Bruins provide blueprint to defeat Maple Leafs in potential playoff preview

Pavel Zacha scored a pair of goals, David Pastrnak dished out three assists on the night, and the Boston Bruins cruised to a 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — Here is the frightening thing for fans of the Maple Leafs, who just watched the Boston Bruins walk into Toronto and execute a rather controlled and sturdy 4-1 road victory over their most likely first-round foe.

Boston just laid out the blueprint for April, and it was broadcast in high definition.

“It was our identity. And that was really special to see — the way guys responded and played the right way for the crest,” said winning goaltender Jeremy Swayman.

“We get results when we do that. And I think we’re going to have this game to look back on to know what we need to do to win big games like this.”

Despite losing their sixth consecutive game and falling eight points behind their old nemesis in the standings, it’s not as if the Maple Leafs are wholly overwhelmed or outclassed in these matchups.

Toronto, in fact, drew twice as many penalties (4-2) and finished with an edge in shots (33-27) and high-dangers chances (16-12). They can hang, absolutely.

Problem is, the Bruins won the special-teams battle, dressed the superior goaltender, and locked down most of the nonsense around their crease thanks to a defend-first mentality.

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Moreover, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — arguably the league’s hottest duo in February — were checked hard and kept off the scoreboard.

“I do think that we were on top of them, and we weren’t giving them second and third opportunities,” Boston coach Jim Montgomery said.

“Defensively, we were getting back above pucks. We were winning goal-line races to our own, and it led to a lot of transition and more O-zone time.”

Once the B’s established a multi-goal lead, there was no sense that the Maple Leafs were going to push through.

Part of that may be attributed to Boston undergoing a look-in-the-mirror moment Saturday night, after losing ugly on Long Island, 5-1 to the middling Islanders, while the Leafs may have felt too comfy having won nine of 10.

But part of it is a savvy team identifying its opponent’s strategy and shutting it down.

“Toronto likes to put pucks to the net from behind the net or on the sides above the goal line. Protect that, then just go north and hang onto pucks in the O-zone,” Montgomery said.

Perennial Leaf killer David Pastrnak, known best for his sizzling shot, was dynamic in registering three primary assists, including two on the tape of first star Pavel Zacha, who didn’t take regular line rushes Monday morning and was doubtful to even dress after getting injured Saturday.

“We didn’t think he was going to play, to be honest,” Montgomery said.

Yet Pastrnak raved more postgame about Swayman’s stability, the penalty kill’s diligence, and the defence’s commitment to boxing out and making simple breakout plays.

All the categories the Leafs were too deficient in to win this one.

“Boston played hard. They defended their net extremely well. Better than us in that area, for sure,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who is still very much tinkering to find his optimal blueline pairings and questioning his middle six.

Timothy Liljegren and T.J. Brodie (each minus-2) had the kind of showing that will urge GM Brad Treliving to trade for an upgrade this week.

And while Keefe may be onto something pairing John Tavares with Calle Järnkrok, the high-event trio of Max Domi, William Nylander, and Tyler Bertuzzi will be an adventure if they stick together against a patient, organized group like the one Boston proved it can be.

“I thought we were streaky,” Morgan Rielly said. “When you lift your foot off the gas against a good team, they make you pay.”

While there are still 20 games to go — including a Leafs-Bruins rematch Thursday in Boston — before playoff brackets are written in ink, on this night it was clear which side gained a little confidence and established a recipe should these rivals meet when it matters.

“It’s exciting,” Swayman said.

“When you have an Original Six matchup and potential playoff matchup, it is a great test for our team. And I think we responded really well and have a lot of great things to lean on looking forward.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• With the Bruins and Leafs seemingly on track to face off in Round 1, an arms race to load up on rentals before Friday’s trade deadline feels unlikely given the teams’ scarcity of assets.

The Leafs don’t have a second-round pick to spend and are being cautious with their first.

Boston doesn’t select until the fourth round of 2024 and has already spent its 2025 second-rounder as well.

That’s why you hear the phrase “hockey trade” out of Beantown, with an eye on pending UFA DeBrusk. DeBrusk’s production has dipped this season — his snipe Monday gives him just two goals in his past 15 games — but he tends to elevate come spring.

“Guy works hard every night. Helps us. We’re in second place, and he’s a huge part of that,” Montgomery said.

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Linemate Coyle was spun through the rumour mill many a deadline in Minnesota before he was dealt for real in 2018.

“You can think about it, but it’s not worth it,” Coyle said. “Because most of the time you’re worrying about stuff that never happens. It’s no use. It’s a tough thing, but if you can learn to control it, manage it, focus on what you need to focus on, I think you’re a lot better off.”

• Brad Marchand is tops the NHL with 38 drawn penalties. The slash he drew on Jake McCabe led to Zacha’s game-winning power-play strike.

• Boston’s Justin Brazeau got his pro start as an undrafted development project for the Toronto Marlies and Newfoundland Growlers.

Here’s Charlie Coyle on the six-foot-five, 245-pound midseason callup, who made his NHL debut at age 26:

“He’s a big boy. Kills it in the gym. He’s the king of the bike test. He’s just an animal in that sense. I’ve been really impressed with him and just how focused he is. He knows what he’s gotta do. He does his job. He wins those board battles, getting the puck out of our zone. And just being a big body, he uses it to his advantage. That’s what those guys have to do. It’s good to see guys when they come up like that and they just stick to their guns. They don’t overthink it. And he’s making great plays. It’s great to see those [late bloomers] who are good guys. They work hard, and they get rewarded for it. That’s what you want.”

• As standings watch intensifies, it’s worth noting that the Detroit Red Wings, the team on Toronto’s tail, will be without captain and leading scorer Dylan Larkin for two weeks as he recovers from a lower-body injury.

• No Eastern Conference team in playoff position has a worse penalty kill than Toronto’s (77.7 per cent).

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