So much of the 2019 Round-1 matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins has felt different than the 2013 and 2018 meetings. The Leafs won the first game in Boston this year. They’ve gotten excellent goaltending from Frederik Andersen. They’ve led the series three times, including the 3-2 edge they carried into Game 6 Sunday at home with a chance to eliminate their Atlantic Division rival.
And yet, after the scared-stiff incarnation of the Leafs showed up for about 30 minutes Sunday, this very-different series sets up for the same old finale. For the third time in their past four playoff appearances, Toronto will head to Boston for a Game 7. The Bruins stayed alive in a 4-2 victory that Leafs coach Mike Babcock said was Boston’s best game of the series.
Much had been made of the Leafs “starting on time” after a lackluster Game 4 loss on home ice, and they did just that to open Game 6, riding momentum from a legitimately-loud-for-a-change afternoon crowd at Scotiabank Arena and taking a 1-0 lead on a seeing-eye shot from defenseman Morgan Rielly. The Bruins answered less than two minutes later and took the air out of the building, however. By the end of the first, they’d scored two power-play goals and outshot the Leafs 14-6. For the second half of the first and the entire second period, the Bruins dictated the pace. They got the best play from their defensemen all series. They had Toronto stymied, tight and second guessing on every rush. Forget getting pucks through – the Leafs didn’t even try to get pucks through for the majority of the second period. They generated just 35.42 of the shot attempts at even strength in the second, after which they trailed 3-1, with Jake DeBrusk finishing off a give-and-go with David Krejci for the period’s lone goal.
The Leafs woke up to start the third. They got the early goal they needed on a skilled snipe from Auston Matthews, his fifth goal of the series. They got some timely saves from Andersen. They poured pressure on Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask and controlled the play most of the period. But the jelly-legged attack that afflicted the Leafs through the game’s middle chunk did them in. They fell 4-2, the final goal coming on an empty-netter from the Bruins.
A Game 7 at home obviously won’t scare this seasoned Boston group. So are we truly rewatching the familiar Leafs-Bruins storyline? Or has Toronto shown any signs it will arrive for Game 7 a different team? There are reasons to expect either outcome, actually.
There’s no doubt the Bruins’ power play has Toronto spinning in circles. It’s now 7 for 16 (43.8 percent) for the series, and if Boston manages to ride what should be a wild TD Garden crowd and impose a physical style of play to open Game 7, the Leafs could wind up in penalty trouble.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons, a lot of guys who’ve got really good one timers as well,” said Leafs center John Tavares after Game 6. “Those plays happen bang-bang. They’re really quick and threatening. They’ve got good deception. It’s a tough power play to defend. We’ve just got to find a way to do it.”
That’s been a clear advantage for Boston all series. The blue whale in the room, though, is the potential mental advantage of that Game 7 juju. Does it exist? Assuming the Leafs dress the same lineup in Game 7 that they did for Sunday’s Game 6, which excludes the suspended Nazem Kadri, Toronto will dress 13 skaters and one goaltender from last year’s Game 7, in which the team led by a goal entering the third period only to lose 7-4. If the Bruins dress the same lineup as Sunday, they’ll return 12 skaters and one goalie from 2018’s Game 7. The Bruins refused to concede any mental edge when asked about it Sunday, of course.
“I don’t think anyone has a mental advantage,” Rask said. “Every season is a new season. You end up playing the same team, so be it, but it’s a new series, new game. Everyone is just trying to focus on the moment, not think about the past. So I don’t think anyone really has a mental advantage.
“We have experience (in Game 7s) obviously, but we still have to play the game the right way. Doesn’t matter if it’s Game 1, 2, 3, 4.”
If the Leafs are seeking a positive spin on the 2019 version of Game 7 in Boston, they can look to the fact the 2019 series has been entirely its own beast. Boston dictated the play in Game 2 and for most of Game 6, but Toronto has pushed the pace for the majority of the series, including twice in Boston. If the Leafs skate and drive the puck to the net with fury, they do tend to allow chances at their end, but they generate a lot, too, and that caters to their style. They’re agents of chaos. They have the book on how to beat Boston, including in Boston.
“They’ve played really well in our building so far, and the ice has been terrible — you may as well play with a tennis ball, skate around and see who can bounce the ball into the net,” said Bruins left winger Brad Marchand. “Nothing matters about the past, so we’re not going to look at anything that’s happened in the past and expect it to play out a certain way.”
If the Leafs don’t want to point out differences in the series from previous years as positive omens – they can simply choose to approach Tuesday’s Game 7 as “New team, new game.” They’ll deploy several players who weren’t part of the 2018 (or, naturally, the 2013) collapses, most notably Tavares and blueliner Jake Muzzin, a 2014 Stanley Cup winner with L.A. Kings.
Or Toronto can choose not to associate this year’s series with any previous series. That’s what Babcock prefers.
“I’m a not a big believer in living in the past,” he said. “I don’t carry a lot of stuff around from the past at all. The bottom line is we don’t want to be discouraged against these guys, and… we like each other. We like our group. We like hanging around together. We want to be together. And the only way we get to be together is if we play good and execute and win. We’ve got a good group that enjoys being together and plans on having a good run, and in order to do that we’ve got to go into Boston and win a game.”
Per naturalstattrick.com, In 2013 against the Bruins, the Leafs gave up a roughly a 57-43 edge in shot attempts at 5-on-5. In 2018, it was roughly 52 to 48. This year: almost exactly even, 50.08 for the Leafs, 49.92 for the Bruins. More so than any other year, the Leafs appear to belong.
So will that matter Tuesday? It will depend a lot on power plays, on Andersen and, as always, on how this group responds to the pressure.
“It’s Game 7, anything can happen,” Krug said. “That’s a question you need to ask them over there in their locker room. We just have to go into it with the right mentality. It’s our building, and we’re comfortable playing at home. We’ll use our fans to our advantage. They’ll be excited, and we’ll be excited to get another crack at it.”
– With files from Edward Fraser