Leafs not scared to pit Matthews against Bruins’ Bergeron line

Rielly, Babcock, Hainsey and Marleau discuss the challenges they face with the Bruins top line of Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak, who bring a mix of speed, strength, and unpredictability to every shift.

TORONTO – The best description of what makes Patrice Bergeron such a handful came from a former NHLer who referred to him as a “shape-shifter.” Bergeron can seemingly defy the usual constraints of time and space, consistently putting himself in the right position to do the right thing.

That’s why the Boston Bruins centre has been known to take up residency in an opponent’s mind. At his best he’s capable of playing mistake-free hockey, night after night. He’s a machine.

So as the Toronto Maple Leafs prepared to open their first-round series at TD Garden, they were expecting Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy to use the advantage of last line change to chase one matchup in particular: Auston Matthews versus The Machine.

The beauty for Bergeron, of course, is that he’s flanked by world-class linemates. His left-winger, Brad Marchand, is a relentless puck hound who can dangle it on a string – a player that was given top-three duty by Mike Babcock on the latest incarnation of Team Canada. On Bergeron’s right is David Pastrnak, a Czech with plenty of finish, who at age 21 is coming off a 35-goal, 80-point season.

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That trio skated downhill all year long. They generated nearly 59 per cent of even-strength shot attempts when playing together and scored more than 63 per cent of the goals, routinely starting and finishing a shift with control in the offensive zone.

They often did it against the other team’s best, drawing matchups against Steven Stamkos, Sasha Barkov and Matt Duchene during the stretch drive. In the eyes of opponents, the Zach Hyman-Matthews-William Nylander line now qualifies as the one to be most concerned about with Toronto. And Babcock doesn’t intend to expend much energy trying to find them easier minutes.

“I’m not going to pull people on and off the ice on the road,” Babcock said Monday night during an appearance on Prime Time Sports. “I’m not 100 per cent sure, but I’m pretty sure what they’re going to do matchup-wise, and so I’m good with that. But then your second and third matchups you can control them if you can’t control your first.”

In other words, he likes his chances of getting something close to a saw-off at the top and leaving it to the Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak trios to make an impact against lesser competition.

However, the saw-off at the top is anything but assured for the Matthews line – even after its own impressive year, where it outscored opponents 44-23 at 5-on-5 while posting positive results in shot attempts (51.37 per cent), scoring chances (54.38 per cent) and high-danger scoring chances (52.88 per cent). Those types of numbers will be difficult to replicate against a four-time Selke Trophy winner and his two elite wingmen.

Matthews was only healthy for one game against the Bruins this season and got a big dose of Bergeron, not to mention the smothering Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy defence pairing, while being nullified in a Feb. 3 visit to TD Garden.

It was arguably his least impactful performance from a sophomore season that didn’t include many of them.

However, it also represents an extremely small sample size – Matthews has played less than 13 minutes total against Bergeron at 5-on-5 during his NHL career – which makes the likelihood of them going head-to-head in Game 1 on Thursday all the more intriguing.

Matthews is known for rising to a challenge. He feasted on a playoff matchup against Evgeny Kuznetsov while scoring four times against the Washington Capitals last spring and has been red-hot since returning from a separated right shoulder last month.

This is another level.

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“If you want to be considered a good, good player, you’ve got to do it at this time of the year,” said Babcock. “You want to be a winner, that’s what the good players are, they’re winners, they find a way to win. You’ve got to do it when it matters – it matters now. To me, that’s how you separate yourself from the group.”

Where possible, the Leafs will look to get defencemen Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey out against the Bergeron line as well.

Their game plan is much simpler than the execution promises to be – control the puck, take care of the it, and spend as little time playing defence as possible. Hainsey marvels at the way Marchand, Pastrnak and Bergeron can work it around in the offensive zone without so much as looking at each other. He points to a goal Bergeron scored against the Leafs on Nov. 10 as a prime example.

“I just didn’t think Marchand would put the puck there,” said Hainsey. “He did and it was in. It was a heck of a shot.”

When the series shifts back to Air Canada Centre next week, the Leafs will have a chance to adjust. It’s going to be much easier for Babcock to deploy Kadri in his familiar shutdown role against Bergeron once he gets the last line change.

On the road, the Toronto coach appears content to let his most dangerous offensive line handle the job. Matthews is certainly no defensive liability, not with the quick stick and long reach that allow him to become a pickpocket while hunting down pucks. Of course, trying to pressure Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak into turnovers is akin to pitting man versus machine.

“I mean all three guys are unbelievable players,” said Matthews. “Skilled, smart, they make plays, see each other on the ice well and they work hard, too. So they’re not just a line with skill but they got some grit. They’ve got guys that will go in the corners and dig pucks out in battles and win battles and find each other in the open spots.”

Against Bergeron, his task is to make sure there isn’t much space to go around. It will require staying close, competing hard and trying to think as quickly as the shape-shifter.

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