TORONTO – If it’s possible to label anything William Nylander and Auston Matthews do vintage, this was vintage.
Nearly 30 seconds of whirring around the Boston Bruins top players, tightening the gears and building anticipation with some sharp keep-ins from Jake Gardiner and the net-front positioning of Zach Hyman. Then the release – first off the blade of Matthews’s stick and then inside Air Canada Centre, where the peach-fuzzed Toronto Maple Leafs signalled they still have some life left with a reaffirming 4-2 win over the Bruins.
“We knew this was kind of a do-or-die game for us,” said Matthews, still stinging from two stinkers to open the series and well-aware of the extra attention directed his way because of it.
His goal was big on several levels. The Bruins had erased two one-goal deficits in the second period and were mounting a push of their own, out-attempting Toronto 13-8 at even strength in the eight minutes after Zdeno Chara fooled Frederik Andersen by shooting high from a sharp angle.
It introduced the idea that a strong first half in Game 3 might not even be enough for the Leafs to make this a series.
Then there was the pressure release valve it triggered for Matthews himself. He’s averaged more than one goal for every two games played in the NHL and had gone exactly two games since last scoring. Get this: he told Morgan Rielly at the second intermission on Monday that his quick-strike against Tuukka Rask should free him up to just go out there and play.
For a couple games, anyway.
“He’s a guy that puts a lot of pressure on himself to be great and I think that’s a good thing,” said Rielly. “And I think when he goes out there and plays well, he’s one of the best players in the world. As an athlete, whenever you go through a dry spell, you just want to get out of it.”
That it came with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak sucking wind while getting caught out for an extended shift brought the smallest hint of redemption. Those three tore Toronto to pieces in Games 1 and 2 but didn’t make the same impact here despite some good moments in Game 3.
The Leafs uncovered a temporary solution for them in an unexpected place: Tomas Plekanec, who was elevated from the fourth line and played his most effective game since the late February trade from Montreal.
Getting some real minutes helped him make an impact. He skated 17:58 while occupying the suspended Nazem Kadri’s spot between Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner – nearly double the amount he’s grown accustomed to here.
“I felt pretty good,” said Plekanec. “The key was the start of the game, the first couple shifts were good from our line. I felt personally really good physically, which I wasn’t really sure about that after a long time not playing a lot of minutes.”
“I thought Plek was outstanding,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “Maybe just the fact he maybe didn’t feel as important as he should have when he got here affected his play, but I thought he was really good and a huge factor in our win.”
So was Frederik Andersen, who recovered from the surprise of the Chara goal to deny Pastrnak on a couple ridiculous chances – the last of which saw him stretch the paddle of his stick in front of an empty net to bat the puck away.
Even in defeat, the Bruins issued an emphatic reminder of how relentless they are. They hung around right until the end. The shot attempts were 28-13 at even strength in the third period and it felt a little worse since they had the period’s only power play.
The only difference was the big plays – the stretch pass from Rielly to Marner, which set up the first of Marleau’s two goals, and the Nylander to Matthews connection with five minutes left in the second period.
Matthews was stationed in the bottom left circle and sniped the top corner in a way only a few others in the world can.
“I know [Nylander’s] coming to me [with the pass], so I just tried to get it off my stick as soon as possible,” he said. “Just the crowd and everything, it feels like an earthquake under your feet when you score, especially in the playoffs. It’s definitely emotional. It’s exciting.”
Playoff hockey isn’t novel around here anymore, not after last spring’s six-game loss to Washington and the 105-point season that followed. But with the emotion rising and falling throughout a night that featured multiple posts and the goalies trading 10-bell saves, it offered a reminder that something is different for the Leafs this time around.
There’s something to lose and it’s going to take something truly special to keep that from happening.