BOSTON – “Like any other game day, I guess.”
That’s how Auston Matthews says he felt waking up Tuesday morning in his Boston hotel room ahead of Game 7 and his club’s third and best chance to see what life in the second round looks like.
We’ll take his word for it, I guess.
But there is a palpable buzz in and outside the rink today in two Original Six cities. For those of us not named Auston Matthews, this ain’t no November Wednesday in St. Paul.
Bruins–Maple Leafs, TD Garden, Game 7, the third instalment in what is already a legendary trilogy. Season finale for half of the players involved.
“When I was walking around Yorkville, I hear from people. They were great to me last night: ‘Let’s go get ’em in Boston,’” Leafs coach Mike Babcock says. “I live in the city, I walk around, they’re pretty pumped up and want us to be successful. We want to be successful for them.”
Mitch Marner sums up the anticipation succinctly.
“That disappointing feeling of last year?” says Marner, speaking for a fan base, a city, a team, a coach. “We don’t want it again.”
Here are seven things to know ahead of the big one.
Tavares will be dressed to kill
Boston’s super centre, Patrice Bergeron, has been eating the Maple Leafs’ wingers alive on power-play draws in the Toronto zone. He has a 61.9 per cent success rate in faceoffs in the series.
Expect a proper centreman, John Tavares, to take PK draws for the Leafs Tuesday.
“Maybe. Maybe,” Tavares says when asked if that’ll be the case. Read that as a yes.
Tavares is a respectable 49.2 per cent on draws this series, considering the majority of them have been head-to-head with the master.
Although Tavares has not been part of Toronto’s PK plans all season (16:13 shorthanded ice time total in 82 games), he played 127:53 4-on-5 last season in New York and led the Islanders in short-handed points.
“You take a lot of pride in it, to be counted on in that responsibility, out there shorthanded,” Tavares says.
“The attention to detail that’s needed and the trust that’s put in you to read the game and make plays down a man is a difficult thing to do. It can be a big focal point in the game and a big momentum builder.”
Imagine where the Nashville Predators, eliminated by wild-card Dallas Monday night, and Boston might be if they could switch power plays.
Nashville couldn’t score once with the man-advantage: 0 for 15.
Boston is a sparkling 7 for 16 — including a perfect 5-for-5 in its past two victories, both at Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s been pretty even 5-on-5,” Bergeron says. “Special teams have been the big difference.”
Toronto’s power play has been OK (21.4 per cent, seventh among the 16 playoff teams) but has scored four fewer times that the Bruins’ PP and has yet to find the net 5-on-4 at TD Garden.
“They don’t ask how,” says an unapologetic Charlie McAvoy.
The Maple Leafs penalty-killing units reviewed more tape Monday and will place an emphasis on aggression — not letting the Bruins’ deadly first power-play unit enter the zone easily or set up properly.
What’s interesting is how the coaches deploy their top power-play units, which are both stacked with offensive threats. But Boston’s PP1 has seen more run time.
“If we’re feeling it, we’ve always had the green light to stay out there, but you don’t want to get disrespectful,” PP1 quarterback Torey Krug explains. “The second you get disrespectful, you want to give our other unit a chance, because they’ve actually been scoring a lot of goals this series.”
Bergeron says they have no time limit to operate, but they must be smart. It comes down to how frequently the Leafs are able to clear the zone.
“If you’re breaking it out two or three times, that’s a lot of energy spent,” Bergeron says.
Boston’s ‘mushy’ ice is taking heat
Everyone’s power play has run smoother north of the border, a fact Brad Marchand attributes to the slushier ice conditions at TD Garden.
“They’ve played really well in our building so far this series, and the ice has been terrible there,” Marchand says.
“We might as well play with a tennis ball, skate around and see who can bounce one in the net.”
Game 5, held a day after the Celtics used the facility and on a particularly humid evening, was especially “mushy” (Mitch Marner’s word).
Leafs forwards Tyler Ennis and Kasperi Kapanen each blamed bad ice for missing scoring chances in close.
“If I actually missed the net [on my breakway], that’s my fault,” Kapanen said post-game. “But the ice conditions here aren’t the best, and that just exploded off my stick. That’s a little frustrating.”
Regardless of the conditions — it’ll be 9 C with 79 per cent humidity at puck drop — both teams are playing on the same sheet.
