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The Bruins don't look quite so unbeatable now......

I was loathe to make too many observations after Game 1 on Wednesday night—I’ve seen too many teams look awful in the first game of a playoff series, then turn around and play some pretty good hockey.  I gave a few examples in Leaf "history" where this applied in an earlier post…)

I also reiterated my long-held belief that for the visiting side, Game 2 is usually way more important than Game 1—and often a harbinger of things to come. 

Throw in a few much-discussed roster alterations, and the fact that the Bruins, as I kept noting here of late, have not been the same old Bruins since they won the Cup two years ago (and certainly not this season) and suddenly, we have a series.

Was it all about the insertion of Gardiner, Frattin and Hamilton (whose game I liked, though I acknowledge I didn’t see him as a turning point guy going into the game) into the Leaf lineup?  For me, it wasn’t.  It was much more about Remer’s superb (and very relaxed, and composed) play throughout the evening but especially in the early and late going.  That said, there is no question Gardiner and Frattin contributed.

Young Jake had a few difficult moments in his own zone that the Bruins almost took advance of, but they could not convert and Gardiner’s game—and confidence—grew, it seemed, as the game went along.  Frattin has not been the most consistent Maple Leaf in his short tenure in blue and white, but on this night, he was at times the very definition of the “mini power-forward” I have described him as quite often in this space.

It was all of those things, yes, and of course, Kessel throwing an anchor off his back in Boston with that beauty early third-period marker (and van Riemsdyk somehow skillfully putting the puck behind Rask for the clincher as he was falling all over himself).  Yet in my view, it was primarily about the Leafs returning to being the Leafs:  they played like wanted it more than they did in Game 1.  That was their approach all season long, playing with an edge—led by the likes of McClement and Komarov.  And the Leafs skated.  That’s a simple statement, but they are, after all, a skating team, and if they aren’t moving their legs and making things happen, they can struggle, especially when they don’t play with the required grit.

So this was a huge win—and an impressive road victory.  But before they ever even had the lead in this one, Grabovski had his old jump once again, fighting through several big hits.  (Did you like him going back at Lucic late in the game? That’s feisty Grabbo…)  They scored a power-play goal.  Gardiner really didn’t do anything out of the ordinary on the play, but he got the puck on net, and as we have discussed here before, if the Leaf defensemen can get the puck on net like Franson so often does, good things can happen.  And they did in this instance when Lupul shoved home a rebound to tie the game at 1 and give life to what could have soon become a dispirited Leaf bench.

Kulemin almost made it 2-1 with a nifty move and great backhand shot.  Then Lupul did make it 2-1 off a strong rush from Frattin.  By the time Kessel scored in the early seconds of the third period (a superb touch pass by Kadri), it was the Bruins this time that looked frustrated and confused.  When Boston had that two-on-one almost midway through the final period, Gunnarrson handled it well, and that was another turning point for the Leafs.

I’ll have more to say on this in my next post, but I’m sure Leaf fans are seeing the same thing I have noticed all season and was on display again Saturday night:  and that is, a Zdeno Chara who doesn’t look at all like the Chara of five years ago—or even two years ago when the Bruins won four exhausting rounds to earn the Cup.  He is still big (you don’t lose size and reach, eh) and while he has always been mobile for a tall defenseman, he’s not exactly a gazelle at this point in his career.  He still plays big-time minutes for Claude Julien, but I just don’t see Chara as the player he was, and I think the Leafs need to take advantage of that. (I’ll talk more about how they can do it next time…)

As frustrated as some fans were after Game 1, there will be predictions of a Leaf series win now.  That’s the emotion that goes with being a fan.  And I've lived that Leaf roller-coaster emotion for decades.  I like to think it keeps me young...

Could the Leafs win the series?  Of course.  I’ve said here how many times, the Bruins are a very beatable team.  They’ve played a lot of playoff hockey in recent years, and while they obviously have, on the one hand, a lot more playoff experience and savvy than the Leafs, young legs can carry you a long way—if those legs skate and every guy is hard to play against. (And does Rask really have much more playoff experience than Reimer? This Bruin team had been reliant on Tim Thomas in the spring for years…)

Does anyone remember when I wrote several weeks ago that the Leafs were becoming one of those teams no one liked to play against?  It maybe hasn’t felt that way a lot lately, I well recognize.  But Carlyle created a different mindset in the dressing room—a much tougher one.  They have skill and speed, yes, but also because of players like Fraser, McClement and Komarov and yes, if we admit it, MacLaren and Orr, they have made the Leafs tougher and not much fun to play against most nights.  Especially when, on their good nights, the same “tough” Leaf team can turn around and outskate you, make plays and goaltend as well or better than their opponent.

