‘Shows our need for growth’: Bruins send Maple Leafs into break with a reality check

Pavel Zacha scored twice in the third period as the Boston Bruins defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 in a clash of two of the Eastern Conference's best teams.

TORONTO – Squint as hard as possible, and you still can’t see a way for the Toronto Maple Leafs to close the gap in the standings.

If there was any doubt that the Boston Bruins would run away with top seed in the Atlantic and a coveted home-ice advantage in the Division of Death, that idea was vanquished by the visitors’ 5-2 thumping of second-seed Toronto on Wednesday.

Despite arriving in town on their first three-game losing skid of their record-chasing campaign and eyeing a sunny bye week, “the class of the league,” according to coach Sheldon Keefe (and any reasonable hockey viewer of the first 52 games), reminded the Leafs who stands taller when the measuring stick gets trotted out.

Following a loss that dropped his group 13 points behind Boston and swelled the Maple Leafs’ chances of finishing in the dreaded 2-3 playoff matchup versus the Tampa Bay Lightning to 93.8 per cent, Keefe reminded everyone that, hey, the game was close. Just like the last one. And that this was one of those nights where they missed Auston Matthews.

The score was 2-1 in favour of Boston heading into the third period, when the Maple Leafs opened up, and the smart and opportunistic Bruins took over something fierce.

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“The margins are thin,” Keefe said.

“But over the course of the season, it’s significant. They just stay with it. They’re 40 goals better than any team in the NHL. So, it’s a significant gap between them and the rest of the league when you look at the season in its entirety.

“But in the game, we’re right there. That’s what’s tough. Certainly, in Boston and here again tonight, we’re right there. But the difference between being right there and winning the game, being on the other side of it, that’s significant. That’s a significant challenge.”

The Maple Leafs actually have a better chance of falling into the wild card than catching the Bruins, according to the number crunchers at MoneyPuck.com.

And because these true litmus tests are so few and far between, those on the inside and outside naturally want to draw conclusions from how GM Kyle Dubas’s roster responds to these challenges.

Toronto doesn’t have another playoff-positioned team on its schedule until Feb. 24.

On this night, Toronto got burned by a harder, deeper and more structured outfit.

Sure, Linus Ullmark outdueled Ilya Samsonov between the pipes, with Samsonov revealing postgame that he’d been dealing with an illness.

But we’re certainly not pinning this solely on goaltending.

“He’s solid,” Keefe said of Ullmark. “But their team defence helps a lot.”

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The Bruins outblocked (22-10) and outhit (31-26) the Leafs. They also had fewer giveaways (19-10) and were more direct and punishing with their counterattacks and Grade-A looks. They held a tangible advantage in some intangibles: patience, poise and purpose.

“In the third, I don’t know if I’d call it cheating, but we were just pushing hard,” said Mitch Marner, after a rare defensive stinker. “Gave up a couple odd-man chances, and it cost us.”

The Bruins’ goal differential is a ridiculous plus-81. The Leafs’ is plus-34.

That’s a result of dressing nine forwards with 10-plus goals and spreading them over four lines.

That’s a product of an experienced defence corps that seldom gets overwhelmed the way Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren did on the still-developing pair’s dash-3 outing.

That’s a level of depth that Dubas & Co. must attempt to match by the March 3 trade deadline, or risk remaining an incredible regular-season squad only.

“They’ve shown they’re at the top of the league all year,” Leafs captain John Tavares said, tipping the cap.

“Shows our need for growth and areas we’ve got to be better. But we’re right there. Had good looks, good opportunities.

“We have to be dialed in — every little detail.”

Postgame, the Maple Leafs room was quiet. The stalls emptied fast.

Keefe did his best to steal some positivity before the team scattered away from the grind for nine days.

“We know we’re a really good team. We’re in a really good spot. This is a tough way to go into the break, but it may be good for us,” Keefe said.

“We need a break. Everybody needs a break at this point in time. When we come back, we can be inspired by the season we’ve had here to date — yet motivated by the fact that we’ve got a ways to go. We can grow here.”

Thirty games to grow. Wow, the mountain looks steep.

How high can they stretch?

Fox’s Fast 5

Brad Marchand believes the hockey chirp is endangered.

“Nowadays, it’s very hard to chirp anyone because of the amount of mics that are around, (attached to) certain players and refs and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s tough. Even the refs, as soon as you start talking, because there’s mics everywhere, they don’t want anyone getting in trouble. They shut it down pretty quick.”

Do players bring up opponents’ personal lives in a war of words?

“To be honest, there’s not a lot that happens out there anymore. There’s the odd one. But that’s typically when tempers get high, and guys are taking shots at one another,” Marchand said.

“You say things in the heat of the moment, and if a mic catches it, you have to deal with the consequences.”

So, who’s trying to keep snappy on-ice insults alive?

“(Drew) Doughty’s pretty funny. He’s just always yapping,” Marchand said. “(Claude) Giroux’s pretty funny, too.”

• Because the benches at Scotiabank Arena are short, Bruins backup goalie Jeremy Swayman chose to go watch the game from the dressing room, giving his teammates more seat room.

He returned to the ice to give Ullmark a big bear hug, though.

• Wayne Simmonds has more fights (two) than points (one assist) this season. A proud, respected veteran doing anything he can to keep his NHL career going at this stage.

He sent Boston goal-scorer A.J. Greer into concussion protocol with this punch:

(Yes, Greer did return after passing tests.)

• Marner was a minus-4 for the first time since Nov. 8, 2021.

• Psyche!

In a prank concocted by Marner following Tavares’s 1,000th game Sunday, Liljegren, holder of the player-of-the-game belt, passed the prize to Mark Giordano instead of the captain.

In on the joke, Giordano began giving a speech before breaking his straight face and passing the belt to Tavares.

“Mitchy was the first one who mentioned it. And Lily had it, so he jumped on. It was a good one,” Giordano explained.

“The joke got a few guys, and they were already pretty upset that we didn’t give it to John, so I had to turn it over pretty quick.”

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