“It’s not like you get an unfortunate bounce and they blow it dead and say, ‘That wasn’t fair.’ That doesn’t exist,” McAvoy says.
“We’ve got to deal with the elements. We can’t make excuses about it.”
The closest thing Toronto has to a Mr. Game 7
L.A. import Jake Muzzin is a perfect 4-0 in Game 7s.
As one half of Toronto’s shutdown D pairing assigned to the Perfection Line, he’ll be integral to stretching that record to 5-0. Before this series got pushed to the limit, I had a chance to ask Muzzin what he learned from his championship Kings run.
“Every game, someone has to step up and be a hero, whether it’s the goalie or a D-man blocking a shot, or someone taking advantage of a loose puck in the slot and scoring,” he said.
“Every game that we won, there was a guy who took control of the situation at a key time in the game. That’s what I remember most.
“You have a chance to score? Score. I still remember certain plays when I had a chance to score, and I really, really bore down on trying to score. You have an opportunity to win a battle? You win that battle. Those little things add up.”
Muzzin likes the Leafs’ mixture of a few guys who’ve seen Round 4 (Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey) and a bunch of younger players who have no clue.
“They’re fresh, they’re excited. Their nervous-good energy is good energy, so it’ll be excitement,” Muzzin says.
“We have to understand it’s not going to be easy. They are going to have shifts where they dominate us and maybe score, maybe have the lead. It’s how we react to that.”
Hyman, Krejci pushing through pain
Despite Boston centre David Krejci and Toronto winger Zach Hyman skipping their respective club’s final skate before Game 7, both important forwards will rub some dirt on it and be playing through… something undisclosed.
“A lot of guys playing through a lot of things,” Tavares says. “[Hyman] has been a warrior for us all year. You see the type of game he plays – it involves a lot of physical contact and taking a lot of abuse, being involved it things that lead to bumps and bruises.”
Babcock has stuck with the same arrangement since Nazem Kadri’s suspension, and Cassidy won’t touch his victorious Game 6 lineup, although he admitted it’s painful to scratch a veteran like David Backes.
“I thought Game 6 was our identity, our type of game, in terms of pace, physicality, finishing, all aspects of the game, special teams,” Cassidy explained.
Watch for the slight of foot
Cassidy told reporters Monday that he’d spoken the series supervisor about a pattern of Toronto players taking out Bruins’ legs during puck battles.
He didn’t want to use the term “slew foot” exactly, but certainly wanted to plant a seed in the officials’ minds ahead of a do-or-die tilt.
“I’d just call it feet contacting feet,” Cassidy says. “Whether it’s by accident or by design, I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate. There’s been a few of them every game.”
He believes a Nazem Kadri foot from behind initiated the Jake DeBrusk–Kadri feud, says Sean Kuraly “went down from behind” after a faceoff, and agreed with a local reporter who noted Travis Dermott taking the skates out from under Joakim Nordstrom in Game 6.
“They go into the corner, and [Nordstrom] all of a sudden is flying backwards and his stick gets up. So, it will be pointed out. It’s still a high stick if it catches a guy in the face, unfortunately. But I think the original contact caused the high stick,” Cassidy says. “I would hope they would notice [Dermott’s] contact there.”
Babcock says he wasn’t aware of Cassidy’s complaint and refused to comment on it.
— NHL (@NHL) April 22, 2019
Out of Kadri’s control
With Kadri suspended, Jake Gardiner will become the only Maple Leaf to have played in all three of the recent Game 7s between these rivals.
Boston, meanwhile, has five leftovers from the 2013 comeback classic: Zdeno Chara, Bergeron, David Krejci, Marchand, and starting goalie Tuukka Rask.
We recently caught Kadri reflecting on that dramatic ’13 series, and his recollections were more positive than you might guess:
“Those playoffs were fun — obviously until that collapse everyone likes to talk about. But it was fun playing those games, until that last game and that happened.
“I really think that builds morale in the long run. It may suck in the short term, but down the line it’ll help. That was a fun series and something I’ll always remember.
“I remember at the start, I said it was a winnable series, and everybody was all over me because I said that. I couldn’t understand why you’d be in the playoffs and think you can’t win. Everyone must’ve thought I guaranteed a four sweep. That was a pretty crazy time.”