By Peter Baracchini
For the last few months, Leafs fans were wondering who their first round opponent for the Stanley Cup Playoffs might be. For a moment, fans were dreaming of a Toronto vs Montreal matchup. For the most part, who could blame them? It’s one of the most fierce and historic rivalries in the National Hockey League.
Myself, I would’ve loved it as, like many, I have friends and family that are Habs fans and this would’ve added fuel to the fire.
This would’ve been an ideal match-up for Toronto and an entertaining series. However, recent events have shown that our first round opponent will be a familiar foe from a daunting and painful past.
Ladies and gentlemen of Leafs Nation, be prepared for another first round match-up against the Boston Bruins. While it’s not official, it’s only a matter of time before it is. The Bruins went on a remarkable run of 19 games with a point, 15-0-4 to be exact. This has vaulted the Bruins to second place in the Atlantic Division and the opportunity for home ice, unless a complete 180 occurs.
It’s not something that Leafs fans would want to endure or welcome with loving arms. There was the extremely disappointing 4-1 meltdown in 2013, which every fan would want to wipe from their memory as soon as possible. Then there was the utter dominance from the Bruins last year from Game 1. Even though it went to seven games, the Leafs were clearly out matched and the Bruins were by far the better team, offensively and defensively. And it led to another breakdown.
The Bruins top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak proved to be way too much for the Leafs to handle. In total, they combined for 30 points in the series. While Auston Matthews and William Nylander were basically invisible, the only one of the Leafs young threats to make an impact was Mitch Marner.
The Leafs were also outmatched physically and intimidation set in from the very beginning.
This year’s season series was pretty much the same as it was in the playoffs. The Maple Leafs seemed intimidated most games from the constant pressure and physical presence of the Bruins. In four games, the Leafs were outscored 16-10 but their possession numbers were respectable in three of the four games.
What would it take for the Leafs to be successful and exorcise their demons against a team that has given them a lot of post- season trouble?
A couple of things.
It’s quite simple. It has to do with the way they think and execute each game.
One of the things that people talk about is the mental edge that teams have against their opponent. Chalk up a big win for the Bruins in this category.
They were in the Leafs’ heads heading into last year’s series with 2013 and then after their collapse last year.
It may sound easy, but for anyone, even athletes, it’s hard to try and forget those moments. It always lingers in the back of your head. When you’re out on the ice, you want to try and do whatever it takes to win, whether it be the right play or a risky play that catches everyone off guard and it might cost you the game.
The Bruins might be in their head, but at the same time heading into the playoffs, the Leafs should have a pissed- off mentality. For the 2013 collapse, for the collapse last year and for the way they Bruins have played in the season series this year. The third time could be the charm where the Leafs don’t let their emotions get the best of them and go into the playoffs with a different mindset, catching the Bruins off guard.
“Our first year, we were really excited about going to the playoffs,” Mitch Marner said at his charity event last July. “Last year we expected to be there, we expected ourselves to be in that position. We played a very good team, obviously we wanted better for ourselves. We have to challenge ourselves to be better. Every year we want to get better and push ourselves.”
The challenge to be better started this year. While the Leafs have exceeded expectations again, the major question still lies on defense. They’re still young and Mike Babcock has said too many times that the Leafs have had too many “learning experience” games. They have had too many of those, in the past and this year where they expected better from themselves. One is example is John Tavares’ return to Long Island.
“We’re a young team that learned a lot over the course of the past few years,” says defenseman Morgan Rielly. “I think that moving forward we have higher expectations for our group. As always it’s a lesson to be learned. We’re just trying to get better and get going.”
If there was anytime to remember those lessons, it’s now. The Leafs need to be focused and dialed in from the very first puck drop. Everyone needs to do their part but they should be angry and their play should reflect that. Playoffs are a different beast and the Leafs need to show that they’re one of the teams to beat, because when they’re on their game, they’re extremely hard to beat.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to automatically think about enforcers fighting and taking dumb stupid penalties to enforce their dominance.
That’s not what I’m alluding to. Before you read further, you should check out Jude MacDonald’s piece on if the Leafs are heavy enough. https://trueblueleafs.com/2019/03/08/are-the-maple-leafs-big-tough-enough-for-playoff-hockey/
Physicality does matter. The Bruins play a physical game and they’re the perfect example of providing a heavy fore-check and separating player from the puck. This is the kind of play that will win you games in the playoffs. If not the Bruins, look at the Stanley Cup Champs Washington Capitals. They played a heavy game and it helped them en route to their first championship.
The Leafs have some players like Nazerm Kadri and Zach Hyman who are heavy on the fore-check, depth players who provide an impact. The Bruins get it from Marchand, Pastrnak and Bergeron. Their best players provide some sort of physical element. The Leafs best players seem to be afraid. Not necessarily to make a hit, but to get into the dirty areas and play with an edge. While I’m well aware that is not their style, at some point, you have to do what you can to make a play that’ll impact the team. Even it means getting physical.
Some seem to think that hitting doesn’t change anything in a game. However, there’s a difference between making a hit trying to take someone’s head off and a hit to gain puck- possession. I don’t see a lot of statistics for this but by watching videos of Leafs games, when teams play a heavy style and they make a hit, this creates a turnover leading to a shot on net or scoring chance. In a game against the Nashville Predators there was a stat TSN made involving hits that transitioned to puck possession and shots. The Leafs didn’t fair well in that regard. And the Bruins are known for this as well.
Now, we’re seeing the emergence of players like Trevor Moore, who isn’t a big body by any means, but he’s relentless and has a great ability to use his body to separate the player from the puck. The key to beating Boston’s physical presence would be to use their speed, get into a good position to knock the player off the puck or provide relentless pressure to gain possession. They would need that from every player, even their skilled ones.
Does the Toronto media have a point that the Leafs get pushed around a lot? In a way, yes. We do see this on a consistent basis. But can the Leafs find their own way to be “tough”? Absolutely. That way is with their offense. By having that mix of speed and relentless puck pursuit. When they play like this, they’re tough. They need that intensity on a consistent basis. However, another depth forward with a heavy element that isn’t one- dimensional wouldn’t hurt the team either.
Too many times this season the Leafs have predictable tendencies with the puck, particularly on the man advantage. Even though they currently rank eighth, they had a rough stretch from the start of the new calendar year to until mid- February.
Teams caught on their set-up play where Rielly and Marner are the setup guys for Auston Matthews on the left wing. Then there’s the drop- pass upon each zone entry. While it’s effective, it would help if the Leafs could try to utilize their speed to push defenders back and attack the offensive zone.
These plays were way too predictable and it showed, until they started to generate more puck movement and different setup plays. This included more of a cycle element and setting up a play from the goal line to the middle of the ice.
If the Leafs want to be successful, then they should try to avoid being too predictable in a time where one mistake could cost you the game. Yes, every team has their main plan of attack. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be the go-to every time. The Leafs have a number of options throughout the lineup, both at 5-on-5 or on the power- play.
While analytics draw a great picture of a how a team and players perform each game, this time around, these factors are something that can’t be deciphered with numbers. With another playoff matchup possibly set against the Bruins, this seems to be more of a mental game for the Maple Leafs this time around. To gain that psychological edge and momentum over an opponent is an important factor especially in playoffs. If the Leafs excel in these areas, while managing to maintain their high-octane offense, this could be the moment where they exorcise their demons against the Bruins.
The Leafs were labeled as a Stanley Cup contender coming into this season. Now is the time to prove that they are one.