OK, the switch, where was it?
“We have one in the back,’’ kidded defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, gesturing toward the equipment room tucked in the corner of the Bruins dressing room. “We just flipped it over.’’
For how Wednesday night played out at the Garden, with the Bruins pinning a convincing 4-1 loss on the Maple Leafs to start the playoffs, that was almost believable. The change was that dramatic. The power surge had to come from somewhere. Throughout all of April and much of March, the Bruins often were so far off their game, so listless and unenergized, that they looked poised for another first-round faux pas, similar to last spring when they were erased by the Capitals in seven games.
Instead, faced with the upstart Leafs, they played with energy and force, thoroughly overmatching their opponents despite the fact Toronto connected for the night’s first goal less than two minutes in. Whatever little bit of hope the goal gave the Leafs, the Bruins erased it for good by the end of the period on strikes by Wade Redden and Nathan Horton.
Over the course of the night, the Bruins grew bigger and tougher, while the Leafs shriveled and softened. The difference between the two performances became so lopsided, so striking, that the sellout crowd of 17,565 for a while gave up its loving disdain for ex-Bostonian Phil Kessel. By late in the third period, however, he was again being taunted by familiar chants of “Kess-el . . . Kess-el’’ and the packed building on Causeway Street once more glowed in a way it hadn’t since the 2011 playoffs.
“The playoffs are about being focused and prepared,’’ offered Gregory Campbell, who picked up the first assist on Redden’s tying goal. “It’s been a frustrating process for us as well [in recent weeks]. Parts of games we played well, but the complete package hasn’t been there. If you’re not ready, and you’re not playing with the complete package . . . you are not going to be successful. This is a team built on its depth, and this time of year you have to take things seriously — you have to be at your best.’’
If the Leafs are capable of reaching for their best, it looks like they’ll have to do it with different personnel. Their Game 1 collection won’t get the job done, not with the likes of defenseman Michael Kostka posting a minus-3. He’ll almost certainly be pulled for Game 2, perhaps for Ryan O’Byrne or Jake Gardiner.
Of greater concern for the Leafs, however, was the dramatic underperformance of their better forwards, including the likes of Kessel (one shot), Joffrey Lupul (two shots), Tyler Bozak (one shot), and Mikhail Grabovski (two shots). The only high-end Leafs forward to turn in a respectable night was former UNH star James van Riemsdyk, who potted the club’s only goal and finished with five of the club’s 20 shots.
“I just thought we self-destructed,’’ said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who went on to note the tone of the game changed dramatically in the second period when the Bruins tacked on two more goals. “We didn’t do a lot of things right. I’ve never seen so many people fall down with nobody around them. We know that this is going to take more than an ordinary effort, and tonight, our effort wasn’t anywhere near close enough to put us in a competitive position.’’
With the score up to 4-1 on goals by David Krejci and Johnny Boychuk, a couple of big hits seemed to drain whatever competitive spirit remained in the Leafs. First, at the 17:50 mark of the second, Seidenberg dropped Lupul deep in the Boston end with a heavy check in the corner to Tuukka Rask’s right. With 3:15 gone in the third, Boychuk rode Grabovski into the sidewall and dropped him at the foot of the McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it’’ sign. That’s amore. Big hits. Big falls.
Shift by shift, collision by collision, the Leafs looked every part a franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2004. The Bruins were faster, fiercer, and far more focused, the kind of play they demonstrated in the 2011 Cup Final vs. Vancouver. While Carlyle scribbled notes to himself behind the bench, no doubt calculating his roster changes for Game 2 here on Saturday night, Claude Julien looked more calm and collected than he has in weeks.
The team he knew he had finally showed up, just in time.
“Just a matter of turning the page from the regular season and getting a fresh start,’’ offered Julien. “I think mentally that was the big difference. At the same time, we’ve been through this before, and you always hope that your experience is going to help you through this.’’
One game gone. There is still plenty of time for Carlyle to tinker, rework his lines and defense pairings, conjure up some of the Blue and White magic that made the Leafs lovable again this season in southern Ontario. Game 1 made clear, though, that the Leafs won’t get back into this series on strategy alone or simply on speed or stick skill. They’ve got enough skill to compete, at least among their forwards.
The more onerous task for the Leafs will be to find a switch of their own, one that makes them bigger, stronger, and more resilient, one that puts some verve and courage in their boots, heads, and sticks. There is no denying that’s a tall order. But one team did it Wednesday night, at a time when many doubted it possible. Who’s to say it can’t happen to someone else?