Familiar defensive woes sinking Maple Leafs’ first-round chances

Mike Babcock spoke with the media following the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 4.

TORONTO — Some of what has plagued the Toronto Maple Leafs in their first-round series with the Boston Bruins registers as a surprise.

Nobody would have expected goalie Frederik Andersen—the team MVP in the regular season—to register an .885 save percentage through three outings. Sure, the top line, centred by Auston Matthews, was always going to be in tough on the road against Patrice Bergeron’s unit, but it would have been fair to expect more than a single goal out of that trio in two home-ice games—especially with Bergeron shelved for the second.

One area that’s long been circled as a point of concern with the Leafs, though, is the blue line. And while it’s unfair to completely disparage the defence corps on a night Toronto outshot Boston 32-21 during a 3-1 Bruins win in Game 4, it’s also impossible to get around the fact two Boston goals traced directly back to a pair of errors by defencemen in blue.

After digging out of an early 1-0 hole, the Leafs appeared to be inching their way to a series-squaring victory on Thursday night in the late stages of the second period. Then, with 3:05 remaining in the middle stanza, Jake Gardiner made a groan-worthy pinch at the Boston blue line. In a flash, David Pastrnak was blazing down the right side of the ice, looking off Nikita Zaitsev and sending a pass Brad Marchand could one-time just before Gardiner was able to scramble back in the play.

Then, less than five minutes into the third, the puck zipped along the offensive boards toward rookie Travis Dermott at the left point. Rather than trap it or try to jam it back into a safe spot, Dermott attempted to whip it toward the middle of the ice. The result was a plunk off the knee pad of David Krejci, who raced up ice and slipped the puck to Jake DeBrusk for the dagger.

Gardiner’s play was more egregious, but both were reminders that even a couple careless moments can crush a team come spring—especially one whose margin for error has been razor thin ever since dropping the first two games of the series.

“I thought we took over and had the game well in control. Even when we were down 2-1, I thought we were in a great spot because we had the puck a lot,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “Both their 2-on-1’s—one on a pinch and one where we hit the guy in the knee pad—they buried and we didn’t make good plays on them to help our goalie out.

“In the end, that’s the game.”

And if this demoralizing loss does in fact mean the series has slipped away, questions about Toronto’s soft spot are sure to follow. There have been times against Boston that Morgan Rielly has looked great as he continues to grow into the role of a true No. 1. The problem, though, is that if you asked any Buds supporter on the street who the next-best defenceman has been, he or she might answer that the rest of them are tied for fifth.

Gardiner’s skating and offensive skills will always earn him top-four ice time, but plays like the one Pastrnak and Marchand exploited for the game-winner feel like a permanent part of his package. As for Gardiner’s partner, Zaitsev has looked lost to the point that many must be wondering whether it was prudent to offer him a seven-year contract last summer.

Third-pair brute Roman Polak’s limitations have been well-covered on every corner of the Internet, while Ron Hainsey was out-muscled on the Game 1 winner by David Backes and is punching above his weight playing on a top pair all the time.

Even if you want to give Dermott a pass based on his rookie status—and make no mistake, the Leafs have a long-term gem there—the bottom line is a successful Toronto post-season was going to require a scenario where you looked at the defence and thought the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Instead, some of its parts are providing too many holes.

That might be fine in the regular season, when it’s easier for the Leafs to score their way out of trouble. Hey, even in this contest, Toronto would have been okay had it converted its two golden chances when Boston sprung leaks. In the first period, Mitch Marner squeaked around Zdeno Chara and set up Patrick Marleau for a 2-on-1 shot that was stopped by Tuukka Rask’s left pad.

Then, halfway through the game, it was Marner himself in all alone on Rask. Again, the puck-stopper came through and a Toronto sniper was left shaking his head.

After that, the Bruins clamped up.

“They did a better job of not giving us those,” Hainsey said of the high-danger chances. “I don’t think we had any clear 2-on-1’s or big 3-on-2’s in the second half. They got the two of them and they buried them both. Obviously that’s the difference.”

And this time of year, it’s impossible to miss.

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