TORONTO — When the trade deadline came and went with no last-minute reinforcements, a choice was made.
The Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t conforming to anyone else’s idea of what a playoff-type team has to look like. And they certainly weren’t constructing themselves in a manner specifically designed to withstand a best-of-seven with the Boston Bruins, who by Feb. 25 were already squarely on the radar as their likely Round 1 opponent.
“When you start building a team to play only one team in the playoffs, you start to lose your way a little bit and lose what you’re about,” Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said that day. “Time will be the judge whether that’s the right way to do it.”
The front office made a calculated bet here on speed and skill, rather than brawn and intimidation. They built a team that not only took the fewest penalties in the NHL this season, but also drew the fewest calls against them.
So here in the playoff cauldron with a series tied 1-1, and with the Bruins making no secret of their intentions to continue ramping up the physicality and intensity, and with Nazem Kadri already facing a lengthy suspension, the biggest challenge for the Leafs in Game 3 on Monday is an internal one.
Remaining true to themselves.
They will look to finish hits on the forecheck, sure, but there’s no upside to be found in any extracurriculars. What the Bruins did masterfully in a big Game 2 bounce-back was force Toronto into chasing the game. They hemmed the Leafs in their own zone and brought the hammer down, with everyone from black-and-blue winger David Backes to David Pastrnak to Jake DeBrusk smashing into every white and blue sweater in sight.
Kadri eventually snapped, driving a stick into the side of DeBrusk’s head, and will spend his Monday afternoon attending a disciplinary hearing at NHL headquarters in New York rather than enjoying a nap before Game 3.
“I think you’ve got to play real hard and you’ve got to look after yourself but you can’t cross the line,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said Sunday. “Any time you do, you leave decisions in someone else’s hands and then it’s not within your control. I think in anything in life you want to be in control and you’ve got to own everything.
“You’ve got to own your play, you’ve got to own your discipline, you’ve got to own what’s going on for you. In the end, Naz has someone else making decisions whether he’s playing or not.”
Turning the other cheek grows tougher as the series gets deeper. Familiarity breeds contempt and frustrations build when you see the same opponent three times in five nights. Then factor in the possibility the Leafs and Bruins might continue to meet every other night for another week.
Boston didn’t really cross the line during Saturday’s game — at least not anywhere near the degree Kadri eventually did — but DeBrusk bloodied Travis Dermott with an elbow during a first-period scrum and punched Kadri a couple times after a whistle. Toronto defenceman Ron Hainsey was cut after taking a hard hit in the corner. DeBrusk locked knees with Kadri on a questionable open-ice hit.
There was a degree of chaos that clearly served the Bruins well and kept Toronto from establishing any sense of control. Over the puck, the scoring chances or the tenor of the game.
It was straight out of the playbook described by former Leafs captain Wendel Clark during a Sportsnet Q-and-A event with fans before the series started last week. In handicapping the matchup, he talked about the importance of Toronto staying true to itself.
“We’re not a tough team, don’t play tough. Don’t slow the game down, don’t get into what they want to do,” said Clark. “They’re old school. We have to play between the whistles. So you play hard, whistle goes, go change. Do not get involved in any of their shenanigans because that’s what they do.
“We’re not good at that, we’re not tough, we don’t know how to talk. That’s not our game. Ours is the skill and use our finesse as a team and don’t get drawn into what they’re good at.”
As much as the Leafs want to show they won’t be pushed around — “Every hit matters,” said Zach Hyman. “It’s an investment” — they’ve got no direct antidote to Backes, especially with Kadri likely to be suspended for the balance of the series.
Their answer has to come from the way they play. They need to push the pace and take advantage of the mileage already on Backes’ 34-year-old legs. They need to avoid getting in the mud and have faith the Bruins will parade to the penalty box if they keep pushing the line.
That’s the only flex at Toronto’s disposal in what now amounts to a best-of-five, and it’s by design. Trying to be tougher than the other team isn’t part of the Leafs DNA.
“For whatever reason, that takes on a life of its own — the whole ‘toughness’ question,” Dubas said in December. “I don’t buy it, myself. I know that there are a lot of pundits that say you have to have it, but I look at the teams that have had success, and I don’t think bringing in one big person is going to change our culture — and it’s not going to have us carry on with the process we’ve started.
“We want to have skill, we want to be fast, and we want to be competitive.”
They’ve got to do it their way.