Maple Leafs miss chance to end 15-year drought as Bruins force Game 7

Mike Babcock talks about the Toronto Maple Leafs wanting to keep their season going and how he is not living in the past.

TORONTO — History looms in the shadows here.

For as vigorously as the Toronto Maple Leafs want to insist on this being a new team, new year, they can’t completely ignore the parallels that have delivered them back to another Game 7 inside TD Garden.

Last year, the Boston Bruins targeted Auston Matthews with their toughest defensive matchups and almost kept the game-breaking centre off the scoresheet entirely during a first-round defeat.

This year, the Bruins have focused their efforts on neutralizing Mitchell Marner and John Tavares, successfully limiting that pair to just an assist apiece during the last three games.

Last year, Boston’s power play was an absolute wrecking ball that converted on 33.3 per cent of its playoff chances against Toronto. Following Sunday’s 4-2 victory to extend this series to the limit, it’s running even hotter at 43.8 per cent.

The most significant changes come in the form of personnel for the Leafs — with Tavares and Jake Muzzin now playing significant roles — and the degree to which Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are dictating terms in this series. Toronto has been better at 5-on-5, but less effective with its own man advantage opportunities.

Twelve months on the margin between these teams is even slimmer, but the Leafs are staring a cold reality in the face: Their season will end in the exact same fashion if they don’t find a way to win on Tuesday night.

Yet, despite the deja vu, they insist the feeling has changed.

"Very different, extremely …," Connor Brown said after Toronto missed its chance to end this series in six. "We’re a very confident group. We were saying it all last year, but now we really believe it to our core.

"We feel as if we’re a group that can go deep and we feel that we’re a group that wants to be on the ice in big moments and wants to play these big games.

"We won’t be timid. We’ll be excited and we’ll have fun."

They have been ahead three different times in this best-of-seven and let Boston up off the mat each one. Anything can happen in a Game 7 — especially when it’s played inside a building so steamy that Marchand suggested they use a tennis ball because the ice is so poor — but Toronto will have serious regrets about letting it get that far if it fails to get the job done here.

The Leafs squandered a massive opportunity with an expectant crowd gathered both inside and outside Scotiabank Arena for the Easter Sunday matinee. They got off to a great start, built a 1-0 lead thanks to Morgan Rielly and then gave up two power-play goals before the intermission.

"Back to the drawing board," Brown said of the penalty kill.

"The bottom line is we have to fix it," said head coach Mike Babcock. "We fixed it before last game in Boston, we did a real nice job. We didn’t do it today."

They never fully recovered, getting pinned in their own zone for most of the second period while allowing Jake DeBrusk to make it 3-1, and couldn’t undo the damage done with a strong push in the third.

Matthews continued his strong play — scoring for the fifth time in four games, while putting another five shots towards Tuukka Rask — but Toronto’s 11-91-16 line couldn’t break through while facing a heavy dose of the Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy pairing, and the Marchand-Bergeron-Danton Heinen line.

Marner began this series like he had been shot out of a cannon, drawing high praise from Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. He’s since been circled in red as a serious offensive concern and Boston’s done a fantastic job of keeping him on the periphery as the teams have gotten more familiar with each other.

Marner registered one shot in Game 4, none in Game 5 and none in Game 6.

One Leafs player likened the overall play in this series to "ping-pong" because of how it’s gone back and forth in predictable fashion with very little sustained momentum from either side. It now looks like last shot will win.

"It’s all small details," said Matthews. "Neither team is really making many mistakes and when they do that’s when you get opportunities and that’s when guys score. Tonight I thought our first five, six minutes was good and then their power play got them going. We didn’t really have an answer until the third period."

The Leafs adopted a bunker mentality before Game 6, staying in a local hotel while trying to close out the franchise’s first series win since 2004. Now they’ll head out on the road looking to set their minds right 363 days after last losing a Game 7 in Boston.

"When we’ve executed our game plan [against them], we’ve been able to win and we’ve been able to take care of the puck and play the way we want to play for 60 minutes," said Brown. "We’ve been able to have success against these guys."

"I’m not a big believer of living in the past," said Babcock. "I don’t carry a lot of stuff around from the past at all."

The man on the other bench has a longer memory, evidently. Perhaps that comes with being on the right side of the handshake line.

"Let’s put on our surprise face," said Cassidy, clapping his hands for emphasis. "Game 7, TD Garden, Boston-Toronto."

Yes, this all feels very familiar.

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