By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs added John Tavares and Jake Muzzin to their roster between Game 7s in Boston. They also held David Pastrnak to almost nothing (Pastrnak ended the seven-game series with just two goals, both scored in a Game 4 victory), and forced the Bruins to break up their superhuman top line.
…And they still lost to the Bruins.
The irony is that despite those high-priced additions and efforts, the pieces behind the Maple Leafs’ latest soul-crushing defeat on TD Garden ice cost the Bruins a grand total of a million dollars and a pair of draft picks outside the top 31, as the Bruins’ Game 7 victory was undoubtedly sparked by first-period strikes from Joakim Nordstrom and Marcus Johansson.
Performances that by all means saved the Bruins on a night that saw their top-tier talents quiet and/or utilized in the d-zone.
“That’s why they’re in the lineup,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said of his team’s depth carrying them to victory. “I think we’ve got a lot of good choices. Very difficult to tell a couple of the guys who didn’t play they weren’t going to. They played a part of the series. We talked about it at the start of the series that we felt we needed a certain type of lineup to beat Toronto, and we finally found it late in the series. I thought Game 6 and 7 we skated well.
“A guy like [Joakim] Nordstrom is a good part of that, [Karson] Kuhlman, [Sean] Kuraly obviously.”
Game 7 followed a familiar pattern for the B’s-Leafs, really. You could say that the Leafs were the better team for prolonged stretches, but it was on the back of that early-game production that the Bruins built a necessary cushion for Tuukka Rask.
The eye-test backed up their usage on Tuesday night, as there was no doubt that the B’s fourth line of Nordstrom, Noel Acciari, and Sean Kuraly was their best in Game 7. They were relentless in all three zones, consistently pinned the Maple Leafs back, and forced Toronto into some dreadful decisions with the puck.
“We try to do that every night,” Nordstrom said of the fourth line’s energy throughout the night. “I think tonight we had a couple fortunate bounces, overall I thought we played really well as a line.”
Kuraly provided additional proof of their three-zone effectiveness with the victory-sealing third goal in the third period.
“In Game 6 he had a couple of those looks, so I think he was baiting the hook a little bit and snapped one tonight,” Cassidy said. “[Kuraly] has a quick release. It’s not a heavy shot, at least I don’t think it is, but because he releases it in full stride, I think the caught the goalie a little bit off guard. It was a huge goal for us.”
“Noel made a good play coming out of the zone, and then got a little room in the neutral zone and I just found myself in the slot all of a sudden and just put it on net really,” Kuraly recalled. “They don’t usually go in for me, but that was a good one and a big one and I think you can see by the way I reacted how I felt about that goal.
“If you want to know, just, you can watch it again I think.”
And the Bruins can watch Kuraly and the Bruins again as a direct result.
Here are some other thoughts and notes from a 5-1 final at TD Garden…
McAvoy comes through with big night for Bruins
There’s no shortage of defensive players to praise in Boston’s 5-1 victory. Brandon Carlo got better as the series went along, Matt Grzelcyk’s offensive timing made Boston’s first goal possible, and even John Moore recovered nicely from his second-period mistake that ended up behind Tuukka Rask for Toronto’s lone goal of the night.
But in Game 7, Charlie McAvoy played like the franchise cornerstone the Bruins hope he will be. Matched up against Toronto’s Hyman-Tavares-Marner line throughout the night, McAvoy was tremendous with his timing, and was constantly (and successfully) hauling himself back to the d-zone at the first sign of an o-zone turnaround.
“Strong plays,” Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said of his d-partner. “You know, he’s showing his capabilities in the defensive zone and defending the rushes. I think that everybody knows he’s a highly skilled offensive player who can make plays. He can skate the puck, but he’s obviously expanding his role by playing well defensively.”
The Stanley Cup goes through Boston
With their ticket punched to the second round, consider this: The Bruins are the highest seed remaining in the entire playoff field.
That means that the road to the Stanley Cup will go through Boston should the Black and Gold get there. For a Bruins team that’s been a typically dominant home team since Cassidy took over behind the bench in Feb. 2017, there’s no denying the edge that Garden ice has brought to Boston, especially in must-win contests.
“It was amazing,” Chara said of the TD Garden crowd in Game 7. “The fans were obviously very excited, very loud, gave us, you know, extra energy and, you know, we were obviously feeding off that, so thanks to everyone who came and cheered us on and everyone who was watching at home, so yeah they deserved it.”
“I loved the atmosphere in the building right from the get-go,” Cassidy said.
“It was great, it was rocking,” said Tuukka Rask. “It was huge for us to get the goal and get the crowd into it. It was a great atmosphere, it was rocking again, you like to see that.”
It’s only going to get louder.
Is this it for Mike Babcock’s Toronto run?
Is it fair to wonder if this is it for Mike Babcock in Toronto? I mean, he’s now 0-for-3 in the first round since coming to the Maple Leafs, and he actually hasn’t won a playoff round — be it in Detroit or Toronto — since 2013. You know, when the Red Wings were still in the Western Conference. Of course, the flip-side is that he still has another four years and another $25 million or so left on his contract, and that alone makes him a difficult fire if you’re the Maple Leafs. (A friendly reminder that the Leafs by all means print money up there, so that shouldn’t be a chief concern if he’s indeed not the guy for them.)
Also: He made some borderline indefensible decisions in a Game 7 loss.
The Leafs were down by two and he was happily icing Frederik Gauthier instead of his superstars. When the Leafs pulled Frederik Andersen for the extra attacker, the walking cadaver known as Patrick Marleau jumped over the boards as that attacker. Auston Matthews, who downright dominated the second half of this series, played under 19 minutes.
“I thought this series compared to last year, we’re a way better hockey club,” Babcock said. “In the end, we weren’t rewarded. I think we’re taking steps in the right direction and we have to push through and that’s just the bottom line.”
Bruins expect to have hands full vs. Blue Jackets
The Maple Leafs were hardly vanquished before Cassidy was asked about the Columbus Blue Jackets. (That’s hardly a surprise given the quick turnaround of this series.) But Cassidy made it clear he’s not sleeping on an opponent that just swept the league-best Tampa Bay Lightning out of the postseason.
“My initial thought is they beat a really good team because I thought Tampa was lights out and we saw it firsthand late in the year,” Cassidy said of the Blue Jackets. “So, clearly, we got our hands full. We’re going to enjoy this one tonight, but tomorrow we’ll be back in trying to break them down. I don’t mind a quick turnaround necessarily when you’re playing well. Our last two games we have played well. I thought the start of this series, we had time off, we rested players, we had a couple practices, and they also gave us too much information and they’re overloading. This way they won’t be able to get so, you know, they’ll get a little bit Thursday morning.
“The good news is we saw them three times late in the year. That will help with our preparation. Should help with the players. We know they were physical against Tampa. They came after them. They got key saves. Powerplay was lights out. So, we got our hands full. Listen, we’re looking forward. I think it’ll be a good match up for us. I think the teams are similarly built, so it should be a good series. “
The Bruins will open up their second-round series on Thursday night.