TORONTO – What Auston Matthews and William Nylander need to do is crystal clear.
With a goal and an assist, respectively, through four games, they need to start producing offensively as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season hangs in the balance.
How they go about accomplishing that task against the Boston Bruins is the more flummoxing quandary, though.
“We haven’t been able to get to where we want to be,” Nylander said. “I can’t tell you exactly why. I just think we’re not playing the way we can.”
The Bruins have rendered two of Toronto’s brightest stars almost useless from an offensive standout. Only a Matthews snipe off a pass from Nylander in a Game 3 win prevents them from being shut out entirely.
They’re searching for answers ahead of the must-win Game 5 on Saturday, yet remain optimistic something will change.
“All the stuff that’s made us successful during the regular season, even for bits and pieces of the playoffs, you’ve gotta stick with it,” Matthews said. “Just do things the right way and you get your chances and eventually they’re going to start going in.”
The floodgates had better open soon. This type of scoring drought is particularly atypical, especially from Matthews.
The 20-year-old sophomore scored 34 times in 62 games this season, a clip of 0.55 goals per game – second in the NHL only to Alex Ovechkin.
Meanwhile, Nylander, 21, put forth his second 61-point campaign in as many NHL seasons. That total was good for third in team scoring.
Thursday’s pointless performance was especially frustrating, considering the Bruins were without two-way specialist Patrice Bergeron because of an upper-body injury. Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after the game he felt Matthews and Nylander believed they’d dominate the game in Bergeron’s absence and were given a lesson.
To the coach, breaking through is a matter of will over skill.
“When it’s not going good, you gotta simplify your game,” Babcock said. “The first thing is when you’re a good player and you’re used to having the puck all the time, and you don’t have it – how do you get it? You play better defence and you get it faster.
“The second thing is you’ve gotta compete harder in all your one-on-one battles. To score at playoff time, you’ve got to be at the net. It’s real simple. You’ve got to be at the net and create second chances.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done against some of the players Matthews and Nylander have been lining up against.
In Boston, the Bergeron line with David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand was the preferred matchup for Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy – at least when the outcomes of the two blowouts were still unclear.
In Toronto, David Krejci, Rick Nash, and Jake DeBrusk mostly drew that assignment.
The constant has been the defensive pairing of captain Zdeno Chara and rookie Charlie McAvoy. The lone Matthews goal was scored while Kevan Miller and Torey Krug happened to be on the ice.
Matthews and Nylander – and linemate Zach Hyman – have largely controlled the possession. Matthews has a Corsi For percentage of 55.3 in the series, while Nylander’s is 55.2 (per Natural Stat Trick). They each had five shot attempts in Game 4.
Chara and McAvoy have kept them at bay.
“We’ve been able to spend time in the O zone,” Nylander said. “We just haven’t been able to put the puck in the back of the net. That’s something that we want to change.”
“Their whole defensive structure is good,” Matthews added. “They’ve done a pretty good job of keeping us off the net, making it easier for their goalie to make saves. We definitely need to be better as a line.
“We need to be good, and we’re gonna be good.”
The low output of the two young stars is even more noticeable considering how they played in the post-season a year ago. Matthews had four goals and an assist against Washington Capitals and Nylander chipped in four points.
The Leafs pushed the Presidents’ Trophy winners to six games in a season when they weren’t even expected to make the playoffs.
Now, expectations have heightened for everyone – and that’s a good thing, Babcock said.
“What I think is when you become a good team, you feel this every single spring. You’ve gotta learn to embrace it and enjoy it. Pressure means you have a chance. No pressure means you have no chance.
“You go to the Olympic Games (and) you’ve got no chance for a medal, there’s no pressure. You wanna be that person or do you wanna be that person under the gun? I wanna be under the gun. We wanna build our program so big that we’re under the gun; we’re supposed to win.”
The Leafs are going to need more production from Matthews and Nylander if that’s going to happen.
It’s safe to say they know what’s required before time runs out.
“We haven’t been able to step up to the level we’ve been able to play at,” Nylander said. “We’ve gotta make some big steps.”