Toronto Maple Leafs playoff series have been rollercoaster rides for the past few years. Especially series against the Boston Bruins. This year’s edition, after only two games, is no different. While there are many similarities to last year, such as a bone-headed play by Nazem Kadri, the Maple Leafs are clearly learning what it takes to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In the first two games last year, the Maple Leafs were handed their lunch. As a result, Boston headed to Toronto up 2-0. This year, the Maple Leafs used their speed and skill to control play and keep Boston in check to earn their first Game One win since 2003. They looked like a team ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. That’s the first clear indication they’re a better-prepared team this season. Game Two, unfortunately, didn’t treat them quite as well.
Prior to the series’ start, everyone in Leafland would have been happy to know the team would be coming back to Toronto with a split in Boston. Game Two was so abysmal for Toronto, it may not feel as satisfying as it should to be tied 1-1 heading home. However, despite the loss, there were positives in Game Two the Maple Leafs and their fans can take solace in.
Frederik Andersen has been the Maple Leafs’ best player so far. They need him to keep them in games if they have any hope of moving on to the second round. So far, Andersen has been exactly what the team needed him to be. That’s not something they had last year.
Perhaps the extra rest Andersen got this year is a factor, but at least part of the reason he’s been better is the team in front of him has been better. Ron Hainsey is playing a little less while Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev have turned into a quality pair. Muzzin had some trouble in Game Two, but it’s not likely that will be a common theme for him in this series.
Game Two was bad for many reasons, but few of them are issues that we’ll see over and over. At least not if two things happen, one is the Maple Leafs need to adjust to the Bruins’ aggressive play, but more importantly, the Maple Leafs should expect the officiating to improve as the series continues.
Let ’em Play
There’s something to be said about letting the player’s play the game. The refs put their whistles away and the players take care of the game. One of the things that can be said is that it improves the game. It takes the referee out of the process of deciding who wins the game. People seem to like that. Another thing is that it opens the door for the players to hurt each other, cleanly or not.
In Game Two, the refs let Boston and Toronto play. There were interference calls that weren’t made, there were roughing calls that weren’t made. There was scrum after scrum when goalies covered the puck. Eventually, Muzzin took out Torey Krug on a clean hit that sent Krug flying into the boards and left him stumbling around.
Jake DeBrusk hit Kadri on a knee on knee collision that didn’t look malicious but still should have been called a penalty. Earlier in the game, DeBrusk had his way with Kadri and somehow both players ended up with coincidental minors. The Bruins game plan was to frustrate the Maple Leafs, and they succeed, at least with Kadri, who eventually took exception to another legal hit, this time on Patrick Marleau, and nailed DeBrusk in the face with a crosscheck.
Kadri will likely be suspended, perhaps for the rest of the series. His hit to DeBrusk’s head was clearly a poor decision and the sort of thing everyone wants out of the game. The referees had a chance to dispel at least some of Kadri’s frustration by calling penalties earlier in the game though. It’s not their fault that Kadri lost his head, but had they called the game as they really should have, it probably wouldn’t have got to the point it did.
The players felt the need to take ‘justice’ into their own hands since the referees weren’t. That led to both the Muzzin hit and the Kadri crosscheck. The officials need to recognize when the game could get out of hand and keep it under control. They didn’t in Game Two. They probably will for the rest of the series.
What Did We Learn?
The Maple Leafs once again had their lunch handed to them by the Bruins at TD Garden, but it didn’t look nearly as bad as it could have been. The Bruins looked great in the first period, but Toronto was still in the game. A terrible moment of miscommunication caused the third goal and then Kadri’s five-minute major put the game out of reach.
The players that will play in Game 3 will be better prepared for the Bruins’ physical play. They’ll be better prepared for a game in which the refs put their whistles away, although it can be suspected the refs will overcompensate in Game 3 on that front. They didn’t completely buckle under the Bruins’ onslaught, they can build confidence on that with two games coming up in Toronto.
The only player that seems to not be learning from his mistakes is probably not going to be playing for a while. That may not be such a bad thing. Who will the Bruins target if Kadri isn’t in the lineup? It will be easier for the rest of the team to keep to their own game plan and not let the Bruins decide what kind of game the Maple Leafs play.
They’ll be short at centre in Game Three, and William Nylander may not be the best replacement, but there’s an element of addition by subtraction here. The players won’t get sucked into the Bruins’ game again. Not without Kadri there to add fuel to the fire. They still have John Tavares and Auston Matthews as the top two centres. They both saw what caving to the Bruins looked like.
“Every team faces adversity in the playoffs. It’s how the players respond that matters.” – Every NHL coach.
The Maple Leafs have more to learn. The signs that they’ve learned from last year’s series are there. How well they continue to learn and how they respond in Game 3 will determine if they move on to round two this year or not.
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