BOSTON — It is on a night like this where the Toronto Maple Leafs started bridging the gap between who they are and want to be.
By venturing into hostile territory with a series hanging in the balance, they were reminded by head coach Mike Babcock, they had a chance to start building a reputation as gamers. Then they bottled up the Boston Bruins and hung around long enough for Auston Matthews to deliver a breakthrough goal allowing them to snatch a 3-2 series lead.
“I think this is something he’s been waiting for all season long,” Patrick Marleau said of Matthews. “To get in the playoffs and prove that he can do it and help the team win.”
He had to sweat for it.
First Matthews was fed a steady diet of shifts against perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron — controlling shot attempts 8-1 — and then he had to wait out a review of his third-period goal that stretched over a couple minutes.
Referees Dan O’Halloran and Eric Furlatt, in consultation with the NHL’s situation room, needed time to determine whether light contact between Zach Hyman and Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask warranted resetting a 1-0 Toronto lead to 0-0.
On the visitor’s bench, they weren’t sure which way it would go. They called on some divine intervention.
“You never know when it goes to review,” said Hyman. “I didn’t watch it. I didn’t want to watch it.”
“I was just praying,” said Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen. “I was just praying that it was a goal. He’s a guy who’s had some bad luck with those.”
Matthews kept his head bowed throughout the review.
A brief history of his disallowed goals includes a net off the moorings call against Philadelphia last month, an offside review against Nashville in January and goaltender interference rulings against Colorado in January 2018 and Arizona in November 2017.
Recently the Leafs franchise centre lamented “my review percentage is terrible. I’m just banking on if my goal is getting reviewed, it’s just automatically no-goal.”
So, yeah, this was a big one. He was filled with relief when it held up.
“A lot going through my mind there,” said Matthews. “I haven’t had the best of luck as far as those go, I think, in my career. It’s nice to kind of get one back. I’ll take one in the playoffs any day of the week, instead of the regular season.
It was another big playoff moment for the Leafs — the kind which will resonate among the fanbase for years to come should they find a way to win one of the next two games and extend this run beyond Round 1 for the first time since 2004.
It’s also the sort of thing expected of Matthews, who signalled a sea change for the organization with his arrival in 2016 and now has four goals in five games this spring, after being held to one in a seven-game loss against Boston last year.
The fact Toronto could come into TD Garden on Friday and play such a patient, structured game is a sign of its maturity. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has remarked more than once he never saw the Leafs play defence like this in the regular season.
Both teams were extremely cautious in a potential swing game that remained 0-0 into the third period.
The scales tilted courtesy of Jake Muzzin, just 24 hours after becoming a first-time father, who put all of his dad strength into a cross-ice pass that Matthews one-timed home. It was soon followed by another from Kapanen, which turned out to be needed in a 2-1 victory.
Under duress, the Leafs found a way.
They gave themselves a chance to wrap up the series on Sunday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena in no small part to Matthews, the youngest player on Toronto’s roster. He had a team-best five shots on goal and titled the ice considerably against the Bruins’ most reliable players.
“This was his best 200-footer of the playoffs. He was outstanding,” said Babcock. “He was involved in so many breakouts, he was there available for the ‘D.’ … I thought he played great. I was impressed and I’m proud for him.
“He should feel good about himself.”
Kids, they grow up so fast.