After falling on their faces in a dispiriting playoff opener against the Boston Bruins, the veteran coach identified Leo Komarov as a potential difference-maker in Game 2. This was not what we expected to hear. But Babcock had already gilded Komarov with a spot alongside Matthews and Nylander as part of the shakeup brought on by Nazem Kadri’s anticipated suspension, and he made it clear that the Finn was tabbed to be more than a passenger on a high-powered jet.
“I think the biggest thing for him is he was competitive last night and we’re trying to get the most competitive people involved as much as we possibly can,” said Babcock.
The decision raises some interesting questions given how little time Komarov has spent playing with Matthews—slightly more than 60 minutes total at 5-on-5—and how ineffective those forays have been.
For starters, they’ve each produced better possession numbers apart than together. Komarov is a meat-and-potatoes winger, not particularly fleet of foot, who is coming off a season where his shooting percentage dropped to 6.1 per cent while he scored just seven goals. He’s not a natural fit for the team’s most dangerous marksman.
But context is important. Babcock is trying to assemble the puzzle pieces for a lineup that can win a playoff game on the road—a scenario where coaches value players who are hard on the puck and not prone to turnovers that end up in the back of the net.
Komarov is a trusted soldier in this regard, having won Gagarin Cups in the KHL and a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics. He’s well-schooled in the safe play.
The Leafs are also mindful of the fact he has Brad Marchand’s attention. There’s a belief that he may be able to pester the Bruins puck hound into straying from the task at hand—something the Leafs failed to do Thursday when Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak forced the Matthews line to skate around their own zone for large chunks of the night.
It’s a strategy endorsed by the Bruins themselves.
“I think they probably watched the last five games of our season and saw if Marchy is thinking about stuff other than hockey he’s not as good of a hockey player,” said veteran Boston forward David Backes. “I kind of told him if I was playing against him that’s what I would do.”
Babcock has spread the skill and safety throughout his new lineup—dropping forechecking workhorse Zach Hyman to the left side of Marleau and Marner while bringing Andreas Johnsson down from the press box to play alongside Tomas Plekanec and Kasperi Kapanen. Depending on how Saturday’s game unfolds, the speedy Johnsson could be swapped out with Komarov on the Matthews line if the Leafs need a goal.
This setup shifts even more responsibility to Matthews to exert his will on the game. It’s a far cry from last year’s playoffs when he went head-to-head with Washington’s second line and scored in four of the six games.
Here he not only has to contend with the dominant Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio, but also Zdeno Chara’s reach in the defensive zone and Charles McAvoy’s elite transition skills. Komarov is being asked to disrupt that balance—be it through a hit, or perhaps a well-timed kiss returned to Marchand.
Ideally, Toronto will find a little more room for Nylander and Matthews to use their talent after seeing them get stuck in a swamp of black and gold sweaters in the neutral zone on Thursday.
“When we had the puck we were dangerous, but you definitely want [it] a little bit more,” said Matthews. “Not too many plays to be made out there.”
Wherever possible, Komarov plans to station himself in front of Tuukka Rask’s net. That should cause some disruption, but also give the visitors a chance to break up the tightly-packed Boston defenders.
“I think just getting the puck in and bumping it over and creating that space, spreading the zone out a little bit more,” said Matthews. “They’re good at clogging it up in small areas in their ‘D’ zone. So when you spread them out you get more opportunities, get to hang on to the puck more.”
The Matthews line is being challenged by Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy with a steady matchup against Bergeron.
Now they’re also being pushed by Babcock, who said “their three guys were more competitive than ours, and in the end that’s why they had success” in Game 1.