When Mike Babcock was hired to coach the Maple Leafs nearly four years ago, he cautioned at his introductory press conference “There’s pain coming,” perhaps not realizing how much of the forecasted heartache would be self-inflicted.
Prophetically, those words rang true at the conclusion of Toronto’s 5-1 season-ending loss in Boston, a second consecutive Game Seven ousting at the hands of the Bruins.
Over the first six games of this series, there were reasons to be optimistic that the Leafs could pull off the upset and finally defeat their Atlantic Division nemesis that eliminated them in both 2013 and 2018.
Unlike twelve months ago, when Toronto was left to play catch-up during most of the fortnight that ultimately ended in a third period collapse in Game Seven, there were prolonged stretches during which Babcock’s squad was able to dictate the style of play.
No longer was the Bruins’ top trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak allowed to run roughshod over blue-and-white clad roster. Indeed after facing a two games to one deficit, Boston coach Bruce Cassidy blinked first in the line-matching contest and moved Pastrnak to the second line.
Although the tactic was beneficial to Boston in its next game to even the series, it was inconsequential in Game Five. The outing, arguably Babcock’s best game ever behind the Leafs’ bench, was the proverbial perfect road game. Toronto completely neutralized the Bruins’ potent forwards, holding the offense to a late third period goal in a 2-1 win to earn a chance to finish the series at Scotiabank Arena.
Unfortunately for the hometown fans, the sixth game exemplified one of the key elements to the Leafs’ failure in the series – special teams. The Bruins were afforded just two power play opportunities during the Easter Sunday afternoon affair and capitalized on both. Conversely, Toronto went 0-for-3 with the man advantage. Overall in the first round, Boston’s power play efficiency was 7-for-16 (43.8%) compared to just 3-for-16 (18.8%) for Toronto.
As for Game Seven, it was a collective flub by the Leafs en route to their 52nd straight Cup-less season.
A pair of defensive turnovers, one by Travis Dermott, followed by another by perennial whipping boy Jake Gardiner were instrumental to Toronto falling into a 2-0 hole. Not that the blue liners didn’t have culprits to share the blame.
Dermott’s turnover ultimately found its way to the stick of Joakim Nordstrom, who beat Frederik Andersen on a weak shot that mysteriously found its way between the netminder’s arm and body. Gardiner, who had a forgettable minus-5 night at TD Garden when in this position last year, miscommunicated with Auston Matthews as his ill-fated drop pass was picked up by Marcus Johansson for a wraparound tally.
Yet the Leafs didn’t fold after twenty minutes, but instead sparked a rally when fourth-liner Tyler Ennis stripped John Moore of the puck and dished it off to John Tavares who brought his team back to within a goal. But as much as Toronto feverishly pressed for the equalizer, a crack surfaced in the armour on – what else – the power play.
The first unit: Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner and Andreas Johnsson, quarterbacked by Morgan Rielly, came tantalizingly close to evening the score without success. The second unit exhibited Babcock’s stubborn loyalty to prolific but clearly aging veteran Patrick Marleau. Any momentum that Toronto enjoyed was snuffed when Boston’s penalty killers gleefully stripped the 39-year-old Marleau of the puck and cleared the zone.
If there was any wind left in the Maple Leafs’ sails, it died in the third period when Sean Kuraly strode into the Toronto zone and converted an otherwise routine shot past Andersen for a back-breaking insurance marker.
Andersen, for all his stellar goaltending that has bailed out his defensively-challenged teammates on countless occasions during his Leafs tenure, was mediocre in a must-win game. Again.
In four career Game Sevens between the pipes – two with Anaheim and two with Toronto – the great Dane has lost them all. Andersen’s overall save percentage in those losses is a woeful .856.
Despite the netminder’s seventh game struggles, could the result still have been tilted in Toronto’s favour had its superstars been afforded more opportunity to beat Boston goalie Tuukka Rask? Babcock’s critics are certainly frustrated, justifiably so, with being left only to speculate.
Matthews, the team’s playoff leader with five goals, was third among Leafs forwards in ice time with 18:48 in Game Seven. That he wasn’t used more often than sensational, but struggling, players Tavares (21:19) and Marner (20:53) is an abomination. Babcock’s refusal to shorten the bench in the third period – inexplicably employing fourth liner Frederik Gauthier with his team down by a pair, and playing Marleau with Andersen on the bench for a sixth-skater – is a source of outrage of Leafs fans.
Lest we forget, Nazem Kadri didn’t help his team’s cause in taking a selfish, ill-advised high-sticking penalty to the head of his adversary Jake DeBrusk in Game Two that resulted in the Leaf player being suspended for the remainder of the series.
Without Kadri, Toronto’s forward unit was depleted of his tenacity and grit that would have been an asset against the physical Bruins.
Tavares, at one point the Rocket Richard Trophy contender, was held to two goals in the series, one of them an empty-netter. He registered a dismal minus-five over the seven-game showdown. William Nylander often looked disengaged and indifferent when coasting along the ice.
There is plenty of blame to be shared for the Leafs’ failure to advance past the first round for the third year in a row. The team – fresh off its second consecutive 100-point season and seventh-overall regular season finish – showed great improvement when compared to the roster that bowed out to the Bruins last year.
The opportunity was there for the taking. In the end, the Leafs ended up beating themselves.
In 2019, Rob co-wrote with Evan Gubernick “Hockey Addict’s Guide: Toronto”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.