So the Leaf team we saw Saturday night was, yes, generally much better than the turnover-prone, sometimes confused-looking side that the Leafs have been too often for the better part of the last month.  But it was enough to even a playoff series against a difficult opponent.

Before the series, I didn’t buy going into the series that the Bruins had huge a “mental” edge on the Leafs because of recent history, for the simple reason that this is not the same Leaf team that was overwhelmed over the past few seasons when they met up with the Bruins.  I certainly did not predict a Leaf series victory, and I still don’t.

The difference between “then” and now?  The Leafs now have an emerging young goalie, a potential difference-maker in Kadri (obviously still growing as a player), and a versatile winger in Lupul who is finally healthy.  And yes, they have the aforementioned Fraser (who was much better Saturday night, but so were his teammates—as I keep saying, the Wednesday loss should not be pinned on one or two guy; it was a team effort), McClement and Komarov, et al.

And importantly, they have a coach who has been here before, and has a sense of what it takes to win at playoff time.  No coach is perfect, and Caryle is not.  But he’s not the inflexible, stubborn old guy that some want to paint him as.  While his critics will no doubt say “Carlyle finally came to his senses; they won because he played Frattin and Gardiner”, there’s so much more to it than that.  Carlyle knows exactly what he is trying to achieve with the roster he has and on this night, he not only pushed the right buttons—all the players played hard and generally well.  When they didn’t on Wednesday night, it was on them, in my view, not Carlyle.  Last night was also on the players.  They deserve the credit.  Lineup changes would not have mattered a whit if the rest of the team did not upgrade its play big time.

But I’ll also say this:  Carlyle got the attention of some guys with the lineup adjustment.  And, they got some breaks Saturday night.  They worked for them, for sure. But they’ll likely need a few more breaks as the series wears on.  Winning teams almost always do.

I don’t want to make any more of this game than I did the first.  But the Leafs (and yes, this can be risky too) can head back home feeling better about themselves.  Will that motivate them even more for Game 3, or might they take a while to get going on Monday because they feel a bit contented?  Carlyle may have a different challenge now.

On this night, they outskated the Bruins a lot of the time and also won a lot of puck battles.  And not a fight in sight, until the last moments of the game.  You don’t have to win fights to beat the Bruins.  But you do have to skate and win puck battles.

24 hours to feel good after a playoff win.  Sometimes nine years is worth the wait.

16 comments:

  1. Well... that was fun!!

    I'm just going to enjoy the win and let it linger a bit... appreciating the reward that comes with the effort and effective implementation of the system.

    Reimer was solid and composed... Yes, there were rebounds, but tonight, the support was right there to pick up loose pucks and turn them back the other way.

    We spent much less time in our own zone and Carlyle's creative line mixtures seemed to put the Bruins back on their heels for the first 2/3 of the game. Using Frattin (part-time) on the first line was effective on the fore/backcheck (being a little more engaged than Phil in that regard) but switching out and releasing Kessel from the Chara-monster a fair bit. Hamilton made a lot of nice little plays, too.

    It was like everybody had each other's back... like a major buy-in on the 'team' concept!

    Hope they feel good about trying that again (soon)...

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Michael, I look forward to hearing your perspective on the game 2/4 importance (possibly in a couple games?)!

    Seems to me the Bruins were apt to do well in Game 1, but the Leafs really 'bought in' to the series here in the 2nd. Kind of established a presence... hope they choose to do it for many more 'next games'.

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    1. You've been around a long time and you've seen over the years, InTimeFor62, that, in a good playoff series, there is often an ebb and flow. Momentum shifts game to game. A big hit here, a big save there. One moment you feel in control, then the momentum shifts back the other way.

      It's still "early", but this series now has many of the earmarks of what could be a long series- with the aforementioned ebb and flow, and some great hockey along the way.

      Looking forward, as we all are, to Games 3 and 4 at the ACC. Thanks, InTimeFor62. Leaf fans should indeed enjoy our first playoff win in 9 years.

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  2. Michael, I thought the play of Kulemin and Gunnarson in particular was huge tonight. Fighting for loose pucks every chance they got and making the hits at every turn. I still don't think Lupul is 100% since his concussion but tonight he made a big leap forward.
    Kadri had something to prove, and Frattin and Hamilton showed they want to be in this lineup.
    Although it was with some smug satisfaction I note that I paid $10 this time last year for a ticket to watch Kadri,Hamilton,Frattin and Gardiner in the playoffs for the Marlies...just a bit less than some will pay to watch them at the ACC on Monday...

