By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins' loss to the Maple Leafs in Game 1 revived a disturbing question from last season's playoff exit: if the Patrice Bergeron line doesn't control the game, do they have enough elsewhere to win?
Unfortunately, Thursday night looked like a continuation of the Bruins' loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in last year's second round. The Bergeron line did score the lone goal for the B's, but it came on the power play. In 5-on-5, they struggled to consistently get going on offense. That's due in large part to the Leafs' reformed line of Zach Hyman, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner. Defensemen Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev also played solidly in their own end and the neutral zone, adding to the struggles of Bergeron & Co.
It's possible that the impact of the additions of Tavares and Muzzin have been underestimated. Because that grouping made it hard for the Bruins' No. 1 line to get rolling the way fans are used to seeing. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, especially, rarely got the space they're accustomed to getting.
Marner and Hyman used their speed all over the ice, and they utilized it defensively too. The Bruins struggled to merely gain the offensive zone or win standard puck battles. Marchand and Pastrnak got mugged by the opposing wings almost every time they had the puck. Sometimes it led Marchand to get too fancy with the puck and cause turnovers. Bergeron was the only forward on the line who could generate multiple quality chances.
On the surface, the line's collective 5-on-5 Corsi of 17-to-12 (58.6 percent) looks solid enough, thanks to brief pockets of solid possession. But contrast that with the team's 23-to-5 rate (82.1 percent) when Bergeron was on the ice in Game 1 against the Leafs a year ago, which the Bruins won 5-1. Their most successful shifts on Thursday came against the Auston Matthews line. Against the Tavares trio, the line was often ground to a halt.
With Bergeron on the ice against Tavares, the Leafs out-attempted the Bruins 11-8. They got seven shots on goal to Bergeron's three. The line collectively generated four high-danger scoring chances against two. But the real domination came from the wings. Marchand and Pastrnak combined for four giveaways, compared to just one for Hyman and zero for Marner.
And even when presented with opportunities to move the puck up ice, the whole Bergeron line was routinely off with their passes on breakouts and through the neutral zone. It was shockingly sloppy at times. So as hard as it was for them to make things happen, ultimately they made life too easy for the Leafs. Muzzin is a solid player and maybe a more important addition than realized, but he's no shutdown defender. Tavares is a smart player and gives an honest effort on defense, but you'll never mistake him for a Selke candidate.
As stifling as Marner and Hyman were against Marchand and Pastrnak, the latter duo didn't do nearly enough themselves to make that line uncomfortable. Marchand himself knows it.
"I don’t think they took us off their game, I just don’t think we played our game," Marchand told reporters. "We weren’t playing the right way the whole way through and weren’t taking care of pucks the way we normally do and the way we can. That’s what they thrive on."
The Tavares line did an excellent job limiting their time and space with the puck. And when the Bruins did get time and space, they couldn't make crisp passes enough to get solid breakouts or flow through the neutral zone like usual.
"I think we didn’t take care of the blue lines, that’s where we got caught many times and you know, against a team like them, they’re going to capitalize and get some momentum out of it," Bergeron said. "They’re a good line and they’re a good pairing. So it’s about, like I said, it was nothing we didn’t expect and it’s about being better – bottom line."
The hope is that the Bergeron line gets way, way better than it was on Thursday when it takes the ice for Game 2. Because right now, this Bruins team still looks like one that is in trouble when they are neutralized. And if the self-inflicted mistakes continue, so could the losses.
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].