Down Goes Brown: Leafs looking to show Bruins they belong

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Shawn McKenzie to discuss a couple of major Maple Leafs line changes that were showcased at practice without Nazem Kadri.

Welcome back to the Saturday Storylines, and welcome to the post-season. We’re back for another week or two, since we’ll have enough on the plate each Saturday to keep the storylines coming through the opening round. We’ve got four Game 2s today, three of which feature the home team trying to take a 2-0 series lead. We’ll start our tour around the league in Boston.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Bruins

Well, here’s the good news for the Maple Leafs: Tonight will probably go better than Thursday did.

Here’s the bad news: It had better.

Game 1 didn’t bring much in the way of positives for Toronto fans hoping to see their team win its first round since 2004. On paper, the matchup with Boston looked tough but winnable. On the ice, the Bruins looked like the better team for just about the entire night. They dominated possession, got the better of the matchups, and had the more effective special teams. The Bruins also got better goaltending, were more disciplined, and even won the coaching battle, with the Leafs failing to challenge what sure looked like an offside on the Bruins’ first goal.

Other than all that, it went fine for Toronto.

In fairness, the 5-1 final score may have been slightly more lopsided than the Leafs deserved – the game was tied until late in the second, and the Leafs were still vaguely in it until Nazem Kadri‘s third-period major for boarding Tommy Wingels. As far as opening-game disasters go, this wasn’t the Flyers losing 7-0 to the Penguins. Not quite.

But however you want to judge it, the loss still leaves Toronto needing a win to avoid heading home down 2-0 in the series. Tonight won’t quite be a must-win, but beating this Bruins team four out of five would be a daunting task, so the pressure is on. At the very least, they’ll want to show that they can look like they belong in the series.

They’ll have to do it without Kadri, who’ll sit out three games for his reckless hit. That’s a major blow to the Leafs’ chances, especially after many of the team’s top forwards had quiet nights on Thursday. The Bruins have a way of doing that to stars, but the Maple Leafs will need to see a lot more from Auston Matthews, William Nylander and James van Riemsdyk, among others, if they’re going to even things up. And with Kadri’s absence highlighting the team’s shaky depth down the middle, they’ll need to finally get something from trade deadline pickup Thomas Plekanec, assuming he even stays in the lineup.

A Leafs win sends us back to Toronto all square, and with a whole new set of narratives. A loss means we can expect to hear plenty of that old cliché about how you’re never really in trouble until you’ve lost at home, and there’s some truth to that. But another effort like the one we saw on Thursday will plant some serious doubt that the series will even still be going on by the time a scheduled Game 5 arrives this time next Saturday.

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Key subplot: Don’t panic (yet)

OK, now that we’re done hyperventilating over the Maple Leafs, let’s pause for a reminder that applies across all four series we’ll see tonight: It’s been one game. We’ve still got a long way to go.

That’s true in Toronto. It’s also true in New Jersey, where the Devils are down 1-0 despite hanging tough with the Lightning. It’s true in Colorado, where the Avalanche are in the same boat against the heavily favored Predators. It’s true in Anaheim, where the Ducks couldn’t even manage a goal while coughing up home ice advantage against the Sharks.

And it might even be true in Washington, where the Capitals are already facing the usual questions after a Game 1 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets. We won’t see them in action tonight – the schedule-maker was kind enough to give them an extra day to brood, so that series resumes tomorrow. But they’re already well into post-season form in Washington, asking questions like “Do hockey people in other hockey cities go through all this hockey hell?”.

The answer: Yes. Yes, they do. Maybe not to quite the same degrees as they do in Washington (for good reason), but yes, overreacting to one game is standard.

Fans do it, because it comes naturally. The media does it, partly to stir up the fans. In both cases, it mostly amounts to background noise that won’t ultimately mean anything. But where things get really interesting is when the “don’t panic” mantra starts to apply to the people whose opinions actually matter. Do the players approach Game 2 differently? Does the coach start making lineup changes? Does the backup goalie suddenly find himself getting the call?

It’s easy enough to suggest that none of that should happen, because again, it’s one game. But if a team sticks with the same approach and loses again, now it’s two games, and that’s halfway to your season being over. There’s not a lot of time for long-range thinking in the playoffs, and the line between wisely staying the course and standing by while the season slips away in a thin one.

So no, don’t panic. Chances are, a few of today’s games will end with the series tied 1-1 and everyone breathing again. But the ones that don’t will mean a series is already halfway home, so a little bit of urgency isn’t too much to ask.

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Marquee matchup: The Bruins’ top line vs. TBD

One of the subplots heading into the Toronto/Boston series was how the Bruins would deploy their top line. The unit of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is among the league’s best, and maybe just the best, period. They’re one of the few lines that can score a ton while also doubling as a shutdown matchup against the other team’s best. They’re good.

That led to the reasonable assumption that they’d be used against Auston Matthews. That wasn’t a sure thing – the Bruins tend to focus more on getting the Zdeno Chara/Charlie McAvoy pairing out against their opponents’ best – but it was a matchup that the Leafs didn’t seem to be backing down from.

They may want to rethink things after Game 1, because the Bergeron line was dominant. Marchand got the opening goal on the power play, then fed Pastrnak for the crucial third goal at the end of the second. Pastrnak nearly got another on a third-period breakaway that saw Sean Kuraly bang in the rebound. In all, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak combined for six points while dominating possession. Bergeron was also fantastic on faceoffs, and anchored the successful penalty kill unit. Oh, and Marchand licked a guy, so there was that.

