Bruins push Leafs to brink of elimination
TORONTO – When the game concluded, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was well aware his team squandered an opportunity to level the series.
“When [Patrice] Bergeron didn’t play tonight, you’re set up pretty good. You’ve got to find a way to win,” he said.
The Leafs have been under pressure since the puck dropped in the opening game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series last week. The Bruins decimated the Leafs during the first two games at TD Garden. The Leafs lost their shutdown centerman in Nazem Kadri after he delivered a dangerous hit on Bruins forward Tommy Wingels and was suspended for Games 2-4.
After squeaking out a 4-2 win in Game 3, Bergeron’s injury presented Toronto with the ultimate equalizer.
Instead, it took them 28 seconds to fall behind. Torey Krug’s sharp-angle shot from the point got past Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen’s blocker for a 1-0 Boston lead in the first period. Toronto erased the deficit when center Tomas Plekanec scored at 7:43, but that represented the end of their offense.
“I saw it initially but on the way in I lost it through the guys there,” Andersen said. “It’s one I’ve got to fight to see and get something in front of.”
Toronto peppered Boston with 46 shot attempts through the first two periods compared with 31 from the Bruins. Arguably, the Leafs played their best game of the series. The table was set for Toronto to even things up. But its offense, a catalyst for their franchise-best 105-point season, failed to convert on their chances.
“I thought we could have shot the puck even more,” Plekanec said. “We needed more pressure on the goalie. I don’t think we did a good enough job tonight.”
Leafs sophomore forwards Auston Matthews and William Nylander combined for 54 goals during the regular season. Through four playoff games, they have combined for one goal and one an assist.
“I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come out and dominate the game, that’s what I thought,” Babcock said of Matthews. “I thought the same with Willy. It didn’t happen.”
The Maple Leafs didn’t give up much in terms of chances. But when they did, the mistakes were egregious. Bruins goals by Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk were scored on a pair of two-on-one chances created by high-risk pinching from defensemen Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, respectively.
“They did a better job of not giving us those chances,” Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “I don’t think we had any clear 2-on-1s or big 3-on-2s in the second half. They got the two of them and they buried them both. Obviously, that’s the difference.”
Defensively, Boston took away the open ice in front of Tuukka Rask. Although Toronto had shots, the number of high-quality scoring chances were few.
“They do a good job with their forwards of blocking shots and getting in lanes,” Leafs forward Mitch Marner said. “ I think even if we get it past the first guy there’s usually a second guy underneath that’s usually in the lane.”
The Leafs find themselves in familiar territory, down 3-1 in their first-round series. It’s the same deficit they had when these teams met in the first round of the playoffs in 2013. Toronto turned the series around and forced Game 7 by getting standout goaltending in Games 5 and 6 from then starting goaltender James Reimer.
Andersen has yet to shine in the series. He has posted an .880 save percentage and 4.12 goals-against average in four starts. If Toronto has any hope of extending the series, better goaltending could help make the difference.
But the Leafs played their best game of the series, and it wasn’t good enough to win.