BOSTON – A couple minutes before the hats came flying down, Jake Gardiner smashed his stick over the crossbar. “The whole game was frustrating and it kind of just built-up at the end there,” he said. David Pastrnak and the Boston Bruins still had more pain to inflict.
Along with Nikita Zaitsev, he’d been handed the dossier to the toughest assignment in hockey right now: Trying to do something, anything, to neutralize Pastrnak’s flash while dealing with the relentless puck pursuit of linemates Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron.
It didn’t go well. In fact, this was an outright disaster for a Toronto Maple Leafs team that went from the high of a 105-point season to staring down the barrel of an early spring exit inside 72 hours.
Zaitsev was on the ice for four goals inside a 10-minute stretch during the first period. One banked off his left skate, another saw him lose positioning during a penalty kill and a third came when he shaded Marchand so closely that he skated right out of the picture.
He was given six shifts inside that window and four ended with the foghorn blaring through TD Garden.
“They scored four quick goals. The game was over,” said Zaitsev.
It wasn’t all on him. The Leafs showed some early push in the second period, and Mitch Marner planted some seeds for an unlikely comeback by getting it back to 4-1, and then Ron Hainsey tossed the puck into a cluster of three Bruins in the neutral zone.
He was attempting to find Auston Matthews with a home run, but it landed on David Krejci’s blade instead. The Czech danced towards the Toronto zone and expertly spread the defenders, feeding Bergeron with a 10-foot pass before he drove towards the slot while Bergeron went cross-seam to Pastrnak, who found him for an easy tip-in.
“That’s kind of the definition of forcing something that’s not there,” Hainsey said of his decision-making on the breakout. “There was nobody on the wing there so I tried to squeeze one in to Matty. Probably not a play you’d make in a tie game in overtime. I could have iced it or I could have tried to get it to our best player – didn’t work.”
Gardiner was skating through the neutral zone in the third period when Marchand got just enough of a stick on him to disrupt his control of the puck. Pastrnak poked it forward and wound up scoring after Marchand shot wide on a breakaway but Bergeron beat two Leafs backcheckers with a quick dish to his tape.
That’s when Gardiner smashed his CCM composite into two pieces.
Toronto was detailed to death over the opening two games here. We can talk all we want about what kind of matchups Babcock might concoct to slow down Bergeron’s buzzsaws with the last line change at Air Canada Centre, but it won’t matter a lick if the players in blue and white don’t protect the puck.
The Bruins top line has combined for 20 points. In two games! Toronto could barely execute a zone exit with them on the ice in Game 1 – prompting Babcock to switch from Hainsey and Morgan Rielly to the Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing to start Game 2 – and then they inflicted most of their considerable damage in transition while spending less time on the cycle.
“They’re confident, they’re making plays, they’re putting it in the net,” said Hainsey. “We’ve got to keep them out of our zone and when they do get there we’ve got to outnumber them. They’re making plays in tight and getting chances close in front of the net.”
No wonder Babcock, when asked if he’s worried about the psyche of his team, replied: “Absolutely, 100 per cent.”
He’s maintained that his defence corps is much stouter this season than given credit by outsiders, but that notion has been stretched to its limit here. There is no graver concern for the Leafs as they try to regroup before Monday, and that’s saying something given that they’ve surrendered five goals on the penalty kill and saw starting goalie Frederik Andersen pulled after five shots on Saturday and still don’t have a goal in this series from the Matthews line.
Oh, and they’ll also be without suspended shutdown centre Nazem Kadri for Games 3 and 4 and lost Leo Komarov with a lower-body injury in the second period of Game 2. The depth is being test.
“We can get ourselves on track,” Babcock insisted.
While they managed some much better offensive pushes on Saturday, they at times looked like someone trying to plug 12 holes in a bucket with 10 fingers. It got pretty messy.
“We were outplayed for two games,” said Hainsey. “Certainly I think if you add it up, 12-4 or whatever it is over six periods, we deserve every bit of criticism far and wide. The good news is the story’s not totally written yet. We can try to change the story come Monday night.”
How’s this for a story? The Leafs played 82 games this season without losing one of them by four goals. The scores here in Boston were 5-1 and 7-3.
They’ve dug an awfully deep hole.