TORONTO — Every empire crumbles, just not so abruptly.
Imagine how it must have felt for the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs to see the Tampa Bay Lightning washed out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after spending the better part of two seasons playing in their shadow. It was like a crack of light peeking through to signal the start of spring.
“The door’s open, I guess,” said Leafs forward Zach Hyman.
For one of them, anyway.
No wonder they played Game 4 with the urgency of someone trying to save their pet from a burning building. It was Boston that prevailed despite spending swaths of Wednesday’s game under siege at 5-on-5, riding a big performance from their lead dogs and gaining an edge in specialty teams to even up the series 2-2.
Inside the span of 48 hours, the stakes have been raised considerably for two teams vying to become the last one standing in the Atlantic Division.
With due respect to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who stunned the 62-win Lightning with a first-round sweep, there was a burst of excitement to be found in having the Presidents’ Trophy winners taken out of the picture.
The Blue Jackets are seen as peers. The Lightning had been titans.
“They found the formula,” Cassidy said of Columbus, which is now awaiting the winner in the second round. “Not too many teams did this year, it wasn’t just us. I think a lot of teams would tell you they were a handful.”
There is no evidence either Boston or Toronto has yet found a true answer for the other. They played seven games last spring, and appear headed back down that path in a cat-and-mouse rematch.
Still, the Leafs were in possession of a golden opportunity Wednesday — with a chance to push their nemesis to the brink of elimination — but fell behind 2-0 before the seven-minute mark thanks to a sputtering start. Then after clawing back to 2-2, they let David Pastrnak strike twice in 95 seconds and could never get things on an equal footing again.
They brought a massive push, controlling a decided edge in scoring chances (64.5 per cent), shot attempts (62 per cent) and expected goals (60.8 per cent) by the time the buzzer sounded. Those were indicators that they played from behind all night.
They never could outrun a couple costly turnovers and a penalty kill that got burned twice.
“I thought we had real good energy tonight. I didn’t think we had brain all the time,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after the 6-4 loss. “We just made some mistakes. We pinched when we shouldn’t have, we gave up some opportunities we didn’t need to give up that we haven’t been doing.”
They may come to regret those lapses in execution with a best-of-three left to be played and at least one more win now needed at TD Garden in order to shed the ghost of the organization’s 15-year run without a series victory.
There is plenty at stake here.
However, the Leafs aren’t the first team to get beaten by Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. That Boston duo delivered a huge response after what had been a relatively quiet series, sharply reversing the run of play against Toronto’s Hyman-John Tavares-Mitch Marner line despite playing with Danton Heinen rather than Pastrnak, their regular right-winger.
“Listen, they were ready. They were in the hallway before the game talking about certain plays,” said Cassidy. “Those guys are dialled in. They’re pros. They’re top-end players, they’re Stanley Cup champions, so those are not guys you worry about very often.”
Even a two-goal night by Auston Matthews, the first of his playoff career, wasn’t enough to make up the difference on Toronto’s end.
With reflection, they’ll find some confidence in nearly completing a three-goal comeback during Game 4 and from the slight edge they’ve established in the run of play overall. The Leafs can even look to the surprising Blue Jackets sweep for a reminder about the power of possible.
“It goes to show that anything can happen in the playoffs,” said Matthews. “It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in. Or your place. It all comes down to will.”
“This is why you play the game,” added Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “This is why John [Tavares] came here, this is what we’re here to do. We’re here to win playoff games, and to win a series, and move on from there.”
The Leafs and Bruins are now battling for the chance to face Columbus, and to be the team in possession of home-ice advantage while doing it. They spent the entire season thinking it’d have to be the Lightning and are suddenly faced with a fresh bracket.
Anything can happen in the playoffs.
Pretty cool, huh?
“Yeah, if you’re not one of those teams,” said Toronto’s Ron Hainsey.
One of them will have the door slammed shut in six days or less.