Maple Leafs’ Komarov thriving under structured system

Bruins Tuukka Rask had 39 saves and David Krejci scored the shootout winner for a 4-3 victory over the Leafs.

TORONTO — The night the Toronto Maple Leafs blew a 4-1 lead to Boston in Game 7 of the 2013 playoffs marked the end of Leo Komarov’s first tenure with the NHL team.

Even those willing to remember the game have probably forgotten that fact since Komarov was barely seen at all.

The Leafs still had a three-goal lead when he last touched the ice at TD Garden. Former coach Randy Carlyle stapled the agitating winger to the bench for the final 17:51 of play — leaving Komarov with as much opportunity to halt the meltdown as any fan peeking through tremoring fingers back in Toronto.

Fast forward 30 months and the universe has changed. When you watch the Leafs now Komarov can’t be missed.

He was a constant thorn in the side of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara on Monday and a force in the offensive zone, producing a career-best six shots and scoring his seventh goal of the season. He set up Michael Grabner for a golden chance in overtime and then drew a penalty moments later.

Perhaps Mike Babcock should have considered using him in the shootout. He was already making a difference in every other way imaginable.

“Leo’s been, you know I don’t know…,” said Babcock, choosing his words carefully after the 4-3 shootout loss. “He’s been unbelievable. He’s dangerous every night, he plays hard every night. He finishes his checks. He plays on offence, he plays on defence. He just plays.

“He’s a good player.”

It appears he’s much better than most of us thought.

The former Leafs braintrust certainly recognized they’d lost something when Komarov returned to the KHL — GM Dave Nonis flew to Helsinki on the eve of free agency in 2014 to hand deliver a $11.8-million, four-year contract that lured him back — but it is only under Babcock where we’ve started to see his true potential.

Flanking the right side of a unit with Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, he’s looked the part of a first-line winger for the better part of a month.

That trio is well above average at controlling the puck and the Leafs produced more than 74 per cent of even-strength shot attempts with Komarov on the ice against the Bruins. No wonder he set a new season high by playing 20:13.

In all, the line fired 15 shots at Tuukka Rask and only came away with Komarov’s crash-the-crease goal to show for their efforts. They certainly earned the praise of their coach who came away from Saturday’s 2-0 loss in Boston calling for more offensive zone time.

However, they couldn’t help but dwell on the fact they didn’t manage to produce another goal.

“We just need to get some luck,” said Komarov. “That’s the thing. A couple bounces and it’s going to change it up. At least we got chances. I think that’s a good thing.”

Perceptions of the 28-year-old will only continue to evolve the more efforts we see like this one. A former top-line player with Moscow Dynamo in the KHL and Finnish Olympian, those close to Komarov feel that he thrives best in a structured system.

Under Babcock, the Leafs have taken big strides in that department.

Few have thrived more than Komarov.

While the stakes in the 22nd game of the regular season are incomparable to what the Leafs faced in Game 7 three springs ago, it did provide a pretty good illustration of how far Komarov has come as a NHLer.

With the game on the line against Boston this coach won’t keep him on the bench.

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