TORONTO — The Maple Leafs are all but finished, although we only need recall Boston’s 3-0 series lead over Philadelphia in 2010 to remember that sure things can turn into dreaded, torturous black holes of despair in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
David Krejci’s hat trick, his third goal delivered 13:06 into overtime, handed the Bruins a 4-3 victory over the Leafs Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre, a night the Maple Leafs easily could have carried.
They scored first. They scored second. They led for a total 30:24 of the opening 32:59, before Krejci knocked home his first of three to pull the Bruins even, 2-2.
Let the record show, for all the good they took out of here, the Bruins led for only 44 seconds all night.
Now they stand perhaps 60 minutes from advancing to Round 2 of the postseason.
Over the course of the night, it became what Leafs coach Randy Carlyle called “a man’s hockey game out there.’’ Bodies flying hockey. Faces bleeding hockey. Big hits handed out in all areas of the ice hockey. The Leafs, for so long cupcakes and not contenders, without a playoff prom date since 2004, have in this series morphed into a legitimate, tough, broad-shouldered postseason squad.
Too bad, for them and their fans, that they are leaving just as they are arriving.
“This is a pretty good team we are playing,’’ said Boston coach Claude Julien, his club now in position to close out the series in Game 5 Friday night on Causeway Street. “We aren’t saying it just to say it. You just have to look at the game. They are battling with us, going head to head.’’
Exhibit A, of course, was the 2-0 lead in the first, built on goals by Joffrey Lupul (off a Phil Kessel dish) and Cody Franson. Exhibit B was the game sheet, which showed the Leafs outhit the Bruins by a 71-49 margin, essentially a 45 percent advantage. In a game that lasted just over 73 minutes, the two Original Six combatants connected for 120 hits. Old-time hockey. Chris Kelly, Jaromir Jagr, and, yes, Kessel, were the only players not to register a body slam.
“I know that our work ethic was strong,’’ said Carlyle. “I know that we played the game at a very high tempo . . . I thought in overtime we attacked [with 11 shots on Tuukka Rask]. We definitely were taking the puck and the play to the net. We did a lot of things that we needed to do, but . . . we made a mistake.’’
All teams, even champions, commit errors. The fatal flaw for the Leafs, the one that now has their bags out of the closet and ready for packing, came in the final seconds leading to Krejci’s game-ender. On a night of “man’s hockey,’’ it came with Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf delivering a huge, but nonetheless ill-advised, hit on Nathan Horton in Boston’s defensive end.
Horton, spotting the charging Phaneuf, moved out of the way just enough not to be driven three rows deep into the loge. Upon collision, Horton’s stick went flying high in the air and he went crashing down hard on the ice. Clearly, Phaneuf got the better of the one-on-one matchup. As far as the end result, well . . . not so much. Just about as Horton hit the deck, Krejci and linemate Milan Lucic hit the road, scooting off on their merry way on a two-on-one break vs. Phaneuf’s backline partner, Ryan Uh-O’Byrne.
Had this moment been captured by an old Polaroid camera, the result would have developed in picture form before Phaneuf finally made his way through the neutral zone to recover fallen players and broken dreams. Krejci finished the rush with a forehand stuff on goalie James Reimer’s short side (left post). To add a little poignancy, the final goalmouth tableau also included a sprawled Kessel. The former Bruin, known in his Boston days for a near-perfect non-attendance record in the defensive end, made a valiant effort to snuff out the play. Too late. But what better shows all-out Toronto effort than a back-checking Kessel?
“I’ve been around this game a long time,’’ said Carlyle, a tinge of lament in his voice. “In overtime, it’s one bounce, one shot, one rebound, one deflection, one fluky bounce, one block . . . you know, it’s all the ones that go against you. You can’t afford to make mistakes that lead to odd-man rushes. We turned the puck over deep in the corner, and then we pinched, and they had the odd-man rush and scored the short-side goal.
“It feels like a dagger after the effort that was put forth by our group. It was a man’s hockey game out there. It was a lot of energy and a lot of physical play.’’
It has been that kind of series from the start, no matter how lopsided the W-L summary may see at the moment. The Leafs have a right to feel dismayed by the results, but they should feel good about what they’ve become. They are not quite there. They need some bigger players, especially on the backline, and they need a more complete effort from a skilled forward group. When your penalty-killing unit gives up two power-play goals to the Bruins, forward tenacity gets an emphatic “NI’’ — Needs Improvement.
Meanwhile, the Bruins, deeper and more playoff seasoned, now face fairly easy passage to the next round. But there is that word of caution.
“You’ve got to win that last game,’’ warned Julien. “We’ve seen that part of the scenario, when we were up, 3-0, against Philly. That served us well in the future.’’
In fact, it served as the segue to the Bruins’ successful Cup run the following spring. Not much solace in any of that for the Leafs. But it looks like their better days are ahead of them, and soon.