(Editor’s Note: After being institutionalized following last week’s Leafs meltdown, I have been granted a day pass, allowing me to write this column).
Shock. Anger. Disbelief.
Those were the emotions felt by a team, an entire city, and its legion of fans following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ stunning collapse at the hands of the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarter Final.
When Nazem Kadri extended Toronto’s lead to three goals early in the third period, sending TD Garden into a funereal silence, not even the most devoted of Bruins fans could envision that their team would find a way to extend its season. ““When you’re down 4-1, you start thinking about the season being over,” said Boston defenceman Dougie Hamilton.
So how did the Beantowners stage their epic rally, forcing overtime late in the third period and then unexpectedly punching their ticket to the second round with a goal in the extra session? Or from the Leafs perspective, who bears responsibility for the gut-wrenching defeat?
Certainly much of the focus falls on Toronto coach Randy Carlyle, who later admitted that the strategy was to “chew the clock.” The Leafs’ bench boss should have known that the philosophy was flawed, based on the previous two games of the series. In Game 5 in Boston, Carlyle’s charges were fortunate to escape with a 2-1 lead after being sitting back and being outshot 19-4 over the final twenty minutes. Only the stellar play of goaltender James Reimer sent the series back north of the border.
Conversely, the Game 6 late game strategy was completely opposite. With the Leafs preserving a two-goal cushion, they responded to Boston’s late game charge with an aggressive counter-attack. Although Milan Lucic broke Reimer’s shutout bid with less than 26 seconds remaining, a huge shot block by Nikolai Kulemin preserved a Toronto home ice win.
So why would Carlyle revert back to a passive mindset, half a period from the conference Semi Finals? The collars were tightened at the 9:18 mark of the final frame when Lucic was allowed to waltz into the Toronto zone and Nathan Horton finished the play to pull the Boston to within 4-2.
Then with the visitors under siege as time wound down in regulation, the Leafs defensive tandem of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson had the worst 31-second span of their careers. Lucic was inexplicably left unguarded in front of Reimer and promptly shortened Toronto’s lead to a single goal. The tying goal by Patrice Bergeron with only 51 ticks on the clock found the net after Zdeno Chara and his 6-foot-9 frame was allowed to park himself in front Reimer and screen the goalie.
Bergeron’s overtime winner was the final dagger in Toronto’s meltdown, coming after blueliners Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson were hemmed in the defensive zone, unable to leave the ice during an overextended shift as a result of the long line change.
Reimer’s lack of rebound control was evidence on both the Bruins’ third goal and the overtime clincher.
But what vaulted the Bruins into a second round series against the Rangers was the experience of their bench. The Boston players who suited up for Game Seven had a combined 83 games played in such a circumstance. In contrast, the Toronto players combined for nine Game Sevens played.
It’s also no coincidence that the Boston charges were led by Bergeron, Lucic and Chara who were three of 6 Bruins skaters that were on the 2010 team that blew both a 3-0 series lead and 3-0 Game Seven lead to the Philadelphia Flyers, becoming only the third squad in NHL history to lose a playoff series after winning the first three games.
Carlyle’s counterpart, Claude Julien was behind the Boston’s bench three years ago, and takes as much of the credit for his team’s success as he absorbed the blame on that epic night in 2010. To man, the lessons learned on that nightmarish evening were invaluable.
On the flipside, the nerves were showing on players like Reimer, Franson and Gunnarsson. Perhaps in a similar circumstance a year or two from now, forward Matt Frattin – who had a breakaway chance to seal the game before Boston’s two late third period markers – will capitalize on his opportunity, or at least get a shot on goal.
Until next season, the 18 skaters and pair of goalies on the Leafs bench have only the painful reminder of the end of their 2013 campaign to serve as motivation against a future repeat.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca
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