TORONTO – John Tavares, a man in tune with the details, nailed this one.
In those frustrating minutes immediately post-game, when you realize a golden chance to throttle this series 3-1 and give yourself three cracks at vanquishing all those ghosts has slipped through your gloves, Tavares knew this one was on them.
"These games, this time of year, it’s very small differences," Tavares said.
A leaky penalty kill.
A missed assignment.
A shrewd lineup tweak by the opposing coach.
A 42-year-old man having enough time to sift a game-winning point shot through a crowd to seal a road victory and keep this tug-o-war humming until at least Easter Sunday.
A Drake curse, perhaps?
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 17, 2019
The Maple Leafs dominated the Bruins at even strength, controlling 62 per cent of the shot attempts — a percentage beefed up by Toronto’s superior bottom six — and outshooting their guests 42-31 on the whole.
And yet those tricky, calm Bruins led wire-to-wire, sucking Scotiabank Arena’s energy level down to its tepid regular-season setting for prolonged stretches, and bludgeoned the Leafs with their own blunders.
The evening began with the latest chapter in what’s shaping up to be an intriguing tête-à-tête between two shrewd bench bosses.
Bruce Cassidy sent his usual monster top line of Brad Marchand–Patrice Bergeron–David Pastrnak to take line rushes during warm-ups, then pulled the ol’ switcharoo for puck drop, dropping the creative Pastrnak to the second line and flipping young Danton Heinen up with the Cup winners.
The Perfection Line had been struggling to produce 5-on-5 through three games, and Cassidy informed his troops of the trickery a few hours before game time.
"Moving some pieces around, hopefully it gives us a spark, maybe it makes them think," Cassidy explained, post-win.
"I’m not sure Danton can skate every night at this point in his career against the top line, against the top D, but he certainly does a good job in his spots."
Pastrnak, 22, established himself as a Leaf killer in the 2018 series, but he was struggling to find his rhythm this week. Cassidy felt he needed to do something, anything, to get his three-time 35-goal man fired up.
"Scorers, when they don’t score, can get antsy. I’m not saying David was there, but we want to keep him from going there," said Cassidy, images of the goal-less and eliminated Sidney Crosby and Nikita Kucherov possibly dancing in his head.
"[Bergeron and Marchand] know they haven’t been at the top of their game for a few games. Listen: They were ready. They were in the hallway before the game talking about certain plays. Those guys are dialed in. They’re pros. They’re Stanley Cup champions. Those are not guys you worry about too often."
Cassidy still threw Pastrnak on with the vets after icings and on his fear-inducing power-play, which went a perfect two-for-two. The recharged sniper struck twice. Look out.
"That team thrives on the power play," Mitch Marner said.
Dropping Pastrnak to David Krejci’s second line, Bergeron reminds, is a tactic Cassidy has used a handful of times before.
"It’s to change the mindset of lines: keep it simple, bring it on net a bit more. It’s definitely not a demotion," Bergeron said. "It’s all about getting the results."
Although Leafs coach Mike Babcock sloughed off the new look — "I didn’t think I was concerned about that one bit," he said — the Big 3 combined for six points and resembled the trio that terrorized the Blue and White a year ago.
"Special teams, obviously, tonight could be a little better on that side of it," said Tavares, who doesn’t kill penalties.
Although, not many Leafs do lately.
Boston has now converted on five of its 11 chances with the man-advantage this series (45.5 per cent).
"Our power play hasn’t taken a dip. We’ve been top-five all year," Cassidy said.
The only playoff team with a worse penalty kill than Toronto’s got swept by Columbus.
"The bottom line is, you can’t keep giving power play goals up. Those are just freebies, those two. Not that they didn’t make plays or anything like that, but we weren’t in the spots we were supposed to be in," Babcock said.
"We’ve had pretty good penalty kills since I’ve been here. Pretty good. But, it isn’t good enough right now. The great thing about it is, the series isn’t over. So we don’t have to live with that number. We can still fix it."
Toronto flies to Boston Thursday to kick off a best-of-three, and Babcock must now steal another one without last change and without a crowd quiet enough to let you think about the small things.
"Well, we have confidence, but it’s tied," Morgan Rielly said.
"It’s 2-2. They have confidence, too."