By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins don't have much to adjust offensively ahead of Game 4. If they can keep playing the way they did in the third period against the Leafs in Game 3, and simply bury their chances this time, they'll give themselves a good opportunity to take a 3-1 series lead.
But defensively, there is one crucial adjustment they will need to make in order to hold the Leafs down. They'll need to improve their coverage against Toronto's stretch-passing offense, which burned the B's back end consistently on Monday.
The most stark example of the Leafs' success with big passes through the neutral zone came on Patrick Marleau's first goal in the second period, which put them up 2-1. Defenseman Morgan Rielly banked a long pass around Kevan Miller to find a wide-open Mitch Marner, who got way behind Miller to lead a 2-on-1 and set up Marleau for the score.
Mitch Marner to Patrick Marleau and the Leafs re-gain the lead in Game 3, 2-1. What a breakout pass off the boards by Morgan Rielly to make this all start, though pic.twitter.com/4dAcTwUXfX
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) April 17, 2018
Leafs defenders, Rielly and Jake Gardiner in particular, took advantage of the Leafs' favorable matchups with their transition game and quick passes through the neutral zone. The matchups aren't going to get any easier, as Mike Babcock and the Leafs still have home-ice and the advantage of last change.
In that case, it's going to be on the Bruins' defensemen to adjust to the matchups Toronto is throwing at them. Their only recourse in avoiding particular matchups is to quickly yank guys off the ice on the fly, but they won't be able to pull that off smoothly for 60 minutes. Miller and Torey Krug, especially, need to do a better job than they did in Game 3 of containing the line of Marleau, Tomas Plekanec, and Mitch Marner and preventing them from sparking odd-man rushes off those stretch passes.
One way to combat them is to simply be stronger along the boards. Don't let the Leafs' defensemen use the neutral zone boards to their advantage to find forwards crossing through. The B's did a much better job of that in Games 1 and 2, clogging up center ice and closing off possible passing lanes. This adjustment could require more a aggressive forecheck from Bruins defenders.
However, pinching in has also burned the Bruins at times in the series. Krug got caught too deep on the Leafs' fourth goal in Game 3, when Toronto took advantage of a David Krejci turnover to get a 2-on-1 rush going the other way. And unlike the Bruins could in Game 3, Marleau actually finished the play.
So the B's are also going to need to read and anticipate plays more soundly, and only pinch when they know that they have protection in back and can stop the Leafs' attack before it gets going.
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy commented after Game 3 on the Leafs' turning the tables in catching the defense over-committing to their forecheck.
"We’ve got some good offensive-zone play by being active, and they’re trying to get going the other way," said Cassidy. "We’ve caught them — I don’t want to use the word cheating — but leaning the other way. That one worked the other way against us [in Game 3]."
In Game 4, the Bruins defenders need to strike a balance between stopping the Leafs' forwards from getting behind them and finding opportunities to turn the pressure back on the Toronto offense. Rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy acknowledged the challenge ahead.
"It’s tough," said McAvoy, via the Boston Globe. “We’ve seen it a couple times this series where the D will jump in and next thing you know they’re off to the races. They play that style where they just want to counter so fast with their speed. They want to use their speed at all times. So you’ve really got to make sure you’re counting five guys all the time and keeping them in front of you because they’ll go for those stretches, those breakaways."
Perhaps the Leafs will also make adjustments to their offense in Game 4, so as to stay a step ahead of Cassidy and the Bruins. But they'd also likely get away from their true identity if they did that. Game 3 was the offense that the Leafs want to run, and probably want to run again on Thursday.
The Leafs got too many of those aforementioned "breakaways" and odd-man rushes in Game 3. And if it wasn't one of those, it was a quick, clean zone entry that led to heavy possession in Toronto's favor. The game tilted back the Bruins' way in the third period, but it was too little too late. The Leafs' explosive, quick-acting offense had done enough damage.
It'll be key for the Bruins to re-adjust to that in Game 4, and it could be the ultimate difference between a commanding lead and a coin-flip series.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].
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