Not all of that came against the Matthews line, but enough did that Toronto fans can be concerned. We’ll see whether Mike Babcock is too, and whether he makes more an effort to get his young star away from the matchup. If so, Kadri’s absence probably weighs heavily here, since that would be the line you’d typically want to see against the other side’s best. And even if Babcock did decide to concentrate on the forward line matchups, that still leaves him with the Chara/McAvoy combo to deal with. You can’t avoid everyone, especially with Bruce Cassidy’s apparent willingness to play his top line and pairing separately.

There aren’t many easy answers here for the Maple Leafs, except for maybe one: Matthews and company just need to play better, and remind everyone that they’re the type of top line that can occasionally dominate against any matchup. Apart from Zach Hyman’s stellar effort on his goal, there wasn’t all that much evidence in Game 1 that it could happen (and Hyman looks like he’ll be switching spots with Leo Komarov for Game 2).

“Just play better” is getting a little too simplistic to pass for an actual plan. But the Leafs will be looking for some signs of optimism, because they’re going to need to win at least one game without last change to take the series, and right now the Bruins seem to be holding the best cards.

Players in the spotlight: Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon

No, they’re not facing each other this afternoon. Their teams wouldn’t meet until the Stanley Cup final, which is to say that their teams will not meet. We’ll have to settle for getting to see both take the ice at the same time this afternoon, roughly 700 miles apart.

But it’s another opportunity to have a look at the two players who’ll likely finish one and two in the Hart Trophy voting. We don’t know what order they’ll end up in, and it’s certainly possible that someone like Claude Giroux, Anze Kopitar or Connor McDavid will crash the party. But after both players helped their team qualify for the playoffs on the season’s final weekend, they seem like the two most likely options for writers with a Hart ballot. More than a few of us were probably secretly hoping that one or the other would fall just short and make this easy on us, but no such luck.

Those Hart ballots went in on Wednesday, so nothing that happens today will affect who gets the hardware. Instead, this will be an opportunity to stop viewing everything these two do through the lens of awards and voting and what “value” really means, and just appreciate two excellent players having breakout years on teams that nobody thought would be anywhere near the post-season. Or, depending on your perspective, an opportunity to continue to do that without having to listen to some hockey writer whine about how hard their job is. Either way, it will be a nice change.

The question is how long we get to enjoy it. Both the Devils and Avalanche come into the playoffs as monster underdogs – out of the 20 Sportsnet pundits surveyed for their first-round predictions, not one picked the Avalanche to win and only two had the Devils. Plenty of us are expecting one or both series to end in sweeps. In other words, Hall and MacKinnon are great, but catch them while you still can.

On Thursday, both the Devils and Avalanche dropped their openers by identical 5-2 scores. Hall had a goal and an assist for the Devils, while MacKinnon managed an assist on the Avs’ opening goal. In both cases, the game was closer than the score indicated, with the underdogs at least looking like they belonged. But both will need to find another level to pull off an upset.

If all goes according to plan, which it never does, we’ll be seeing the last of the Devils and Avalanche sometime in the next week. But we’ll almost certainly see Hall and MacKinnon again in June, when everyone gathers in Vegas for the NHL awards. Until then, we can all mercifully adjourn the debate, and just enjoy the hockey.

From the archives

With the Maple Leafs and Bruins facing each other in the playoffs for the 15th time, we’ve got a ton of history available to look back on in this section. From the majesty of Bobby Orr and Dave Keon to the heroic performances of Phil Esposito and Darryl Sittler to the glory days of Eddie Shore and Teeder Kennedy, we have nearly a century to draw from.

But that’s not what you want. You’re here because you want a breakdown of that game.

And the answer is no. Because it’s my column, that’s why. Also because my therapist says I’m not ready to talk about it yet. And mainly because things are tough enough in Leafs nation right now, and I have no desire to make my fellow Toronto fans read the rest of the column like the guy on the right.

So now that we’re all angry, let’s enjoy this clip of a whole lot of people punching each other.

Yeah, I think that captures the spirit of how the next week or two will go between Toronto and Boston fans.

Here’s some background on all of this. The clip is from April 2, 1969. It’s Game 1 of the opening round series between the Leafs and Bruins, and Boston is nursing a 10-0 lead. Yes, that’s right, 10-0. You thought Game 1 went badly for the Leafs on Thursday.

But the score wasn’t actually the most memorable moment from this game, and neither was the brawl you just watched. Instead, that game was the one in which Leafs defenceman Pat Quinn drilled Orr with one of the all-time biggest hits and/or elbows you’ll ever see a superstar take.

Needless to say, seeing Orr laid out created some instant bad blood, and back in those days these things tended to get settled quickly. So with the game already decided in the third period, all hell broke loose. And the main event was Toronto forward Forbes Kennedy vs…. well, Boston.

Not the Boston team. Boston. The whole city tried to fight Kennedy that night. And despite being listed at just five-foot-eight and 150 pounds, Kennedy was ready to fight them all back. As you can see in the clip, he fights goalie Gerry Cheevers and tough guy John McKenzie, throws punches at various other Bruins, and takes several shots from Boston fans leaning over the era’s low glass.

Unfortunately for Kennedy, he also drills a linesman. That earned him a suspension that helped spell the end of his NHL career. To this day, he holds the NHL record for penalties in a single playoff game, and most penalty minutes in a single playoff period. As for Quinn, here’s a funny story about him trying to get a beer in a Boston bar after the game.

By the way, Kennedy’s performance did inspire the Maple Leafs to a better result in Game 2 – they only lost that one 7-0.

Oddly specific prediction

The Leafs put up a better effort tonight, but the Bruins win Game 2 in overtime.

Oddly specific prediction record: 2-for-25


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