TORONTO – Your first thought when Mitch Marner sprawls out to make consecutive, body-sacrificing saves on David Pastrnak blasts in the dying moments of a one-goal Toronto Maple Leafs’ victory might be that real hockey players do whatever it takes come playoff time.
And you wouldn’t be wrong.
“All those things are contagious. When you see your teammate do something like that, you’re more likely to do it yourself,” coach Mike Babcock said, following Monday’s 3-2 Game 3 win. “They talk about team-building. To me, that’s team-building. That’s just laying it on the line when you need to, and it makes everyone else around you better.”
But consider the victims of Marner’s visceral passion crimes, and you’ve got these tiny, tweetable packages that show the Maple Leafs’ winning — for now — the most crucial battle within this best-of-seven war.
Limit the damage Patrice Bergeron and his mighty wingers inflict at even strength.
That’s why John Tavares is here, swiping 10 of 16 face-offs head-to-head against a four-time Selke winner. That’s why leading scorer Marner is out here playing crash-test dummy and holding the fort at 5-on-6. That’s why Zach Hyman, the second young Leaf to knock Zdeno Chara on his keister in the past five days, is relishing the fact Babcock now has last change.
It gives them more time to make the Perfection Line look something less than.
“Home ice advantage — that’s what hockey is. It’s a big deal,” Hyman says. “And you’ve got fans behind you.”
The greatest difference, so far, in this edition of Leafs-Bruins is the job Babcock’s new and improved Shutdown 5 (which includes defencemen Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev) have done on Bergeron & Company.
“They’re a good line and good pairing,” Bergeron says. “Five-on-five, we’ve got to find ways to create more.
“It’s about being better – bottom line.”
In 2018’s seven-game series victory, Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak ran roughshod, combining for 25 even-strength points. Through three games this April? Just two points combined without the aid of the power-play.
“You do everything you can to at least go 50 per cent in the faceoff circle so they don’t have the puck all the time,” Babcock said. “We have good players too and John here now. We’ve got a veteran guy, he’s been around a while, and he’s gotten better and better and better defensively this year, and it shows.”
Now, the Tavares group isn’t exactly lighting it up either (three combined points at even-strength), and Bergeron has a slight edge in shot attempts, but the Leafs’ top trio is a plus-five while Boston’s is a minus-five.
“They’re essentially man-on-man all over the ice,” Marchand says. “They don’t play with it in their zone. They throw it out and go after it, so it’s a little tougher to get zone time on them, and most of the time you have a guy in your face.
“It’s kinda back-and-forth. There’s not a ton going on for either line. The biggest thing is, you have to take advantage of the opportunities when you get them.”
The challenge, as Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy sees it, is that both lines can create offence. So, in Game 3, Cassidy didn’t try, as Babcock has, to adjust on the fly and avoid his opponent’s preferred personnel.
“If that’s a match-up he wants, he’s going to get it, at home or on the road at some points. We tried to get away from it on some icings to see if it would work our way, and tonight it wasn’t able to go,” Cassidy said.
“Honestly, I don’t mind it. It’s two good lines going head to head every night. It’s going to tilt our way at some point. Our players are too good.
“If a match-up doesn’t go in our favour, we’re not gonna chase it — until we chase it.”
The Maple Leafs would be fine with a saw-off butting heads with a line that totalled a ridiculous 260 points in the regular season, hoping to outdo the Bruins on special teams (as they did in Game 3) or by out-producing them via their deeper bottom nine (as they did in Game 1).
“If you’re always in a hurry to get away with something, that’s kinda of a seesaw battle, and we have to rely on our other depth guys to score,” Cassidy said.
“If we feel that it’s really an impediment to us having success, then we’re going to get away from it and break up the line.”
Cassidy admits the Perfection Line is struggling to get within striking distance of Frederik Andersen’s net by trying to beat Toronto’s defenders one-on-one.
“They’ve got to use each other to get there. An old-fashioned goal, whether it’s a centre-lane drive, a puck to the net, a second chance,” explains the coach, requesting more chaos in the Toronto zone.
“They’re pretty determined guys. They’ll find their way. They’re against a very committed fivesome right now to keeping them off the score sheet. That’s playoff hockey. I do believe a second-chance goal is in their future if they start funnelling pucks more.”
Marchand bristled a little in the wake of Toronto seizing a 2-1 series lead as the subject of the speedier, stingier Leafs was raised.
“I don’t think last year had anything to do with this year. Different teams, different year, so doesn’t matter,” Marchand said.
“We’re not expecting to dominate out there.”
Unfortunately, they just might need to.
Mitch Marner just showed the whole @NHL what type of player he is. Not only can he score, but he can block shots in the most important time of the game. Respect to him!
— Jeremy Roenick (@Jeremy_Roenick) April 16, 2019