By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Toronto Maple Leafs are good. In fact, they’re every bit as good as the Boston Bruins. Around here, not many people seem to want to acknowledge that, but it’s factual. And the Maple Leafs are even trying to win this first-round series against Boston. It’s crazy, but it’s true.
Yet even with that being established, the Bruins have nobody to blame but themselves for now having to play in a desperation win-or-go-home Game 7 on Wednesday night at the TD Garden. It never should have gotten that far.
Really, it’s an issue that goes back to the regular season (we’ll get to that in a moment), but the way the Bruins have played after taking a “commanding” 3-1 lead last Thursday has simply not been conducive to winning hockey. Not in the playoffs, and not against a Toronto team that’s clearly shown an unwillingness to roll over and die.
What’s gone overstated over the past 120 minutes of hockey has been the alleged onslaught of shots from Bruins skaters. In the Game 5 loss on home ice, the Bruins landed 45 shots on net, while missing 23 more shots and having 22 shot attempts blocked by Leafs skaters. They scored three goals and lost 4-3. In Game 6 on Monday night, they got 33 shots on net while missing the net with 16 shots and having 23 shot attempts blocked by Leafs skaters. They scored just once and lost 3-1.
In the same timeframe that the Bruins have attempted 162 shots, the Leafs have attempted just 82. Some have deemed this discrepancy to be evidence of the Bruins “dominating” play but just failing to finish. Others have repeated that Frederik Andersen is just the proverbial “hot goaltender” who is “standing on his head” and “stealing games.” Both would be inaccurate assessments.
If you really look at the quality of shots taken by the Bruins over the past two games, the team has not done nearly enough to make life difficult on Andersen. Yes, the goaltender made an impressive right-to-left move to make a pad save on Brad Marchand on a 5-on-3 in Game 5. Sure, Rick Nash and Sean Kuraly had legitimate bids from the front of the net in Game 6. Marchand had a couple of quality scoring chances in Game 6.
But on the whole, the Grade A chances are just not adding up. Instead, the Bruins seem to be playing into the Maple Leafs’ hands.
Despite a defensive corps — a group headed by Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, along with Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak — that received little positive publicity heading into the series, the Leafs have been content to sit in their own zone and for the most part only allow the types of shots they’re willing to allow. They’ve been comfortable and they’ve been responsible. Nearly everything the Bruins have generated in terms of scoring chances has come within Toronto’s structure, and Boston has had very few instances of breaking down that structure at all over the last 120 minutes.
The coaching check mark goes to Mike Babcock there.
The Leafs have prevented the Bruins from generating any odd-man rushes or even streaking with speed on 2-on-2 rushes through the neutral zone. And in the rare moments where the Bruins have broken in with speed, they’ve either kicked the puck away, made one too many moves, or ran out of steam before getting tracked down from behind.
Worse, the Bruins had four minutes on the man advantage on Monday night. They registered one total shot on net.
When the Bruins were on the power play, the Leafs managed to match Boston’s shot total with a shorthanded bid. It was actually a better scoring chance than anything Boston created. Tuukka Rask was the only goalie who was tested during Boston’s four minutes on the power play. That’s not how these things are supposed to work.
And most damning of all? With a chance to launch a patented comeback on the road to stun the home crowd and cap off a series, the Bruins managed to get just seven pucks on net in the final 20 minutes. Seven shots. Again, in a moment that should have involved a desperate Bruins team peppering Andersen, it was Rask who was the only goalie tested (multiple times, as a matter of fact). And, again, that was with 3:50 of power play time. That’s not how you win big games.
The numbers are what the numbers are. Huzzah for shot attempts! They can tell you a lot about a team over the course of 82 games, but in a seven-game playoff series, they often don’t mean much. And frankly, firing pucks into shin pads is not a moment especially worth celebrating. The Bruins have done that 45 times in the past two games. They’ve also missed the net 39 times. Yippee.
The Bruins just haven’t been good enough when it comes to outworking and outscheming the Leafs to create quality scoring opportunities.
Just look at the goals the Bruins have scored. It took a weird bounce off the glass for David Backes to get the Bruins on the board in Game 5, and it took an even weirder bounce off the end boards and the back of the net for Noel Acciari to score the Bruins’ third goal. Boston’s second goal in Game 5 came as the result of brilliant vision and a perfect backhand feed from Matt Grzelcyk to Kuraly, but those goals have been all too rare lately. The one time the Bruins scored in Game 6 came off a faceoff in the Toronto zone when Andersen was screened by his own defenseman and couldn’t see the puck.
As is the case with most NHL goalies, if they can see the puck, they can generally stop it. The Bruins have not nearly done enough to disrupt Andersen’s vision, and as a result they’ve made him look like a modern day Patrick Roy.
The Maple Leafs — who have masterfully utilized the stretch pass all series long, slipped skaters behind Bruins defensemen multiple times in Game 5 and capitalized immediately on two of the only Boston miscues in Game 6 — have just been better. They’ve been perfectly happy to get “dominated” on the stat sheet, while waiting for the right moments to strike with quality scoring opportunities. They’ve made the most of them.
And if the Bruins hope to extend their season, that’s going to have to change.
Of course, there is the little bit about the matter of the Bruins not even supposed to be here. Had they been able to just win one more game during the regular season — just one more game — then they would have been paired up with New Jersey in this first round, instead of having to go toe-to-toe with a Toronto team that appears to at least be Boston’s equal. (The Leafs are 6-4-0 against Boston this year, but they have been outscored 31-28, thanks largely to the 7-3 final score in Game 2.)
Admittedly, getting on the Bruins for any regular-season shortcomings might be ignorant. They went 50-20-12 overall. They registered at least a point in 13 straight road games at one point. They kept their heads above water even as key pieces like Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, and Backes missed stretches of time. They got very good starting goaltending from Rask and exceptional backup play from Anton Khudobin. Head coach Bruce Cassidy masterfully managed his lineup, sitting young players when needed but preventing their confidence levels from dipping.
By all measures, it was a regular season that exceeded any and all expectations.
But still — still — it was all there right in front of them in the final weeks of the regular season. They had caught up to Tampa Bay, after the Lightning had led the division all year. Some good or even decent play in the final eight days of the season would have secured first place in the Atlantic Division for Boston. It was something they had worked all year to achieve, and it was right there for them to seize. But they couldn’t do it. They went 1-3-1 in their final five games, barely managing to get three out of a possible 10 points. They finished one point behind the Lightning, who ended their season on a 3-1-1 stretch to reclaim first place.
As a result, the Lightning got the 44-29-9 New Jersey Devils in the first round. As you might expect, the Lightning dispatched of New Jersey in five games and have been resting since Saturday night.
The Bruins, meanwhile, were paired with the the 49-26-7 Maple Leafs, and they’ll now play with their season on the line in Game 7. Lightning players will be watching comfortably from their homes.
Now, the Bruins have 60 minutes (or perhaps longer) to define their season. It’ll either be one that exceeded expectations and shows promise for the future, or it will be one remembered for missed opportunities and an inability to finish.