoring his second goal of the series and dishing out seven hits. Rookie blueliner Charlie McAvoy continues to log monster minutes. Pastrnak singled out checking center Sean Kuraly’s efforts, too. This team is proving deeper than it gets credit for. Its youth crop can’t match Toronto’s long-term ceiling but has been plenty effective.
“It’s nice, eh? To see these young guys,” Cassidy said. “They enjoy their moment. You saw with Charlie last year. I thought (defenseman Matt Grzelcyk) had a nice game too bouncing back from injury. Danton Heinen harder on pucks and blocking shots. They’re learning how to play winning hockey in April and hopefully into May and June. That’s the idea.
“And because they’re in the lineup, we trust them to play ‘X’ amount of minutes. That’s required if we’re going to be successful. They certainly don’t have to lead our team. We’re not going out there relying on them every night to be leaders. But just do your part. Play hard, play well, play the right way this time of year, and you’ll get an opportunity to grow.”
With or without Bergeron, whom Cassidy calls day to day, the Bruins head home to the TD Garden with a 3-1 series lead. The Leafs were outscored 12-4 there in Games 1 and 2. The Bruins also had five power play goals in those two home games.
The Leafs thus blew a crucial opportunity in a borderline must-win Game 4. Did Bergeron’s injury backfire? Did it cause the Leafs to sit back and think, “We’ve got this,” instead of reproducing the desperation they displayed in Game 3? There’s no way to prove it, but it appeared they underestimated a Bergeron-less Bruins team. If Boston’s all-but-booked Round 2 opponent makes the mistake of assuming this is a one-line team, it will suffer a similar fate to Toronto’s.