How Leafs’ Babcock used defence to ‘out-coach’ Cassidy

HC at Noon breaks down Maple Leafs Game 1 victory over the Bruins, where Coach Babcock deserves credit for giving Auston Matthews most minutes, for trusting D other than Rielly and Hainsey, and not worrying much about line matchups.

BOSTON – Ostensibly, Mike Babcock was talking about puck battles and net-front boxouts when he said that playoff time boils down to one thing: “You get to look at the guy across from you and you say, ‘I’ve got to beat him.’”

But that same one-on-one test of smarts and wills and execution applies to coaches as well.

So, after losing his past four Round 1 chess matches and having his decision-making publicly questioned the past couple months with a scrutiny not yet reached in his Toronto Maple Leafs tenure, it is no small thing that Babcock swatted the first significant piece off Bruce Cassidy’s board.

The Leafs’ 4-1 defeat of the Bruins Thursday — Toronto’s first series-opening victory in 16 years — was a puzzle comprised of a billion tiny decisions and one big, juicy one.

Babcock tasked Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev — and not Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey — as the primary defensive shutdown pair against Cassidy’s stacked super line of 79-plus point-producers Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.

“They need special care, there’s no doubt about it. There’s lines in this league where you need everyone aware when they’re on the ice, else they’ll bite ya,” Muzzin said. “I thought we did a good job tracking them. I didn’t find there was a lot of rush chances with them. The best way to do it is keep the puck and make ’em play in their zone, really.

“It’s a good challenge. We’re excited for it. We wanna shut ’em down.”

Moreover, and more interesting, the man who doesn’t do anything by accident, didn’t inform Muzzin and Zaitsev of their burden until minutes before game time.

“I think they did a good job that they didn’t tell that for a long time, so we wouldn’t overthink about it or something,” Zaitsev said Friday, after the club’s off-day meeting.

Helping limit the Bergeron group’s zone time and shielding them from the scoreboard at even-strength, no defenceman posted better possession metrics than Muzzin (56.25% Corsi) in Game 1.

The oft-criticized Zaitsev, dangled as trade bait earlier this season, wasn’t far behind, and the Russian made a tremendous, diving, second-effort play to bust up the odd-man rush he and Muzzin did get caught on.

“I’m lucky to be able to play with him,” Muzzin said. “He’s a competitor. He’s feisty. He hates being scored on.”

No one may be more appreciative of the low-risk duo than goalie Frederik Andersen.

“They’ve helped me out a lot,” Andersen explained. “Muzz, he’s been great at talking. He’s been in the league for a long time now. He’s very mature and very confident out there. I think that helps out everyone, especially Z. It’s great to see them develop some chemistry especially on the defensive side of the puck.”

Credit an assist to GM Kyle Dubas for that.

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By acquiring the Cup champion, nearly a full month ahead of the trade deadline, Babcock was granted valuable extra games to find a six-man configuration that works.

“It wasn’t just about Muzz. It was about our group and doing the best for them,” said Babcock, who axed ice time for Jake Gardiner (16:32) and Travis Dermott (12:51) as they ease back from injury. “We think that pair can get way better.”

In Muzzin’s brief Toronto tenure, he’s bounced from Morgan Rielly to Zaitsev to Dermott and back to Zaitsev, whom he says plays a similar game to former L.A. mate Alec Martinez — save the language barrier and the stick curve. He might not have been afforded so many iron-out-the-wrinkles games were he not obtained in January.

“Being able to play with [Zaitsev] for a few weeks now has helped for sure with certain reads,” Muzzin said.

“Especially when the game gets hectic and you get tired and you’re running around, sometimes you rely on knowing where he’s going to be. There’s a comfort level there that we’ve got to grow together with here.”

The ripple effect of Muzzin-Zaitsev tackling the Bergeron triumvirate looks bright.

Norris conversation piece Rielly says this configuration frees up his offensive flair, and Hainsey’s plodding feet are less likely to get exposed by a trio that whips the biscuit around like they’ve got eyeballs popping out every screw hole in their helmets.

“They’ve improved a lot,” Rielly said of the other top pair. “When a guy joins a team halfway through a season, there’s an adjustment period, whether it’s the team, the system or your partner. They were outstanding in Game 1.”

The same could be said for nearly everyone in a light sweater Thursday, and the calculating man in the suit pushing their buttons.

“We went through our lineup. They probably outplayed us in every position, outcoached us obviously, so they deserved to win,” Cassidy conceded Friday. “I don’t think we executed our game plan very well. That’s on the staff to get that message through.”

Babcock, whose respect for Bergeron might rank only a half-step below his opinion of Crosby and Lidstrom, has been careful not to isolate the Tavares line and the Muzzin-Zaitsev pair as the only five in charge of wrapping yellow tape around the Bruins’ Danger Line.

“You don’t win by accident over and over and over again. You figure out the formula,” Babcock said. “[Bergeron] figured out the formula early. Now we have to.”

Babcock reserves the right to tinker with the ingredients as this thing comes to a boil, but without question, it’s Cassidy’s move now.

“There will be adjustments as the series goes on,” Babcock assured. “He’s got to look at his team and play the roster he thinks is the best, and we’re going to do the same here.”

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