Welcome to the second Saturday of the NHL post-season. We’ve got three games on tap today, down from the originally scheduled four – thanks, Golden Knights – and we’ll start with the lone evening game.
“If you win, you get to play again. If you don’t win, you don’t get to play again.”
That was Mike Babcock’s post-game message on Thursday night. It’s not fancy, and probably won’t make it into too many books of inspiring sports quotes. But the Maple Leafs can’t afford fancy right now, so simple will have to do.
Before the puck dropped, Game 4 in Toronto felt like a potential series turning point. With Patrice Bergeron out of the lineup, the Maple Leafs’ task was straightforward: win the game, tie the series, and head back to Boston with the momentum. At the very least, you’d expect them to come out flying in a leave-it-all-on-the-ice effort to take advantage of a golden opportunity. Instead they surrendered a goal on the game’s first shift, and failed to find much offence on the way to a 3-1 loss. They played well at times, but couldn’t figure out a way to beat Tuukka Rask while the Bruins buried their chances.
Now the series heads back to Boston, where the Bruins dominated the first two games, and you could be forgiven for assuming it’s all but over. We don’t know yet if Bergeron will be back, although the early indication was that his injury wasn’t a long-term situation. But even if the Bruins’ star sits out again, the advantages all seem to be leaning Boston’s way. They’re getting offence from their other best players, such as Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, while key Maple Leafs, such as Auston Matthews and William Nylander, have been largely quiet. Rask is outplaying Frederik Andersen. And home ice means the Bruins will once again control the matchup battle, one they won handily in the first two games.
It all adds up to a bleak outlook for a Maple Leafs team that went into the season with plenty of optimism, and largely lived up to the hype with a franchise-record 105 points. But an early exit against the Bruins would represent a step back from last season, as well as a tough message about how far this team still has to go. And it will make the team’s stay-the-course rebuild philosophy just a little bit tougher to sell in a town that’s been uncharacteristically patient up until now.
That’s all getting ahead of ourselves – the Maple Leafs could win tonight to extend the series, then head home to try to force a seventh game. But they’ll need to be better across the board to make it happen. Because if it doesn’t, as a wise man once said, they don’t get to play again.
Key subplot: Goaltending controversies
By the time the playoffs arrive, most of a head coach’s work has already been done. The system is in place, the players know their assignments, and the lines are mostly set. A coach can tweak the lineup here or there, and making adjustments to an opponent over the course of a series is important. But in terms of big changes, the options are limited.
But there’s one card in the deck that a coach can play if needed: the goalie switch. Not the standard-issue mid-game variety, but rather the full-on starter swap. It’s a gutsy move, especially if the guy being sent to the bench is considered a star.
When it works, the coach looks like a genius, as was the case when Mike Sullivan won a Cup by choosing Matt Murray over Marc-Andre Fleury. But when it doesn’t, he opens himself up to charges of overthinking things, if not torpedoing is team’s chances altogether.
We’ve seen the situation play out this year in both New Jersey and Washington. John Hynes decided to start the playoffs with Keith Kinkaid in net instead of Cory Schneider, while Barry Trotz went with Philipp Grubauer over Braden Holtby. In both cases, the coach was riding the hot hand, not to mention the guy who’d put up better numbers on the season. But he was also benching the nominal starter, or at least the guy with the bigger name (and paycheck).
Neither move paid off. Kinkaid and Grubauer each started their teams’ first two games, and didn’t produce a win between them. Both teams switched starters before Game 3, and both earned victories to get back into the series.
Of the two decisions, Hynes’s was the easiest to defend, even in hindsight. The Devils had been riding Kinkaid down the stretch in the regular season when they were essentially playing de facto playoff games, and he’d been great. Meanwhile, Schneider had suffered through a second straight season of below-average play. And besides, the Devils were already heavy underdogs against the Lightning, so why not swing for the fences?
The Capitals were a different case, one that saw the team bench a player who’d won the Vezina just two years ago and who had 60 games’ worth of playoff experience on his resumé. Grubauer had been very good on the year, but starting him over Holtby felt at least a little bit like a panic move. Granted, it’s Washington, where everything feels like panic at this time of year, and we’d be singing Trotz’s praises if it had worked. But it didn’t, and it left Holtby and the Caps to fight back from a 2–0 deficit.
Both teams are in action today, and Schneider and Holtby are expected to get the starts. Time will tell whether either or both manage to finish the games without another switch. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there’s only so much a head coach can do.
Player in the spotlight: Nazem Kadri
We’ll be watching all of the usual suspects in the Toronto/Boston game. Matthews, Marchand, both the goalies… you know the drill. But one player will be under an especially bright spotlight tonight, even as he’d almost certainly prefer not to be.
Kadri returns to the series tonight after sitting out three games for his reckless hit from behind on Tommy Wingels in the opener. That play wiped out any slim chance of a comeback in that game, and left the Maple Leafs struggling to find a matchup that could work against Bergeron’s unit during a Game 2 blowout. Toronto was able to match up a little better with home ice and last change in Games 3 and 4, but with the series shifting back to Boston, they’re in tough again.
So in that sense, Kadri is returning just in time. He doesn’t match up well against the Bruins’ top line because nobody really does, but he gives Mike Babcock the option of sending out a 30-goal scorer who can handle tough assignments in his own zone. That could be huge.
We have to add the “could be” qualifier, because even nine seasons into his career, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get with Kadri. He’s gone from being the brash kid who managed only eight NHL goals by the age of 21 to a breakout story during the 2013 lockout season. That was followed by two more disappointing seasons, and a 2015 team-imposed suspension seemed like it could spell the end for him in Toronto. He rebounded from that, transforming into a two-way player along the way, and had become a crucial member of the rebuilt Leafs. He’d also seemed to have put the on-ice nonsense behind him, and earlier this year he was offering advice to younger players like Matthew Tkachuk on the value of playing with discipline.
