Published On: Sat, Jan 12th, 2019

Maple Leafs-Bruins humdinger provides sense of playoff inevitability

TORONTO – Until they meet again.

Saturday’s airtight finale of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins’ regular-season series had all the feel of more to come.

Boston won 3-2, but the home side generated enough chances and maintained a high enough pace throughout that one couldn’t help but wonder if Frederik Andersen (still sidelined with a groin injury that ran into a flu bout) might’ve made the difference.

“I think Boston plays a quick game,” says Leafs coach Mike Babcock, explaining the difference between the Bruins’ attack and the rugged clampdowns of Nashville and Minnesota that recently humbled his club at home.

“They rely on a group of forwards to really set the tone for them. They rely on their power play a lot. They’ve got a couple of guys on the back that are really mobile. But they defend good and they make it hard on you.

“As far as the style goes, I think the style is perfect for us, to tell you the truth.”

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Motivation for his troops?

Gamesmanship knowing the likelihood of another gruelling playoff series versus Bergeron & Co. could be in the cards?

Perhaps both.

“They’ve had the better of us this year,” Mitch Marner conceded.

“It’s always tough games against Boston,” added Andreas Johnsson. “It’s a little bit of an extra feel.”

Despite Toronto dominating high-danger chances 8-0 in the first frame, its nemesis proved Babcock correct with quick strikes.

David Krejci drew first blood with a half-clapper from the right circle and winger Chris Wagner timing a nice cross-crease screen to blur goalie Michael Hutchinson’s vision.

Johnsson tied the affair in the second period on a hard shot from the high slot that Tuukka Rask couldn’t handle cleanly and trickled through with Auston Matthews screening. The Johnsson goal, his 10th, was the fruit of one of several heavy, prolonged cycle shifts in the visitors’ end of the rink – a focal point of recent Leafs’ practices.

“They’ve gotten the better of us so far this year,” Matthews said pre-game, stressing the need to make smart decisions with possession. “When we’re at our best is when we’re not turning over pucks and giving them transition [opportunities], because that’s what we’re trying to do to the other team.

“We’ve got to keep things simple sometimes, especially against these teams with good defences. They move the puck well and it’s a lot harder for them when they have to turn their back going to get the puck.”

Mitch Marner drifted in from the right dot, shushed his inner pass-first voice on the Leafs’ first power-play of the game, and beat Rask with a half slap shot he could see but not block.

Marner’s 17th was the first goal by the new-look, Matthews-free top unit and the Leafs’ first successful man-advantage in six games.
Sean Kuraly knotted the game with a wrister two minutes later, when the Bruins’ diligent forecheck forced a turnover in the Leafs’ zone.

Leaf killer David Pastrnak restored Boston’s lead and sucked some wind out of Scotiabank Arena with just 13.7 ticks remaining in the second period when he hopped off the bench in time to reap the benefits of Kuraly’s diligent forecheck of Nikita Zaitsev and snap-pass to the slot.

Toronto pressed tenaciously in a tough, wonderful third period but simply couldn’t solve Rask once more.

The bitter divisional foes gave us a teeter-totter, humdinger of a match.

A shame the two legit Cup contenders won’t give us another spirited battle again until the post-season, where it’s a wise bet they will reacquaint themselves in Round 1 of the Atlantic bracket.

“I’m with you,” agrees Babcock, who prefers his tests difficult. “You’d like to play them every 10 games or something. All the good teams you’d like to play as much as you can.”

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Maple Leafs-Bruins humdinger provides sense of playoff inevitability