What do the Maple Leafs have in store for the Bruins in Game 3?
Hours before the first smack of the game, when Joakim Nordstrom finished Nikita Zaitsev with his shoulder nine seconds in, the Bruins were buzzing. Credit their coach, in part, for kicking the hornet’s nest. Bruce Cassidy was fired up.
“Seeing him like that brought it out in us,” defenseman Brandon Carlo said Sunday, before boarding a charter plane to Toronto for Games 3 and 4.
Cassidy, who had a brief stint in the NHL some three decades ago, has been a coach the last 22, the last three in Boston. He has been a Bruins fan since his boyhood in Ottawa.
He knew what the Black and Gold needed Saturday: to turn the Leafs black and blue. The message reverberated throughout the B’s dressing room.
“Saw Pasta lay a few bodies, that kind of gets you jacked up,” said one of the Bruins’ jackhammers, Chris Wagner. “I think it energizes the bench more than anything. We didn’t want to chase hits by any means. But it builds momentum and gets the crowd into it, which you have to play into when you’re playing at home.”
It helped the Bruins dominate possession, made the Leafs skittish with the puck, and got the home team rolling downhill.
Now that the series heads to Toronto, tied 1-1, Boston expects a pushback.
“I think every game takes on a life of its own,” Cassidy said. “We knew we weren’t very good in Game 1. We wanted to rectify that and respond. We did.”
He expected the Leafs to “lick their wounds” and give the Bruins their best Monday night.
He wasn’t expecting the same level of physicality, since his club won’t be able to feed off the Scotiabank Arena crowd. But the he hopes the hallmarks of Sunday’s 4-1 win — puck management is a buzzphrase — have been established. If the Bruins continue to play behind the Leafs’ defense, batter bodies and tilt the ice, this series may not again go through Canadian customs.
“We brought it from the get-go,” Carlo said. “Throughout the first period, you could tell their guys were on their heels a little bit more, especially with our forecheck, turning more pucks over than they did the [game] before.”
The Leafs will surely be without third-line center Nazem Kadri, who will have an in-person hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Monday for his cross-check to Jake DeBrusk’s head. Kadri, a repeat offender, may be done for the rest of the series.
Toronto, without its most physical forward, will be even less of a threat to bruise Boston. Kadri, who had four of the Leafs’ five penalties in Game 2, also scored the only goal. To remain in the series, the Leafs need more from John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
They also need William Nylander, whose giveaway gave Danton Heinen a goal in Game 2, or 39-year-old Patrick Marleau to play third-line center. Either would be a better option than Tomas Plekanec, who filled in for three games last year when Kadri boarded Tommy Wingels.
Cassidy used his fourth line (Nordstrom-Noel Acciari-Wagner) to get physical with the Zach Hyman-Tavares-Marner line. They and the Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy defense pair made it hard for that group to get to the net.
Meanwhile, the Bergeron line made it hard on Matthews, who has yet to get going. His wingers haven’t buzzed behind the Bruins’ defense, which further limits the space for the dangerous center. Matthews is excellent at attacking the space between the F3, the high forward, and the defense, but the Bruins have stunted those opportunities with a tight gap. They have also stayed out of the box, neutralizing his elite shot on the power play.
“Establishing the forecheck, the D gapping up, and eliminating his time and space has been helpful,” Carlo said. “I feel our D-zone coverage has been pretty phenomenal to this point.”
All year, the third line has been a wild card. But Cassidy loved what he saw from Heinen-Charlie Coyle-David Backes, which produced two goals Saturday. Cassidy also put both Coyle and Backes on David Krejci’s right wing for stretches, adding size and strength to the second line.
In Toronto, Mike Babcock will get the last change. The Bruins, as they did Saturday, will try to make his machinations matter not.
“The matchups worked out well,” Cassidy said. “I think if you score first and your players are on their A game, I don’t know if it matters. They all played well. They all outplayed the guy across from them.”
Before leaving Boston on Sunday, Zdeno Chara was bouncing, ever so slightly, on the balls of his feet. His Slovakian baritone rose, a little, while discussing what happened the night before.
One of the more physical games he’s played in, he believed.
Can Chara, recently 42, bring that kind of energy again? Can Backes, nearly 35, keep mashing the pedal? The Bruins hope their veterans keep setting the tone.
“You get a little bit along in your career, you don’t have as many kicks at the can,” Cassidy said. “Some guys have a little more motivation. We tapped into that [Saturday] night. Hopefully we keep it going.
“You’re looking at, if you’re successful, a two-month run of this type of energy. The team that can sustain it -- it’s a team, not one individual, but as a group , that can sustain it the most will have success, especially if you’re going to play that way. And it’s been our M.O.”