But then came Game 1, and the redemption story arc was derailed. Now he’s back in the lineup, and his return will be one of the game’s biggest plotlines. And everyone will be watching.
The Boston fans will be waiting to offer him a warm welcome. A few of the Bruins players might, too, although you figure any payback can wait until the stakes are lower. Babcock will have to keep an eye on him as well to see if he can be trusted in the emotion of the moment.
You know the referees will be watching him. Reputations can sometimes be unfair, but at a certain point you’ve burned through any benefit of the doubt. The Department of Player Safety will probably have an isolation camera on him, too, because lord help him if he screws up again anytime soon.
That’s a lot of attention for a guy who’d probably rather fly under the radar tonight. That’s especially true if Bergeron returns and Kadri draws the assignment – holding that line to a quiet night would be a win for the Maple Leafs. It’s also a lot easier said than done. But whichever way tonight goes, Kadri’s return will have impact. We just may not know what kind until the final buzzer – assuming that, for the first time all series, he can make it that far.
Marquee matchup: A history of playoff misery vs. a history of playoff misery
The Capitals and Blue Jackets take the ice today in Washington tied at two. That’s a mildly surprising result, given how the series started. When the Caps blew a two-goal lead and lost in overtime in Game 1, you figured it had to hurt. When it happened again in Game 2, you figured it was over. These are the Capitals, after all, a team known for its decades of playoff failure. Getting swept by a wild card seemed like par for the course. Hey, at least they were getting it out of the way early this year.
But to their credit, the Caps fought back on the road, earning an overtime win in game thee and then finally putting together a strong start-to-finish game to take game four on Thursday. In doing so, they backed up Alexander Ovechkin’s quasi-guarantee. For most teams, this would feel like a turning point – the sort of line in the sand a team draws when it’s ready to shed its old reputation and strike out on a new course.
The Capitals aren’t most teams, so the reaction has been more muted. Among their fans, there’s a distinct vibe of “Good lord, what are they setting us up for now?” It’s almost as if the hockey gods realized that an early sweep would be too easy, and offered up a comeback to get everyone to let their guard down. If so, it doesn’t seem to be working. Everyone’s still waiting for something terrible to happen to the Capitals.
But should we be? After all, it’s not like this is the now-traditional matchup with the Penguins. We all know that Pittsburgh wins those, because Pittsburgh wins everything – playoff series, Stanley Cups, draft lotteries, you name it. Put Ovechkin up against Sidney Crosby with anything meaningful on the line and sure, we all know how that’s going to end.
But the Blue Jackets? Maybe we’ve been so focused on the terrible things that might happen to the Capitals that we forgot that they’re playing a team that’s closing in on two decades of existence and has never won so much as a round. Heck, they’ve never played so much as a single post-season game where the other team was facing elimination. Surely that has to count as a worse track record of playoff failure than a team that usually only wins a round or two.
Two teams. Two histories of playoff misery that border on the comical. And against all odds, only one of them can lose this series. Which means one of these two fan bases is actually going to wind up feeling happy about the playoffs.
(Temporarily, at least. When the Capitals inevitably win this series and ride off on a wave of redemption, remember who’s probably going to be waiting for them in Round 2.)
From the archives
With the Maple Leafs down 3–1 and the Bruins holding the momentum and home-ice advantage, the series seems all but over. But as these two teams have shown us before, sometimes miraculous comebacks are possible. So today, let’s look back on a game between the Leafs and Bruins that proves that it’s never over until it’s over.
No, not that game. Look, we covered this last week. It’s not happening. Check back in a few years, and if I’m able to see the words “Matt Frattin breakaway” without dry-heaving, we may be ready.
Instead, let’s accelerate past 2013 and head back all the way to the 1980s… barely. The Dec. 30, 1989, matchup was the last game of the decade for both teams. The 1980s Bruins had made the playoffs every year, won two division titles, and been to a Stanley Cup final. The 1980s Maple Leafs had, um, not done those things. But on this night, in front of a national Saturday-night audience on Hockey Night in Canada, the Leafs gave the Bruins all they could handle.
Well, eventually. The game didn’t start all that well for Toronto, who gave up the opening goal just two minutes in and were down 3–1 by the first intermission. Boston kept pouring it on in the second, scoring three straight to expand the lead to 6–1. A Vincent Damphousse goal late in the period cut the lead to four, but this one was over. Right up until it wasn’t.
The third period saw the Leafs mount a furious comeback in front of an increasingly frantic Maple Leaf Gardens crowd. Gary Leeman scored five minutes in to cut the deficit to three, and Luke Richardson added another two minutes later. That set the stage for Ed Olczyk to cap off the comeback with a pair of goals to send it to overtime, where Wendel Clark launched Randy Burridge into orbit before scoring the winner.
The Leafs had come all the way back, winning by a 7–6 final. You can find the whole game on YouTube below; the sequence leading to Clark’s winner comes around the 1:55:00 mark.
(As a side note, the win capped off an eventful week for the Maple Leafs – the previous Saturday was the infamous game against the Blackhawks that featured the Leeman/Denis Savard dance-a-thon.)
Ultimately, the result didn’t matter all that much; the Bruins won the division again and went back to the Stanley Cup final, while the Leafs bowed out in the first round. But it was a memorable Toronto win in an era that didn’t provide many, and to this day some fans still list it as one of their favourite games ever.
Sadly, “It was 6–1…” never quite caught on.
Oddly specific prediction
The Bruins win the series 4–1 by beating the Maple Leafs 4–1 because the hockey gods hate Toronto and want to make sure their fans to know it.
Oddly specific prediction record: 2-for-26