Maple Leafs-Bruins humdinger provides sense of playoff inevitability

Sean Kuraly scored a goal and added two assists as the Boston Bruins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2.

TORONTO – Until they meet again.

As Saturday’s airtight finale of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins’ regular-season series sprinted breathlessly toward the final horn with six-plus-minutes of whistle-free, near-miss action, the thing had all the feel of more to come.

“Yeah, pretty crazy,” said Mitch Marner, one of room full of Leafs dripping with sweat but holding heads high. “We played the game wanted to tonight, just not the result.”

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Yes, Boston won the night 3-2 and swiped the season set 3-1, but the home side generated enough scoring chances (28-20) and maintained a snappy enough pace throughout that one couldn’t help but wonder if Frederik Andersen (still sidelined with a groin injury that ran into a bout with the flu) might’ve made the difference.

“I think Boston plays a quick game,” says Leafs coach Mike Babcock, explaining the difference between the Bruins’ attack and the rugged clampdowns of Nashville and Minnesota that recently humbled his club during this bumpy 1-4 stretch at home post-Christmas.

“They rely on a group of forwards to really set the tone for them. They rely on their power play a lot. They’ve got a couple of guys on the back that are really mobile. But they defend good and they make it hard on you.

“As far as the style goes, I think the style is perfect for us, to tell you the truth.”

Motivation for his troops? Gamesmanship knowing the likelihood of another gruelling playoff series versus Bergeron & Co. could be in the cards?

Perhaps a slice of each.

“If we’re starting to think about playoffs, we’ll most likely see them at some point,” said Kasperi Kapanen, following a two-assist effort. “I think the team’s up for it. I think we’ve got a great squad. These games are fun. They’re high-paced. There’s a lot of emotion in the air. Both teams really want to win.”

Despite Toronto dominating high-danger chances 8-0 in the first frame, its nemesis proved Babcock correct with rapid, opportunistic strikes off turnovers.

In Period 1, David Krejci drew first blood with a half-clapper from the right circle and winger Chris Wagner timing a nice cross-crease screen to blur goalie Michael Hutchinson’s vision.

A grinding Andreas Johnsson tied the affair in the second period on a hard shot from the high slot that Tuukka Rask couldn’t handle cleanly and trickled through his legs with Auston Matthews fronting the crease. The Johnsson goal, his 10th, was the fruit of one of several heavy, prolonged cycle shifts in the visitors’ end of the rink – a focal point of recent Leafs practices paying off.

“They’ve gotten the better of us so far this year,” Matthews said pre-game, stressing the need to make smart decisions with possession. “When we’re at our best is when we’re not turning over pucks and giving them transition [opportunities], because that’s what we’re trying to do to the other team.”

Mitch Marner drifted in from the right dot, shushed his inner pass-first voice on the Leafs’ first power-play of the game, and beat Rask with a half slap shot he could see but not block.

Marner’s 17th was the first goal by the new-look, Matthews-free top unit and the Leafs’ first successful man-advantage in six games. By helping orchestrate the goal, Kapanen registered his first career power-play point, and Babcock was pleased with the looks both of his shuffled units found.

Sean Kuraly knotted the game with a wrister five minutes later, when the Bruins’ diligent forecheck forced a Jake Gardiner turnover in the Leafs’ zone.

And Leaf terrorizer David Pastrnak sniped what would hold up as the winner and sucked some wind out of Scotiabank Arena with just 13.7 ticks remaining in the second. Pastrnak hopped off the bench just in time to reap the benefits of Kuraly’s snap pass to the slot, allowed by a Nikita Zaitsev gaffe down low.

A rough one for the Gardiner-Zaitsev pairing, which combined for a dash-5.

“Rivalry and having two really high-powered offensive teams, you get a lot of chances in the game,” said Michael Hutchinson, following his fifth consecutive start.

“I thought it came down to one chance.”

Toronto pressed tenaciously in a breakneck third period that revealed an elevated level of determination but simply couldn’t solve Rask once more.

The bitter divisional foes gave us a teeter-totter, humdinger of a match.

Nazem Kadri’s slumping third line was buzzing, and Matthews had the tying goal on his backhand and an open net in his sights when the puck bobbled off at the worst of times.

“Rolled off home free. I’ll take that all day long,” said Babcock. “A little struggle in your life never hurt anybody. Just dig in.”

A shame the two legit Cup contenders won’t give us another spirited battle again until the post-season, where it’s a wise bet they will reacquaint themselves in Round 1 of the Atlantic bracket.

“I’m with you,” agrees Babcock, who prefers his tests difficult. “You’d like to play them every 10 games or something. All the good teams you’d like to play as much as you can.

“You’re going to play real good teams if you’re fortunate enough to be in the playoffs. They’re probably one of them.”

Dressing their full complement of healthy defenders for the first time all season, the Bruins pulled within two points of Toronto for the Atlantic’s second seed. The Leafs trail powerhouse Tampa by 14.

There is a sense of inevitability here. Would the Leafs, whose previous two series versus Boston have ended in dramatic misery, welcome a rematch against an organization that seemingly has its number?

“Of course. Of course,” Kadri asserted. “We’re always looking forward to playing these guys. They’re a great hockey team and well coached. Tons of credit goes to them.

“But we’re a good team too. Tonight we played good enough to win.”

To be continued…

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