TORONTO – To fully appreciate what a gut-punch this was you must first remember how much hope the Toronto Maple Leafs started the night with. Playing at home, where they’d won 30 of 42 games. Playing against the Boston Bruins unexpectedly down Patrice Bergeron. Playing one game with a chance to make this series a best-of-three.
And now they’re playing for their lives.
“It was perfect,” lamented Mike Babcock after a 3-1 Leafs loss that was anything but. “We just put the lineup up [without Bergeron], we looked at the power plays and penalty kills because [Riley] Nash, he had been out already. I knew it, put it up, gave them their matchups.
“We were set up pretty good tonight for us – we didn’t take advantage. That’s on us.”
If the season ends in the next few days, Game 4 is the one they’ll look back on with true regret. Sure, the Leafs got trucked in embarrassing fashion in Games 1 and 2, but here they squandered a chance to wipe the slate clean.
What’s worse is how they lost and who failed to pull on the rope in unison with the rest of the group.
Babcock said “I don’t think we had everyone going” before shining a flashlight in the direction of his top line. Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman generated some zone time, but couldn’t maneuver around Zdeno Chara’s two-by-four or Charlie McAvoy’s play-stopping instincts. They got owned by that defensive pairing – even-strength attempts were 20-11 for Boston with both Matthews and Chara on the ice – and they didn’t send anything of note Tuukka Rask’s way.
“I think the great thing about playoff time and being a young guy is that you get lots of lessons and no one is more aware of this than [Matthews] is, I can tell you that right now,” said Babcock. “I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come tonight and dominate the game. That’s what I thought. I thought the same with [Nylander].
“That didn’t happen.”
This loss was hardly theirs alone.
You had Frederik Andersen beaten 28 seconds into the game by a floating Torey Krug shot he said he could have battled harder to see. Poor execution on a pinch by Jake Gardiner led to one 2-on-1 before Travis Dermott fired a point shot into David Krejci’s shin to create another.
Both ended up in the Toronto net.
Even Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau were left with something to dwell on after delivering strong performances here. Marner couldn’t beat Rask on a clear breakaway while Marleau was denied from in-tight at the end of a 2-on-1 with the crafty winger.
Had either of those gone in…
“We made the two plays,” said Babcock. “We had a breakaway and a good 2-on-1 and we got nothing out of it. Both of their 2-on-1’s, one on a pinch and one where we hit the guy in the kneepad, they buried and we didn’t make good plays on him to help our goalie out.
“In the end, that’s the game.”
It might ultimately be the series – although the Leafs still have a chance to play well Saturday and make Game 5 at TD Garden more than a formality.
But let’s not move past this yet. This chance to play such an important game in front of a rocking crowd at Air Canada Centre with Boston’s most effective player sidelined by a mysterious upper-body injury. The Bruins were absolutely crushing Toronto with him on the ice through four games, be it in shot attempts (63.53 per cent), scoring chances (65.31 per cent), high-danger scoring chances (77.78 per cent) or goals (6-2).
Riley Nash may be an under-rated centre, but there’s still a significant drop off with him moving up between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
“Obviously I’m certain they’d rather have him in there,” Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey said of Bergeron. “He’s the best player on the ice most nights he’s out there, or one of them, but they’ve got a great team. They’re deep – just like us – up front. So it wasn’t like we were doing cartwheels in here.
“They’re missing a guy, but it wasn’t like we thought we were going to have an easy night here. That’s a great team.”
Under the circumstances, it was up to the Leafs to leave no doubt with their performance. To keep pushing in the second period when they were giving Boston fits with an aggressive forecheck and the long change.
To not allow the Pastrnak-to-Marchand goal shortly after a draw in the offensive zone, against the run of play, three minutes shy of the intermission. To balance the risk/reward early in the third period and not hand the Bruins another golden opportunity early in the third period.
Strange as it may sound, Babcock foreshadowed this kind of doomsday scenario after a win over Montreal in the regular-season finale on April 7. He was asked then why there hadn’t been the kind of pain he promised on the day he signed the richest coaching contract in NHL history. He reminded everyone there was still time.
“Normally what happens with a young team is you get in the playoffs and then you start thinking like you might be one of the favourites … and then you end up having some playoff failures and then everyone is telling you how bad you are and then you fight through that and you find a way,” said Babcock. “This winning the ultimate prize is not an easy thing. As much as we’re now a team in the league that looks like a good hockey club, you’ve got to do it year after year after year and you’ve got to be a team that can win at playoff time.
“Lots of times teams that win in the regular season aren’t the teams that win at playoff time, there’s only one team that gets to win. It’s a grind and I’m prepared for that totally. It’s not going to be easy.”
You can say that again.
For the Leafs and their fans, this one hurts.