BOSTON — Every Game 7 needs its hero.
But when you consider the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster ahead of their deja vu-showdown in Boston, a few components need to elevate more than others.
Frederik Andersen has been a backbone in net (.950 save percentage at even-strength), even in the losses. Morgan Rielly has performed at a level worthy of the mild local outrage that he was left off the list of Norris finalists. And no one has scored as often as Auston Matthews.
Others will be looked at to scratch out a little more in a 3-3 war of inches, where one extra play can be the difference.
“It’s been a hell of a series so far,” John Tavares said. “We’ve still got a great chance to move on and get it going for a victory.”
Here are seven men who would be well-served if they can contribute to one more win.
When Bruce Cassidy healthy-scratched $6-million veteran leader David Backes in Sunday’s must-win game, even the most loyal Maple Leafs fans couldn’t help but think about their own experienced third-line, free-agent winger and his $6.25-million cap hit, which is on the books through 2019-20.
Marleau, 39, was a playoff star last April, leading all Leafs with four goals in the ’18 series, including a pair in the decisive Game 7.
The affable ironman continues to see important minutes in 2019 despite obvious decline. Marleau has but two assists here. It’s a stat we might have seen coming in light of his regular-season statistical cliff dive: 16 goals and 37 points in 82 games despite healthy usage on the power play and alongside offensively gifted centremen.
“The Fountain of Youth will kick in, for sure. He’ll be ready to go and a big part of things,” Babcock predicted in the hours leading up to Game 1. “It’s not just in the room, we need him on the ice. We need him to be a factor in the series on the ice. He understands and knows that.
“You know, the great thing about Patty is, when he looks at it and you lay your career down on the ground, you say, ‘I don’t have many more kicks at the can.’ Sometimes we get thinking we’ve got too many kicks at the can and we don’t realize how hard we can really play. So, there’s another level and we can all get to it. You’ve got to figure that out.”
If Marleau can’t figure it out fast, difficult conversations must be broached around Year 3 of his contract.
On the brink of running his playoff series record to 0-3 in Toronto — or joyously snapping a 15-year franchise drought — the Leafs’ handsomely compensated bench boss is understandably targeted with a microscope for every decision he makes.
That no playoff team has ever lasted a seventh game with a penalty kill so exposed as these Leafs’ is either a testament to Toronto’s 5-on-5 execution or a failure to adjust with a man down.
Did he yank Andersen too early in Game 6? Does he need to use a proper faceoff man against Patrice Bergeron on the PK? Should he take a more aggressive approach with his top forwards’ ice time? Run his loaded PP1 for nearly two minutes straight, like the Bruins? Switch things up and take more risks for Game 7?
“No. One hundred per cent the opposite of that piece of advice,” Babcock said Monday, calling off practice in favour of a team meeting. “I know how it works here [in Toronto]. I appreciate the help, though.”
Cassidy is a less-celebrated but worthy foil in this coaching chess match, and his roster tweaks and special-teams strategies have got the Bruins to this point.
If Babcock loses to him again, it’ll be on his own terms.
Marner was Toronto’s leading scorer in the past two regular seasons as well as last April’s Boston series. He appeared on track to continue that streak with his penalty-shot heroics in a Game 1 win, then was showered with praise for his face-front shot blocking in Game 3’s victory.
Credit the Bruins’ Perfection Line for this, though: Offensively, the superstar has turned cold as a carton of freezer-burnt French vanilla.
Marner, who averaged nearly three shots on goal per game in the regular season, registered 13 of them in Games 1, 2 and 3. In Games 4, 5 and 6? One shot total.
“Don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about what everyone else thinks,” said Babcock, by way of advice. “Just breathe and play hard and enjoy yourself.
“When he was a kid, he probably played road hockey and, at this time of year, he was probably whoever scored the winning goal the night before. Be the same — just get out there and play.”
Marner is also a key cog in a penalty kill that is getting stirred into a soup and devoured something delicious.
He is minus-3 on the series.
