BOSTON – “Whew.”
Jake Muzzin let out the exhausted happy sigh as someone wrapped a Hockey Night in Canada towel around his neck and he readied himself for his first post-game duties as a dad.
The Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman barely had any time to squeeze in sleep between losing Game 4 at home against the Boston Bruins and setting up Auston Matthews’ critical go-ahead goal in Game 5, with his pregnant wife, Courtney, scheduling her labour induction for Thursday’s travel day.
“It’s been crazy. I don’t recommend having a baby in playoffs,” said Muzzin, now drained of the dad strength he’d channeled in nearly 22 minutes of excellent shutdown work in a 2-1 victory.
“I’m happy for the win tonight and most importantly the health and happiness of my wife and my new girl.”
Luna they named her.
And her father is over the moon.
“It’s a great time to play. Everyone wants to play in these games. If you go out and have fun and work hard, you’re going to play a better game,” Muzzin said.
“Exciting times. I try not to get too pumped up. I wanted to stay within myself, and I was able to, for the most part, be OK with it.”
Not only did Muzzin leave extra late Thursday evening, but his flight got pushed back due to delays at the Boston airport.
“I don’t know if he got the sleep he wanted, but he played phenomenal today,” said Kasperi Kapanen, who sniped the game-winner.
Muzzin and partner Nikita Zaitsev held the fort in the series’ most tightly checked affair, and Muzzin orchestrated the tie-snapping goal midway through the third period of a 0-0 game when he pump-faked a point shot, broke toward the Bruins’ net, then snapped a cross-ice pass to Matthews for the one-timer.
“First thought is always pretty much shoot, but then I saw some ice and then just took it and then saw Matts open up, so good play by him opening up,” Muzzin explained. “He’s a big guy, so when he opens, you see him out of the corner of your eye.”
Matthews called Muzzin’s pass amazing.
“They do a good job of just keeping five guys kind of in tight,” Matthews said. “I just tried to kind of find an open space and he made an unbelievable pass to me.”
In addition to drawing the difficult assignment of Patrice Bergeron’s Perfection Line in this series, Muzzin also plays key minutes on a Toronto penalty kill that had been overwhelmed until Friday, when it went 3-for-3.
“I just told myself: Shut down every line you’re up against. Simplify it. Be a shutdown guy today,” said Muzzin, who also had a pair of takeaways.
The deadline acquisition has ushered in a fiercer, smarter and more experienced look to a Toronto defence that has elevated its post-season play to such a level that it has surprised Boston.
After Bruins rushing defenceman Torey Krug was knocked out of Game 2 from a hard Muzzin body-check, he commented that he thought he’d be safe because he wasn’t used to a Leafs defender playing the body with such vigor.
Were we to tell you the final score would be 2-1 in advance of Game 5, you’d likely guess the Bruins would be the ones on top. The Leafs won just a single game by that common score all season, and that was five months ago.
“I don’t mind the style of the game, being a low-scoring game, because generally that works in our direction,” said Boston coach Bruce Cassidy.
“Toronto has proven this series that they’re getting more comfortable with it, and clearly they were tonight.”
Coming from the L.A. Kings, Muzzin is built for no-space, in-your-face 2-1 playoff hockey.
“I thought he was great,” Babcock said. “I was talking to his bride the other night there, and she was just matter of fact: ‘We’re having a baby, he’ll be there on time, and he’ll be ready to play.’
“They welcomed their daughter to the world and good for them.”