By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The idea that ‘pressure’ is something that flips through a seven-game series is absurd.
You’re one of 16 teams battling to lift the Stanley Cup, a trophy universally acknowledged as the hardest to win, so there should be pressure every time you step on the ice throughout your two-month run. But with a gutsy win in a must-win Game 6 in Toronto on Sunday, have the higher-seeded Bruins officially flipped that beloved pressure on Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs?
Through six games, these teams have been as even as possible; Bruce Cassidy’s Bruins have 18 goals compared to Toronto’s 16. Tuukka Rask (.921 save percentage) and Frederik Andersen (.925 save percentage) are dueling at each end. Even the fancy-stats tell you this has been a close six-game war, with the Leafs having attempted 307 shot attempts at five-on-five compared to 306 attempts from the Bruins. Seriously, this has been as much of a coin-flip as one series can be through six.
But here’s the kicker for Toronto: They should have wrapped this series up by now.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the Leafs have outplayed the Bruins for significant stretches throughout this series.
Toronto should have anticipated a Game 2 counterattack after dominating Game 1, but they didn’t, and instead fed right into the B’s plans and let Nazem Kadri get suspended for the remainder of the series because he’s a toddler incapable of controlling his emotions. They recovered for a Game 3 victory and probably should have defeated the B’s in a Game 4 that saw Boston pinned in their own zone for what felt like 50 straight minutes, but they didn’t, allowing Rask to come through with the unconventional 38-of-42 steal at Scotiabank. They stole Game 5 in Boston and should have finished the Bruins off when Morgan Rielly opened up Game 6’s scoring at the halfway mark of the opening period, too, but they did not.
They have consistently left the door open for the Bruins.
A door that has led these teams back to TD Garden for a winner-take-all Game 7.
That’s not good news for the Maple Leafs.
For all the talk of Toronto outplaying the B’s, Cassidy has seemingly gotten the better of Babcock in recent head-to-heads. He’s figured out how to neutralize the Marner-Tavares combination (they have combined for zero goals on 20 shots and totaled four assists in the last five games of this series), and the return of Sean Kuraly and John Moore as healthy-looking skaters has forced Babcock to skate his depth pieces more than he’d like given his superstar-power up top. Cassidy, meanwhile, has seemingly reworked his forward groups on the fly and has found something that works with Danton Heinen reunited with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand while David Pastrnak has moved down to a second line with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci. Who knows what Cassidy’s chemistry could come up behind the benefit of home-ice in Game 7.
By the way: A loss tonight and Babcock, the NHL’s highest-paid coach, drops to 0-for-3 in the first round as Toronto’s coach. Include his final few years in Detroit and a loss tonight would drop Babcock to 1-6 since the start of the 2012 playoffs.
Also: Let’s not forget the fact that the Leafs added Tavares and Jake Muzzin for this exact scenario. And when Tavares and Muzzin have done their job — namely with Tavares stapled to Bergeron and Muzzin on Pastrnak — the Leafs have won. A Game 7 in Boston is pretty much why the Leafs decided to pay Tavares an $11 million a year contract that will eventually force them to trade one of their prized young guns, and Muzzin was brought in at the cost of three pieces (including a first-round pick). If they can’t pull their weight and then some in a must-win contest, that’s a lot of cake lost for the same exact result. There’s immense pressure there.
But, again, the Bruins have seemingly found ways to help win or cancel out those individual matchups, leaving those Leafs who look at the Garden as their personal House of Horrors to carry them to their first series victory since 2004.
In that kind of dogfight, it’s just impossible to ignore history: Last year, when those players shriveled up and died on the vine, guys like Krug (game-tying goal in the third) and DeBrusk (two goals, including the game-winner) soared. And it was in Game 6 that those players seemed to finally wake up, with Krug and DeBrusk both getting on the board with their first goals of the series.
Returning to the friendly confines of TD Garden, and assuming those players are ‘back’, this should favor the Bruins.
In fact, everything should favor the Bruins.
Assuming ‘pressure’ is anything close to a real thing.