BOSTON – Bruce Cassidy brought a sledgehammer to a chess match.
Sensing a need for an intensity injection after his club was left gasping and flat after the Toronto Maple Leafs’ series-opening win Thursday, the Boston Bruins coach vowed to try some different things in Game 2.
So, he tweaked his roster, juggled his match-ups, and unleashed the hounds.
As David Backes walked down from the press box and toward the Bruins dressing room pre-game, the happy-nasty veteran snatched a yellow rally towel off a stack of freebies and giddily twirled it over his head. He was going in.
From the moment Rob Gronkowski slipped on a Pastrnak sweater, whipped the Bruins flag like a madman and body-checked the glass to rile up the locals, the Bruins’ 4-1 Saturday-night steamrolling of their visitors had a feeling of inevitability — and the puck hadn’t even dropped yet.
"In playoffs, usually the team that loses comes out the next game harder," said Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin, whose face needed stitching. "We have to understand that."
If the young Leafs didn’t grasp that concept before, it was drilled into the heads (and shoulders and faces) in a smash-mouth, lopsided, will-imposing affair that has altered the series’ tone, removed some key players, and ratcheted the tension tenfold.
"We didn’t play to our identity in Game 1," Cassidy said. "How do you respond? You’re physical. Win the puck battles. Control momentum in the first period. Attack when you have the chance. We hit a lot of check lists. Basically, let them know how we’re going to play."
Much happened in this one, most of it at Toronto’s expense.
By the end of the first period, two Leafs defenders, Travis Dermott and Jake Muzzin, had their faces bloodied by a Bruin’s doing. By the end of the second, mild-mannered Frederik Gauthier had been roped into a retaliation penalty and Nazem Kadri had hobbled to the dressing room after going airborne with a knee-on-knee from Jake DeBrusk.
Those big, bad Bruins embraced and enforced their identity, pressuring the Leafs into costly gaffes through aggression, generating 14 high-danger chances to Toronto’s five.
"We’ve got some guys who have been through some nasty series in the past. I don’t anticipate problems there," Cassidy said. "We’re not a team that runs from a physical game. It brings out the best of us at times."
Backes made his case to remain in the lineup early and often, delivering a game-high seven hits. The big winger’s fierce forecheck helped spring Massachusetts native Charlie Coyle — Muzzin’s man, unchecked — for his first playoff goal as a Bruin, and by the game’s eight-minute mark the shots were 10-1 for the men in black.
"We had guys dialed in tonight," Backes said. "Game 1 was a slap in the face, a little wake-up call."
A poor defensive line change, the result of Mike Babcock trying to chase his match-ups, left Nikita Zaitsev hanging on a beautifully executed two-on-one strike by David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand.
And a ghastly William Nylander fumble as he tried to carry the puck harmlessly behind his own net resulted in a gift for Danton Heinen — and a curse for Frederik Andersen, who was otherwise solid in the loss. (Andersen later attributed Nylander’s mistake to bad ice.)
Leafs Nation, led by GM Kyle Dubas’s grandmother, was outraged by the contest’s rather inconsistent officiating.
Nazem Kadri drew an offsetting roughing minor when DeBrusk rammed his face, then another soft hooking call in the second period.
As soon as he’d finished serving his second minor, Kadri hopped the boards and tried to break up a play in the Leafs zone. DeBrusk cruised through middle ice and caught him knee-on-knee.
"I’m not a dirty player," DeBrusk said. "I don’t think I intended to knee-on-knee him."
That play went unpenalized. Kadri limped off but returned for the third to score on a nifty tip from a Dermott point shot.
When DeBrusk checked winger Patrick Marleau into the stanchion, however, Kadri immediately charged toward him and cross-checked him in the head, drawing a major, a game misconduct, and a request for an in-person hearing from the league’s department of player safety.
Kadri’s series is essentially over, and there is concern about the health of Boston defenceman Torey Krug, knocked so hard by a clean Muzzin check that he was down on all fours for a while before leaving the game for good. (Krug suffered a concussion in March.)
"We’re not gonna be pushed around," said Kadri pre-game, more engaged than he’s been all year but now at risk of another undisciplined suspension. "I think we made that very clear."
Patrice Bergeron scored on the five-minute power-play, putting this one to rest.
Cassidy also had great success in pulling his Perfection Line away from Babcock’s Hyman-Tavares-Marner unit, but he won’t have that privilege when the 1-1 series shifts to Scotiabank Arena for Game 3 Monday.
"We just played our style of hockey," Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy said. "Everyone’s life is on the line, and so we have guys that like to play that kind of style."
It’s Babcock’s move now — and he won’t have the same centre depth, let alone a sledgehammer, in his quiver.
"We don’t want to get away from what we do well," John Tavares said.
The series now becomes what it was always intended to be: a battle of wills, of coaches, of attrition, of differing identities.
Big and bad versus skilled and speedy.
"The referees, the way they reffed the game, let a lot of stuff go," Babcock said. "You can’t let that get in the way of what you’re doing. Playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t supposed to be easy, and it’s worth it.
"Every game in this series is supposed to get better, it’s supposed to get harder. We have to elevate our game here and respond."