TORONTO – If the playoffs had ended last weekend, it would have been possible that the Conn Smythe Trophy voting would for the first time end up in a three-way tie, such had been the dominance of the Boston Bruins’ line of Brad Marchard, Patrice Pergeron and David Pastrnak in consecutive victories over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Boston.
A combined 20 points in two thumpings of Toronto: Those who selected them are leading your playoff pool and probably spent all day Monday reminding you of it.
However, the Leafs’ 4-2 victory over Boston Monday night in Game 3 at the ACC opened up the race for the Conn Smythe. More than that, it demonstrated the efficacy of the Leafs’ strategy to combat a line that, all things considered, was arguably the league’s best this season.
Boil it down to this: If you can play the Bruins’ top line even, you have half a chance – and, if you do better than that, it’s gravy.
Now you can’t be blamed if you didn’t see it coming – the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak troika looked like a juggernaut in those first two games. And it looked more unlikely when Leafs coach Mike Babcock announced his starting lineup. Of course, the Bruins were going to send their first line out there – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and, if it’s wrecking them, double down on the status quo.
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The Leafs’ antidote was an unlikely one up front, namely the line of Patrick Marleau, Tomas Plekanec and Mitch Marner. Among them Plekanec was the most unlikely, given that he really hasn’t shown much at all since coming over to the Leafs from the Montreal Canadiens in February.
On the back end, a more predictable desire matchup for Babcock: the pairing of Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey. (That was process of elimination, mind you, given the painful-to-watch struggles of Nikita Zaitsev in Boston.)
You can’t be blamed for thinking that Babcock had sent Plekanec on a futile mission of marking Bergeron, a player in the same breath as, say, Anze Kopitar as a two-way centreman. Maybe if it were five years ago or so, somewhere near his prime in Montreal, you’d give Plekanec a good chance of it working out. At 35, though, and off his recent form, you’d think that after getting scorched a few times he’d be pulling his turtleneck over his head.
This did not come to pass and it was sort of fascinating to watch it unfold. The die was cast early.
In their first two shifts in the first period, Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak either didn’t possess the puck or couldn’t get it out of their own zone or both. Just on that you thought there was a good chance of the Leafs holding them below their series average of a cumulative ten points this game.
By the first intermission, the Leafs led 1-0 lead on a James van Riemsdyk power-play goal and the results of their strategy to thwart the visitors’ first unit were even plainer to see. Together Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak logged nine shifts, basically in a matchup against the same Leafs forwards and blue-liners and in total the Bruins’ first line managed one shot.
Not that through 20, you’d say, the Leafs’ designated escorts for the Boston first-string were winning the battle. For every shift that Plekanec and company won, they lost the next. Key, though, was the fact that even on a shift when Bergeron and friends had an advantage in possession and zone time, nothing game-shaking came to pass. It was fair to describe it as a wash for Toronto and that amounted for a big advantage for the home team.
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In the second period, however, things came apart for the Bruins’ first line.
On the first shift after Adam McQuaid had tied the game and it looked like Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were going to take advantage of a home team sagging, cycling the puck around Andersen, looking to take the lead and maybe a stranglehold on the series. At that point, though, they were caught pressing too deep and a 100-foot pass from Rielly to Marner produced a two-on-one with Marleau who knocked a slick setup from Marner home.
The real back-breaker though came with five minutes left in the middle frame with the game tied at 2-all. The Bruins’ first line got caught out on a long shift and, while the Leafs were on the cycle in the Boston end, fresh legs came over the boards in the form of Matthews. Bergeron knew where he had to go to mark Matthews but couldn’t get there – not even to wave at him.
“There were a lot of things we could have done [on the Matthews goal],” Marchand said. “We could have won a few more puck battles. [Matthews] made a nice play. He’s a good player.”
Bergeron wasn’t ready to put it down to fatigue even though he was flagging on the goal.
“We’ll look at it again,” Bergeron said. “There’s always something you can do better.”
After Marleau scored his second of the game, with less than four minutes left in regulation, the numbers were ugly. Marchand was on the ice for all three of the Leafs’ even-strength goals and Bergeron and Pastrnak for two. Compounding this was the fact that Marchand and Bergeron were out on the penalty kill when van Riemsdyk opened the scoring.
The Conn Smythe is a race again.
Bruce Cassidy didn’t want to throw his first line under the bus in the final evaluation.
“I thought our top line was fine but just didn’t finish,” he said. “Pastrnak got robbed three or four times. They had a tougher matchup tonight, and we gave up goals in transition.”
Said Bergeron: “They were tight on us but we had looks. We had chances.”
You’d be tempted to say that any matchup would be tougher than anything they saw in Games 1 and 2. If it’s as tough or any tougher in the coming games – and Nazem Kadri will be back from suspension for Game 5 which is all of a sudden necessary – the Leafs are back after looking done and dusted after 120 awful minutes in Boston.