“There’s going to be ups and downs throughout the series and the games,” Marner said. “No matter what happens in the game, what happens in a shift, just stick with it… just stay in that moment. Just make sure you’re ready to go at all times.”
Especially at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday.
Tavares led all Maple Leafs in goals this season with 47, shattering his career best. The top-line centre has found the net once in six games, and it was empty.
To be fair, the Tavares line’s chief responsibility is limiting Patrice Bergeron’s group 5-on-5, and they’ve done an impressive job of that. Also, Babcock needs to give Tavares — his best net-front man — more power-play time. Of the six minutes Toronto had with the man-advantage in Game 6, J.T. played 2:38.
“I think he’s been excellent in the series,” Babcock said. “You’re playing against good players that are competing hard against you. Something is going to give. Make sure it’s your way.”
Still, in two weeks of winner-take-all, $77 million should buy you something more than a saw-off. Tavares may be the most patient superstar you’ll come across, but urgency is the order of the day. Leafs Nation would love to see a performance like the one he delivered to drag the Islanders out of Round 1 in 2016.
“You realize you can’t take it for granted,” Tavares said. “You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get, and you’ve got to make the most of the ones that are right there in front of you.”
Nylander certainly enjoyed nice moments, great games even, in this “new season” — but Dollar Bill remains the most divisive star on the roster, thanks largely to the fact he’s scooping nearly $7 million off a tight salary cap.
While his talents may be better built to drive offence to the flank of Matthews, Nylander has filled in nicely in Kadri’s stead and proven himself a worthy centre option if/when the need arises.
His setup of Rielly’s strike in Game 6 was something special:
“He wants the puck all over the ice. He’s great through the middle of the ice with the puck,” winger Connor Brown said. “He has been a joy to play with.”
But then he’ll coast through a shift where he looks downright disinterested and draw the ire of his critics. “Honestly, I would not want him on my team,” analyst Kelly Hrudey said at on-air at one point this series.
The 22-year-old’s regular-season production (seven goals, 27 points, minus-4 in 54 games) have mirrored his series results (one goal, three points) in that he’s exactly a half-point-per-game player right now.
Yes, his wingers aren’t elite, but neither are his match-ups. His paycheque demands something more tangible than positive underlying numbers. You assume that’s coming. Boy, would Slick Willy silence a ton if people if it arrived Tuesday.
Well, we now know his suspension length: five games. This means Kadri, who was fantastic in the first two games of this series, will have removed himself out of more than half of his club’s playoff games (eight of 14) in the past two springs.
The third-line pivot’s poor decision-making could end up costing the Leafs from seeing Round 2. Although he’ll have no say in Tuesday’s outcome, Kadri needs a Toronto win as badly as anyone. With his frustrating history and his movable contract, the longest-tenured Leaf becomes an off-season trade consideration.
Survive TD Garden, however, and the impact forward has a chance to polish his narrative in Round 2 and, possibly, beyond.
“You can’t cross the line,” Babcock said, “Any time you do, you leave decisions in someone else’s hands, and it’s not within your control. I think in anything in life you want to be in control and you’ve got to own everything.
“You’ve got to own your play, you’ve got to own your discipline, you’ve got to own what’s going on for you. In the end, Naz has someone else making a decision whether he’s playing or not.”
Toronto’s Gardiner–Travis Dermott pairing of the two D-men on an expedited rehab program are getting sheltered minutes.
Gardiner skated just 12:31 in Game 5, second-fewest for a full game in his career, and only exceeded 17 minutes once in the series.
“Obviously, he’s been injured. It’s pretty easy to see that when you watch,” Babcock said Monday. “I talked to him today. We need him to be good for us and just simple. He’s not playing against the same match-ups he was before, but just be simple and be safe. When you get the puck on the offensive blue line, be yourself.”
Fair or not, Gardiner’s minus-5 performance in the last Game 7 made him a whipping boy, and there is a 50/50 chance Tuesday will be his final game in blue and white.
“Any time you have a defeat like that, it drives you to be even better,” Gardiner said. “But this is a different team, there’s new guys on the team. It’s kind of a fresh start.”