Leafs still can’t measure up to Bruins’ level

Despite playing a very contested seven-game playoff series with them last year, the Leafs showed on Sunday that they're still not at the same level as the Boston Bruins (Graig Abel/Getty)

TORONTO – Claude Julien still had a bad feeling in his stomach when he showed up at Air Canada Centre. Not even 24 hours removed from a game where Boston and Pittsburgh saw their emotions boil over, the Bruins coach could at least take solace in the fact that this is a place where his team often finds relief.

That was badly needed in the wake of what happened against the Penguins. As much as they had to find some focus to face a division rival, it was tough for the Bruins to completely remove themselves from an evening where they suffered a couple serious injuries and lost sparkplug Shawn Thornton for an undetermined amount of time pending a discipline hearing with the NHL.

“Coming here last night, it was tough,” Julien said about an hour before puck drop in Toronto. “We know what it does to the game. We know everything that went wrong last night. Just because you do it doesn’t mean you don’t want to correct it.”

The Bruins felt they took the first step towards that on Sunday. It was a depleted black and gold lineup, one that was nothing more than a reasonable facsimile of last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, which gutted out a 5-2 victory over the similarly banged-up Maple Leafs.

They were even able to strike a somewhat understanding tone after a questionable hit from Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf on rookie defenceman Kevan Miller – one that will earn Phaneuf a hearing of his own with the department of player safety – went uncalled by the referees late in the game.

Phaneuf appeared to catch Miller from behind but the Bruins weren’t about to throw any extra gas on the fire with their post-game comments after a weekend where Thornton attacked Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik.

“From my bench here I thought it was one of those [hits from behind] and they didn’t call it,” Julien said of the Phaneuf-Miller collision. “It’s tough guys because you’ve got to call those things right on the spot. I can stand here and say I thought it was a penalty and they may look at it and say `yeah, maybe I should have called it.’

“It was a close call. A close call. It’s head first into the boards.”

Beyond that play, there was very little in the way of animosity between teams that contested a heated seven-game playoff series last spring. Perhaps it was due to the fact it was the first Sunday game here in more than a decade – that was reflected in the atmosphere – and both squads have played a lot of hockey recently.

As much as Saturday’s game displayed the ugly side of the Bruins, the return date in Toronto provided an example of why they’re considered a Cup contender once again. The organization’s depth was on full display, with Miller, Torey Krug and Carl Soderberg chipping in key goals and backup goalie Chad Johnson making 30 saves.

That allowed the team to rebound from a sluggish first period and rally for a comeback victory that felt particularly satisfying given everything that happened a night earlier.

“It was (good),” said veteran winger Jarome Iginla, who scored as well. “Just to get the focus on just winning a game and playing. Because, yeah, it was pretty emotional. Everybody felt that from [Saturday] night.”

The game turned on two Toronto penalties early in the second period – both of which turned into Boston goals. On the first, Phaneuf had a chance to clear the puck from the defensive zone before Soderberg scored. Less than two minutes later, Mason Raymond failed to ice it and saw Krug put the Bruins ahead for good.

That has been a troubling trend for the Leafs, who had the NHL’s second-ranked penalty kill on Nov. 2 and have allowed 21 goals in short-handed situations in the 17 games since. It’s no coincidence that they’ve started losing more often during that stretch.

“When we were going really good with (the penalty kill) last year and then the start of this year, we had a certain swagger when we went out there,” said Leafs centre Jay McClement. “We expected to kill it and we were all working together. Right now we’re just making tiny little mistakes and it seems like we can’t get away with anything.”

As a result, they lost to the Bruins for the 11th time in their last 12 regular-season meetings. While Toronto felt it had narrowed the gap with Boston after the highly competitive playoff series last year, it’s difficult to draw that same conclusion now.

Immediately after Sunday’s game, the Bruins began looking ahead to a trip through Western Canada. That will be difficult with so many AHLers in the lineup – defenceman Dougie Hamilton was added to the list of wounded after suffering a lower-body injury against the Leafs – and a game in Calgary on Tuesday that will mark Iginla’s return to his former home.

“I’m going to try to be tough,” Iginla said. “We’ve got a game to play and you’ve got to focus – we’re supposed to be big tough hockey players, so I’ll be trying not to get too emotional. It’ll definitely be special, and a neat experience, and I feel very fortunate for all the time I did get to spend there and grow up there.

“I look forward to something I’ll remember forever.”

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