BOSTON – For Toronto Maple Leafs fans who watched and cheered as their club reeled off four consecutive victories, scoring in bunches and clamping down at the business end, Saturday’s trip to Boston provided a cold wake-up call.
“We were on top of them,” asserted the ageless Zdeno Chara, victorious in career game No. 1,400.
In getting outworked, outscored, out-chanced, out-goaltended, outmuscled, out-disciplined and out-everything-else’d against a member of the NHL’s true elite, the Leafs and their fathers flew home late with one to grow on.
The Bruins defeated Toronto 4-1 and have now captured standings points in a ridiculous 20 of their past 21 outings. The final score actually does the visitors a favour.
Even the lone Leafs goal came off a Bruin’s blade.
“There’s not a lot of holes in their game,” Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly confirmed. “One of the hottest teams in hockey. They’ve been playing well. They’re doing everything right.”
Patrice Bergeron, arguably the most complete hockey player on Earth, was the early beneficiary of a fierce Bruins forecheck, gathering a Danton Heinen pass, and simultaneously snapping the puck top-corner past Frederik Andersen and breaking Toronto’s shutout streak at 146:46.
Mitchell Marner tied the game on the power play when his slap-pass ticked off Charles McAvoy’s stick for an own-goal, and Toronto was fortunate to escape a zippy first period tied.
“After one, you hadn’t been great, it’s time for a pushback. We didn’t have a pushback,” Babcock said. “They skated us.”
In one furious Period 2 sequence, Tyler Bozak was robbed on the power-play by Tuukka Rask’s back-diving stick save, and a James van Riemsdyk tip pinged a post. The Bruins then drove the play the other way on the kill and drew a penalty of their own.
“We talked about that,” Bergeron said. “We said it’s a type of hockey you’re going to see later in the year and, you know, heavy teams that can skate and that are obviously going to be in your face.”
As Boston poured on pressure with both its backcheck and forecheck, clogging the neutral zone like Taco Bell clogs plumbing, those missed empty nets and clanged posts felt increasingly like opportunities lost.
“The game is fair. I thought they were quicker, better, executed, had more players going than we did tonight, and it showed,” Babcock said. “They play fast, they play right, they have a good pace to them.”
Antsy to join a winning team after sitting six games to nurse his upper-body injury, Toronto’s Rielly had an eventful re-entry to the lineup. He had his hands full defending the Bergeron line early, notched his 27th assist on the Marner goal, and made a nice full-body slide on David Pastrnak to bust up a 2-on-1 chance for the Bs.
“Whenever you come back, you’re a little bit cautious,” Rielly admitted. “It can be frustrating the way they close it down. So, credit to them, they did a good job, it’s important we get better tomorrow, we come in on Monday [versus Anaheim] and get back on track.”
Toronto’s other newly healthy top-pair defenceman, Ron Hainsey, endured such a rough go in the second period, he may have half-wished to be back home on the couch with the flu.
A speedy Pastrnak beat Hainsey on a fumbled dump-in and extended his point streak to eight games with a smart wrister.
Hainsey then committed an unnecessary interference penalty away from the play, and the Bruins pounced on the man-advantage when Torey Krug one-timed a blast, giving themselves a two-goal lead that essentially made the final 20 minutes elementary.
The Bruins added an empty-netter and improved to a sturdy 20-1-5 when drawing first blood. They hold a five-point edge over Toronto for the second seed and home-ice in Round 1 of the Atlantic Division playoffs — with four games in hand. They have the league’s best goals-against average and second-best possession metrics.
Was this a potential playoff preview of Round 1? Maybe.
Those footsteps the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning can hear are getting louder by the night, and Saturday’s display proved that Boston is widening the gap on its nearest pursuer.
“No question, we’re chasing them right now and we want to get to where they’re at,” Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick said. “There’s another level of consistency and intensity that we can get to every night.”
Consistency and intensity? Look around the entire league. For the past 90 days, Boston has been the model.