We all understand how this works: most Leaf fans were just excited to finally be in the playoffs. But as I forecast a couple of weeks ago, once in, fans (fair or not) suddenly have much higher hopes and expectations—and much bigger dreams. We can say we’re just happy to be here and to see the team getting better, and that’s true. But once in the playoffs, we scrutinize every little mistake, and are doom and gloom when we lose (that was evident after Game 1), and ecstatic when, as the Leafs did Saturday night, we come away with a win.
I’m far from always being correct in this space, as I noted in another recent column. But one thing many of you know I have said consistently for weeks is this: the Bruins, for all their experience, talent and toughness, are not the team they were years ago. They are eminently beatable. I’m not saying the Leaf will be the ones to do it, but it is indeed possible.
And that possibility became more realistic after a huge road win in Game 2, coming from behind (another Bruin trait this season—not being able to hold on to leads) to upset the Beantowners in their own backyard.
Can the Leafs now rinse and repeat? Can they now “handle” the Bruins?
As most of you know, I’m not into taking predictions seriously. Too much can change in a series, and within a single game. But one game doesn’t convince me the Leafs will win the series, any more than the opening game loss told me the series was “over”. But I will throw this into the hopper for discussion today: there are things, from my perspective, that the Leafs can do to give themselves the best chance to win against the Bruins going forward in this series. And beyond the obvious, like Reimer standing on his head (actually staying calm and within himself, but "standing on his head" is an old expression that seemed appropriate after his heroics in Game 2), here are five ways the Leafs can give themselves a real shot in this series:
Make Chara work
As I alluded to after the game on Saturday night, Chara, to me, appears worn and tired. Oh, he’s still his mammoth self, and it’s not like he’s stumbling around out there. But in my mind, he is not the same dominant, almost effortless Chara of a few years ago. Not to invoke Bob McKenzie in the Toronto Star in the spring of 1993 when talking about Wayne Gretzky before Game 6 (when he said Gretzky was playing like he had a piano on his back), but I just don’t see Chara the same way I used to. The Leafs need to keep making him work. Make him move his feet. Let him know he will get hit every time he distributes the puck. Make him the hunted, not the hunter. They did a lot of that in Game 2, and they need to keep their foot on the pedal on this one.
I know Leaf fans rue the day he was dealt away, and he is a fine young goaltender. But he has shown a tendency to implode in the past when things don’t go his way. Tim Thomas was a mercurial guy, too, but he was a well-travelled veteran with a wealth of life experience who usually pulled himself together at playoff time and in really big games. Rask is not in the same boat yet. Like all goalies he can be beat, and the Leafs need to test him. Every goal will potentially break down his mental momentum, and create seeds of doubt. The whole “playing against the team that traded him” thing is a fun storyline, and has no doubt motivated Rask in the past. And yes, he has been successful against the Leafs for the most part. But that can work against him, too. He hasn’t proven he is the ‘keeper to take the Bruins to the promised land. Any additional seeds of doubt the Leafs can plant (and also spend as much time in his "kitchen"/crease as possible) would be helpful.
Don’t bother waking the guy up. He has looked ordinary. Not sure if the winger is out of shape or what, but he sure doesn’t look like the fearsome power-forward who could score, hit and fight—and at times, change the momentum in the game simply with a crunching hit. Despite still being a youngish player, he looks like someone living off his reputation rather than being an actual impact player. Maybe he'll rebound like Wendel Clark did for the Leafs against the Wings after Game 2 in the spring of '93, and maybe I’m missing something in his play. Perhaps you are seeing a hard-edged player that I’m not. But I’m looking at a guy who is a step slow and behind the play all over the ice. So Leafs, take advantage of his lethargy, but don’t bother trying to fight the guy, on the chance he would somehow inspire his teammates. Just let him wander about out there.
I may be missing something, but he sure seems like, so far at least (small sample size, I realize) the most dangerous Bruin out there. I’m not invoking his name because of the “Kessel” thing. I’m saying, he’s playing well enough to be a difference-maker, so: shut him down. Don’t let a 21 year-old beat you. Hit him and take away his linemates—and his passing lanes.
Let the Bruins obsess over Kessel. He scored Saturday night. Now, even that bubble has burst, along with a lot of other myths supposedly giving Boston an advantage over the Leafs. What do the Bruins do now? Boston's belief that Kessel can’t score against them, or can’t connect five-on-five, has been put to rest. But by all means let them game-plan to shut him down, if they somehow think that’s all they need to do to beat Toronto. It will only help them if they can also shut down Grabovski, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, Kadri and some hard-edged Leaf checking.
There is a lot more to the series than those things, of course. As I mentioned last time, the Leafs are a skating team, so they need to skate, of course. And they have to want it just a bit more than the other guy playing against them on every shift. But taking care of the above-highlighted "issues", for me, is a big part of what they need to do to give them their best chance at success.
As I keep saying, playoffs expose flaws, and the Leafs were exposed in Game 1. The Bruins were in Game 2. If this is going to be a long series then there will be ups and downs along the way. No players will play perfect, mistake-free hockey. Gardiner looked good Saturday night, for sure, but if the Bruins had taken advantage of some of his early-game lapses, and Reimer had not bailed his teammate out, we might be having a different conversation today. But that’s always the way sports. Hard work combined with luck—and inches, inches that either go in your favour, or don't.
If the Leafs had scored (and they almost did) in Game 1 to make it 2-1 just before the Bruins did, maybe Game 1 would have seen a different outcome. If the Bruins score early in Game 2 and build on their lead, maybe they walk away from the Leafs. But Reimer stood tall, the Leafs calmed down, and here we are.
Maybe. If. But.
That’s hockey. And it’s also part of the fun of an intense playoff series. Imagine the phrase—intense playoff series. It feels like we can now legitimately use that line and "Maple Leafs" in the same sentence, which is pretty nice after all this time.
I’m sure you’re noticing plenty of other key factors that go well beyond the five things I noted above, factors that will be important the rest of the way in this series. By all means share your thoughts on how the Leafs can advance beyond the first round.
Some recent VLM posts:
- Some pre-series thoughts on Seguin
- Why there was still plenty of hope after the Game 1 loss
- On Carlyle, critics, and will