BOSTON – From zero to 100, real quick. The last few weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs unspooled as if played in slow motion and then the playoffs arrived with a smack to the jaw.
They’re in one, now.
Not only will the Leafs be back to the drawing board on finding an answer for the NHL’s top line, they’re almost certainly going to be down a top centre while doing it. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron threw them on spin cycle during Thursday’s Game 1 victory by the Boston Bruins, putting on a clinic in puck control while exhibiting far more self-control inside a frothing TD Garden.
"It felt like we spent the vast majority of the game on our half of the ice," said Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey. Because they did.
Bergeron and Marchand came in at better than 80 per cent possession and took advantage of a shift against Toronto’s fourth line to get stylish sniper David Pastrnak a goal that sunk the Leafs’ chances in the final minute of the second period.
Otherwise, that trio saw more than six minutes of ice time at evens against Auston Matthews and Co., and completely neutralized Toronto’s most dangerous shooter in tandem with defencemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy.
There were very few sustained offensive bursts from Matthews and William Nylander. The forgotten member of that line, Zach Hyman, did manage a gorgeous individual effort to score – taking advantage of a poor Chara pinch and outmuscling David Krejci and McAvoy as he drove to net, but there was no question about who came out ahead in a battle of Boston’s best vs. Toronto’s best.
"They’re a 200-foot line," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "They’re good. They’ve got lots of speed, lots of skill, they’re responsible. They did a good job tonight."
"[Bergeron] wins faceoffs so he gets the puck a lot for that line," added Hyman. "Any time you have the puck off the draw, you’re going to be playing in the other team’s zone, so it’s tough."
Worse still for Toronto is the likelihood they’ll have to play Game 2 without Nazem Kadri, who has a Friday hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety after being assessed a charging major and game misconduct for hammering Tommy Wingels while the Bruins forward was in a prone position.
That will force Mike Babcock into some lineup juggling on Saturday night – with Patrick Marleau likely shifted to centre while speedy winger Andreas Johnsson makes his playoff debut.
Regrets, the Leafs were left with a few.
Like the pair of second-period power plays that went unconverted while the score was still 1-1. Tyler Bozak couldn’t get a handle on one golden chance. Mitch Marner saw another slide under Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask and past the far post.
Those missed opportunities were exacerbated by the fact Boston pumped home three goals with the man advantage, poking holes in a Leafs penalty killing unit that had already been leaking oil late in the regular season.
"We’ve got to be better, obviously," said Babcock. "We’ve played against them lots so give them credit, they were good, we weren’t good enough. The puck went in for them, it didn’t go in for us. They were better than us and all that. They won Game 1.
"That’s the beauty of this is we’ve got to win four and they’ve got to win three. So that’s where we’re at."
While Toronto lost its cool, Marchand kept his. He even planted a playful kiss on Leo Komarov for the second time this season.
The Leafs were given a pretty reminder about how quickly the NHL transitions from meaningless games down the stretch to all-or-nothing mayhem. They looked like a deer caught in headlights for the first 10 minutes of Game 1.
"We weren’t able to get any long, sustained pushes in their end," said Hainsey. "A little bit after we made it 1-1, played good for about the next six minutes going into the next period and from then on, they cranked it up and we didn’t answer."
They’ve got one day to come up with some.
In no particular order, they’ll need to find a plan to play without Kadri, a better strategy for shutting down Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak and some significant improvement from the penalty killers. And, without having much control over the matchups, Babcock will need more from the Matthews line at 5-on-5.
"I think we’re a pretty good team that’s won lots of games and so, to me, when you get beat you just get regrouped," said Babcock. "The beauty about this is we’ve got a day to solve our problems and we can feel sorry for ourselves if we want here tonight, but that’s a waste of time and energy.
"Let’s just get back to the hotel, get a meal, get regrouped, have a good practice tomorrow and come back at it."
In the playoffs, life comes at you fast.