Kapanen, Johnsson could be game-changers for Leafs in Game 4

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston get us set for Maple Leafs-Bruins Game 4, where the Leafs are obviously most concerned with Boston’s top line, but the same can’t necessarily be said for the B’s.

TORONTO – When you’ve lived hockey for as long as Kasperi Kapanen has, you learn to make peace with the way things can turn against you when rubber meets ice. Bleep happens, as teammate Auston Matthews noted, and Kapanen intuitively accepts after spending all 21 of his years inside the rink.

He’s hit the trifecta of bad breaks in the last two games against the Boston Bruins: breakaway chance, beat the goalie clean, shot off the post; breakaway chance, have the puck roll comically on its side, get stopped; and, finally, dangerous rush, beat the goalie clean, post.

For those in need of a refresher, here they are in sequence:

The near-misses have not left Kapanen questioning his luck. Nor have they sent the Toronto Maple Leafs winger down a YouTube rabbit hole, desperately seeking out Tuukka Rask’s shortcomings before he gets his next shot at the Bruins goaltender in Game 4 on Thursday night.

"I feel like if you start looking at video and trying to find footage and stuff like that you’ll just get into your own head," said Kapanen. "I thought on the first [breakaway] I made a good play and I was just unlucky that I hit the post. The other one was a roller the whole way, so I couldn’t really get the elevation I wanted to on that one.

"I’m just going to stick to what I’ve been using before and what I feel comfortable with and what I see at that moment. I’m not going to think about it too much."

It should come as a compliment that the Bruins are thinking about him. They rightly feel good about where they stand in this series – with a 2-1 lead and a dominant top line dictating terms – but coach Bruce Cassidy remains respectful of Toronto’s depth and speed.

Without prompting, he referenced Kapanen and linemate Andreas Johnsson when speaking with reporters on both off-days following Game 3. They’re clearly on his mind. What those two wingers have in common is a game-breaking ability that you don’t typically see on a fourth line – they’re each fast enough to spring free on an odd-man rush that could produce a momentum-shifting goal.

"They’ve got speed on the wings," said Cassidy. "You look at their fourth line and it’s a considerably different makeup than ours [the workmanlike trio of Tim Schaller-Sean Kuraly-Noel Acciari], with those young kids that got a lot of speed and are more offensive-minded. Ours is a little heavier.

"That’s just the difference in the style of play."

What makes Kapanen and Johnsson so valuable to Mike Babcock is that they seem to thrive against Boston’s top defence pair. Not only does the Leafs coach not have to shelter them against Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy, there’s a case to be made that he should be using last change to find that matchup.

Kapanen paid no regard to Chara while skating past him and ringing that shot off the post in Game 3. He may give up nine inches and more than 60 pounds to the future Hall of Famer, but the even-strength shot attempts are 15-6 in Toronto’s favour when they share the ice in this series.

The philosophy is simple: Chara can’t keep pace, especially when the waterbug wingers force him to turn around on the rush. Even his traditional advantage – his immense reach – has been nullified slightly by the NHL’s crackdown on slashing and stick fouls.

"If we’re standing still, Chara’s going to eat you up," Johnsson explained. "So, I mean, as long as we can move the puck quick and keep our skates [moving], we’re getting away from him and we can create offence."

It’s telling that Cassidy was hailing the anticipated return of defenceman Matt Grzelcyk for Game 4 as a positive step in pushing back against the Leafs fourth line. Grzelcyk is listed as five-foot-nine, 174 lbs., and is adept at breaking up the stretch passes while being able to keep pace skating-wise.

Kapanen comes by his speed honestly. It’s in the genes.

When his father, Sami, won his second fastest skater crown at the 2002 NHL All-Star Game, he dedicated the performance to his boy. Kasperi wasn’t quite six yet, but Sami said he’d expressed displeasure when he lost out in an earlier event.

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Today, Kasperi’s carrying on the family business. His biggest concern is deciding when the moment is right to blow out of the defensive zone and pounce.

"I just try to surprise people with it," said Kapanen. "Just use it as much as I can. Obviously if we’re in a tight spot in our zone, I’m always going to push the pace and try to get to loose pucks and try to make plays.

"That’s my No. 1 asset so I hope we can use it."

The fourth-liners are waiting for their breakthrough. Despite seeing limited minutes, they’ve had more than enough chances to score in this series.

One of the best came in Monday’s win when Kapanen found Johnsson with a cross-seam pass and Rask did this:

"Oh yeah. I thought I got a great hit on the puck, so when I saw it – he made an awesome save," said Johnsson. "Great reaction from him. Just ‘tchook."’

The rookie fires his right hand in the air as he retells the story, mimicking Rask’s glove, and punctuates it with a hearty chuckle.

In this sport, sometimes that’s all you can do.

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