By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Six games solved absolutely nothing, so it's back to TD Garden where the Bruins and Maple Leafs will go to war for the right to host the Columbus Blue Jackets for the start of the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It's a Game 7 in Boston, and there's no other feeling like it.
"Any time you're under the gun – we were talking about it yesterday, [Brendan Shanahan] was watching something about guys who were climbing rocks and then they were diving off into the water. Why do you think people do that? They do it to get the same feeling you get here today," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "When you're done in the sport, you're going to search out things to get that feeling. There's no better feeling and you know you've got to deliver. You've got to enjoy the process, enjoy the atmosphere and then, when the puck is dropped, you've got to look the guy in the eye and you've got to beat him."
"As coaches, we’ve tried to prepare them for situational things that are going to happen on the ice, what they did well in Game 6 that we can try to correct, what we did well that we want to keep building on," said B's coach Bruce Cassidy. "Once they get on the ice, I believe the leadership group will have our guys in a good place, so I don’t want to over-message other than, listen, you’ve got to enjoy the moment, and you’ve got to play. If you make a mistake, you’ve got to put it behind you, and you’ve got to keep playing, and you have to have more will than the guy across from you pretty much is the message we give them."
Here are the seven figures with the most to gain, lose, or who will be leaned on the most in Game 7...
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask is absolutely locked in a goaltender's duel with the Leafs' Frederik Andersen. Some would argue that Andersen is currently winning that duel -- Andersen comes into Game 7 with a .925 save percentage for the series while Rask is at a .921 -- but there's no denying Rask's importance in the Black and Gold's last three games. He was downright phenomenal in Boston's Game 4 win, took a tough luck in Game 5, and was enough in their 4-2 win in Sunday's Game 6. But Rask's Game 7 history is anything but pretty, with two wins and an .845 save percentage. You could argue that he almost cost you last year's Game 7 until the B's came through with four unanswered goals to grab a 7-4 win on Garden ice.
The Maple Leafs brought John Tavares here for this exact moment. Vanquished by the Bruins on Boston ice in a decisive Game 7 in postseason runs in 2013 and 2018, Tavares is with the Maple Leafs to be the piece that puts them over the top.
Through six games, has he been that player? Well, yes and no. His offensive numbers aren't exactly mindblowing (Tavares has one goal in this series and it was an empty-netter), but his work against the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron has certainly been worth $11 million, as the two have by all means canceled one another out. It even prompted Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy to move David Pastrnak off Bergeron's line in search of a little more five-on-five juice from his forward group. When you can find a way to break up the best line in hockey, I'd like to think you're doing your job as the opposing centerman.
But if the Garden will be a House of Horrors for the Maple Leaf skaters that found themselves in this exact spot a year ago, they're going to need Tavares to break out of his offensive funk and put in some work for the Leafs. A no-show tonight in his one-on-one against Bergeron -- or even Zdeno Chara -- won't impact Tavares' wallet or status in Toronto, of course, but it will also come with a round of laughs. From Boston, and especially from those supporting a still-alive Islanders squad.
Boy oh boy did the Bruins miss Sean Kuraly.
The sled dog of the Boston fourth line, Kuraly looked more like himself in the Black and Gold's Game 6 victory, and his presence completely changed the B's forward dynamic. First of all, with Kuraly playing his game, the Bruins were able to roll four lines for the first time all series. That forced Leafs coach Mike Babcock to play his fourth line on a somewhat regular basis, which is not something he wanted to do. There was also the intangible factor of Kuraly's game as a puck-possession pivot for the B's, which helped pin the Maple Leafs in the defensive zone for extended stretches throughout the game. But most of all, Kuraly didn't sink when thrown out there as a potential Auston Matthews stopper.
"I think he closes well in defensive zone so he can play against players that want to create time and space for themselves, Toronto has a number of those guys, they’re good at it, so he’s able to minimize some of that when he’s on," B's coach Bruce Cassidy said of Kuraly's game. "I think he’s been good in faceoffs for the most part, with his injury missing time we don’t want to rely too much on that but I still think that in season he’s been good at penalty-kill, he can match up against good players because he’s 6-2 and he’s 210 pounds, so you have to work to get through him. I think all those things have made him a good serviceable guy that can play against good players. If we can get some offense from him that would be great, he’s provided a little bit of that for us in the playoffs in the past, I think he had some good looks the other night off the wing."
I know this may sound crazy, but Leafs coach Mike Babcock has a lot on the line tonight. The league's highest-paid coach, and the man considered elite enough to end Toronto's 50-something year Cup drought, a loss tonight would mean that Babcock has gone 0-for-3 in the first round since coming to the Maple Leafs. Given the temperature around the Maple Leafs at all times -- as well as the offseason addition of John Tavares and in-season addition of Jake Muzzin -- that seems borderline inexcusable. Factor in the fact that Toronto went back to their home rink with a chance to close this out and didn't and it's probably even worse. Would the Leafs fire him if he fails to get the job done tonight? I'm honestly not sure. There's still a lot of term left on his deal, and you'd like to think that the Leafs' young core is only going to get better. But the fact that we're even talking about this possibility means that this is a big game for the man behind the Toronto bench.
He's had some production throughout this series, sure, but I don't think it's unfair to say that you're still waiting for David Pastrnak's Game to finally arrive for the Bruins. It was just last year that the crafty Czech took over this series and put up some straight-up historic numbers for the Bruins. I mean, any time you're matching an Espo or Gretzky record, you know you're off to a good start. This year, it's been a bit of a struggle. Toronto's found a good matchup against Pastrnak in Muzzin, but it feels like Pastrnak is beginning to break free and simply needs to bury his chances. A word of advice: Hammer it. You scored almost 40 goals during the regular season (probably woulda hit 50 had he stayed healthy), so trust your shot.
Here's a crazy stat for you: Dating back to the start of his breakout 2011 playoff run, the Bruins hold a 20-1 record when Brad Marchand scores a goal in a playoff game. He's gotten on the board in all three of Boston's wins this round (four goals and eight points in total over those three games), but has been held to just one assist in their three losses. I know this is groundbreaking analysis -- a team does well when their top-line player performs well -- but this is especially true for Marchand, who also often acts as the straw that stirs the Black and Gold's emotional drink on a nightly basis.
If his motor is humming, you should like the B's chances.
When Morgan Rielly gets going into the offensive zone, and uses his skating game to shake off defenders, he's an unpredictable-yet-elite talent that opens up a ton of options for the Maple Leafs. I mean, that's what you should expect out of a defenseman that posted 20 goals and 72 points in the regular season. The Bruins got a good look at this skill in Game 6, too.
"I thought he was more active than normal creating awareness issues, d-zone coverage switches low," Cassidy said of Rielly's impact in Game 6. "Some of them we handled well, some of them we didn’t. We addressed it this morning in a little bit of our review from Game 6. I suspect he’ll be active again, so we’ve got to have better sticks, keep them to the outside, and then close off the plays when he is down low, because they also have issues with, now, if he’s caught, and we create a turnover, then what happens there? So, we’ve got to make sure that we transition well if we do create a turnover while he’s caught low and can attack forward, similar to [Jake] DeBrusk’s goal. He got to attack a forward, and he took advantage and scored."
You can expect Rielly to log an absolute ton of minutes tonight, too.