‘A smack right in the face’: Maple Leafs’ turnovers spoil thriller in Boston

Matt Grzelcyk fired home the tiebreaking goal with 1:16 remaining to lead the Boston Bruins past division rival Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3.

BOSTON – The margins were narrow, the temperatures hot, and the gaffes costly.

And in an emotional, lightning-fast sport in which small errors come parcelled with big consequences, the Toronto Maple Leafs made a couple too many mistakes against a juggernaut that is bulldozing through the league by capitalizing on them.

“Definitely a playoff atmosphere. Definitely an intense, hostile environment,” Auston Matthews summarized, following a 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins.

“Close game. Probably could’ve went either way.”

We needed this, didn’t we?

With so many ho-hum nights in an NHL that pretends to have more parity than it actually does, observers of the back-and-forth action Saturday night inside TD Garden were treated to 60 minutes of hockey the way it’s supposed to be.

Superstars connecting for pretty goals (Brad Marchand to Patrice Bergeron; Mitchell Marner to Matthews). Goaltenders dropping jaws with a couple “did you just see that?” saves. And a pair of heart-on-their-sleeve stars-turned checkers (Nick Foligno and Wayne Simmonds) dropping the gloves at centre ice and throwing fierce fists for a full 50 seconds in attempt to rile up the boys.

“I think the game meant more to us than I imagined before the game,” said Bruins coach Jim Montgomery, whose first-place club is the only one yet to lose consecutively in 2022-23.

“I like how we all stuck together out there. They did too. There’s players on their team that certain guys on our team don’t like, and I’m sure it’s the same way (for them). That’s what makes a rivalry. That’s why it was such a heated, good hockey game.”

This was noisy, nasty hockey played by two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. But it was also smart and controlled, spiked with flashes of brilliance and a respectful distaste that can only come from old playoff wounds, and it spills over the glass.

“I mean, obviously, the fan base is pretty nuts. It’s always a feisty one with fans. You know what you’re getting here. So, it’s always fun to come into this atmosphere,” Marner said. “A lot of hatefulness between the two fan bases.”

Fans of good hockey should hope the team Marchand grew up cheering for and the team he now plays for clash in the playoffs. It would be a doozy of a series.

Fans of the Maple Leafs should hope so, too. Because, with the Bruins leaving the other 31 in the rear view, that would mean Toronto will have survived the first round.

To do that, though, there are issues for the Leafs to tidy up. Issues that came to light in the goals against.

Morgan Rielly took ownership for his failed D-zone clear that resulted in Bergeron’s opening strike.

[brightcove videoID=6318700831112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Partner Conor Timmins threw a risky D-to-D pass that was intercepted by 33-goal man David Pastrnak and ended up in the Leafs net.

Matt Murray got beat five-hole, a softy handed to A.J. Greer.

And captain John Tavares’s careless puck management in the neutral zone ultimately led to Matt Grzelcyk’s game-winner with only 76 seconds left in regulation.

“If you look at their goals, we’re almost handing it to them,” Rielly said. “When you give them the puck repeatedly, I mean, they’re gonna make you pay.”

Tavares, too, assumed blame: “Obviously, I gotta make a smarter play there. That’s on me… I know better than that.”

Keefe was even more blunt: “You’d like to think our group is past some of these things, but clearly not. We got a smack right in the face tonight.”

The upside is that the Maple Leafs have time to sharpen their execution. A healthy T.J. Brodie and whomever GM Kyle Dubas adds at the trade deadline should help.

Head-to-head this season, the Bruins and Leafs are deadlocked 1-1 with a combined score of 5-5.

The Leafs may not have the Bruins’ number, but they certainly have their attention.

[brightcove videoID=6318709027112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“Their reputation as a team is different than when you actually play against them,” Taylor Hall said. “They’re in your face. They’re fast. They’re not overly physical. They’re not going to run you out of the building. But they do gap up well. They limit time and space with their speed. And they make the game hard.”

Marchand says the Maple Leafs have grown more physical and tighter defensively.

“They’re a legit contender this year. You could say that the last few years, and it hasn’t gone their way. But every year you go through adversity like they have, you learn a lot from it. And I think they’ve done that. Their stars are another year older and stronger and better. So, they’re a very dangerous team,” Marchand says.

“It’s been unfortunate for them just because they’ve had such a great team for so long, and they haven’t been able to get over that hump. But it’s a matter of time for them, when they’re gonna make a real good push and they’re gonna go deep. They’re just too talented.

“To be the best, you have to beat the best. So, it makes it more fun playing against teams like Toronto that are competitive and have star players.”

Yeah, they lost the game and lost more ground, but the Maple Leafs flew home encouraged.

“We know we can play with any team in the league,” Keefe said.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Meanwhile, top Leafs prospect Matthew Knies is doing things like this…

• Following the Winter Classic, we wrote about ex-Leaf Foligno asking to make an intermission speech in that game and helping to spark Boston’s comeback victory over the Penguins.

Well, the Bruins released footage of that speech Saturday:

• A couple of mild-mannered second-line centremen are about to take centre stage.

David Krejci will celebrate his 1,000th game Monday, and John Tavares is on track for his own on Jan. 29.

Montgomery on Krejci: “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with him. He’s so cerebral. I love how competitive he is. There is a burning fire inside him to be elite. You couple that with the creativity, and that’s why he’s such a special player.”

• Fun fact: Montgomery is responsible for labeling the Philadelphia Flyers’ legendary mid-’90s line of John LeClair, Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg the “Legion of Doom.”

The current Bruins coach and former Flyer rehashed the tale on Spittin’ Chiclets.

Montgomery’s hometown buddy Tommy, in Montreal, was both a huge Flyers fan and a pro wrestling nut and once compared Philly’s top trio to the WWF’s Hawk and Animal.

“They were so big and so dominant. They were averaging four-and-a-half points their first 10 or 15 games,” Montgomery said on the podcast.

“A reporter came in and was like, ‘Man, how do people stop them?’ I said, ‘I dunno. You’re doomed. They’re like the Legion of Doom.’ ”

• Odd timing. The Bruins announced a four-year, $19-million extension for Pavel Zacha following the buzzer.

Asked if he’d be going all-in at the trade deadline, GM Don Sweeney said he wants to “live in the moment for what this group wants to accomplish.

“I’ll do the best job I possibly can.”

Sounds like a yes to me.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.