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    1. And if you know anyone, Sean, who can get tickets for $10 bucks on Monday night, let me know and we'll both go! (Agreed on your comments; determination was in evidence tonight- good to see...)

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  3. As I stated after last game there was no reason to panic after one game. Yes the Leafs were badly outplayed but I still feel that was due to first playoff games for a lot of players. I said that out of adversity comes oppurtunity and tonight a number of Leafs took advantage.

    I thought Fraser was much better tonight. Played a game that was a lot less full of jitters. As bad as he was in the first game he was good tonight. That's why guys should get second chances.

    Frattin was excellent all night as was Hamilton. I think this a perfect example of why I have wanted less McClaren and Orr in the line up. When Frattin replaces one of them it forces Komarov/Hamilton onto the fourth line where they are very effective. They are much better defensively and you cam roll them out there on a much more consistent basis. This has an effect all down the line up. Not only that they are much faster and as we saw in the first game playoff speed is much quicker than regular season speed. Hamilton was very good tonight, that pass he made to Kadri who then sprung Kessel was sublime. I really like him, he brings the physical play, is great defensively and still contributes offensively. He defines "muckulence"

    Reimer was very good again this game, both goals went in off Leaf playes in front of the net. When Reimer is this good the Leafs always have a chance to win. I've been saying it all year, Reimer is the single biggest reason the Leafs win more games than they loose. Is he the only reason? No, just the biggest

    As much as Carlyle made some curious moves in the first game he made some very good adjustments. Putting Kessel and Kadri together was a good move as they showed some chemistry the last 2 games of the year and picked up right where they left off. Not benching Gardiner after as couple of early gaffs was also big. By the end of the game Gardiner was battling hard on the boards and making nice passes.

    Kessel was Kessel tonight. He played good again. The whole Chara thing becomes moot if the rest of the Leafs score like Lupul did tonight. The secondary scoring was a huge thing. They had three lines that were dangerous at different times through the game. To me this is a result of putting skilled guys in the lineup over one dimensional goons. You can get away with one but not two.

    I said after last game that the "muckulence" appeared to have gone missing. That the leafs as a whole didn't appear to be willing to do the little things and sacrifice which is required to win in the playoffs. Well they rectified that in a big way and it was nice to see. They played much harder and skated like they can tonight. Excellent bounce back game.

    Now comes the hard part because as much as the Leafs pushed back tonight, Boston is going to push back next game. This is the beauty of the playoffs, every game is a ramp up of intensity and emotion. The Leafs can't rest on tonight's good performance but are going to have to get even better next game.

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  4. Great post as always Willbur, but your last paragraph is key: As I just said to InTimeFor62, good playoff hockey is all about ebbs and flows. No check-mate, yet. Just a lot of back and forth and holding "serve", though the Bruins didn't. But if you want to win in the playoffs, generally speaking, you have to win on the road at some point, whether you have home-ice advantage or not. The Leafs did tonight. Now it's up to the Bruins to see if they can do the same.

    Bobby C.' "muckulence" word is it, and the Leafs had it tonight. On to Game 3, Willbur.

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  5. Michael, the word "rollercoaster" is so very appropriate. As another long-time Leafs fan, we've been on these rides before, though the long wait has made this rollercoaster much anticipated. I don't think anyone is surprised the Leafs came out with a better effort in Game 2, but it is truly amazing to see the two extremes. Game 1 they look terrible and uninspired. with little compete effort, and then Game 2 they came out and the entire team played extremely well. That rollercoaster is new to the park this year. I've never seem the Leafs look so dismal and then so good in back to back playoff games. Or maybe it's just been so long since they were in the playoffs that the rollercoaster seems so much bugger. ;-)

    Credit goes to the players for rebounding and coming out with a very strong effort. They played well as a team and individually everyone contributed. Carlyle and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for correcting a lot of the problems which lingered from Game 1, and for some creative line juggling that kept Julien and the Bruins guessing.

    The ACC will be pumped Monday, and the Leafs will be coming off a high from last night's win. Boston will be out to settle the score and re-establish themselves as the stronger team. The rollercoaster ride is far from over, and the Leafs need to continue the efforts from Saturday if they want to come out ahead in this series. They now know what they are capable of doing if every player works hard and play as a team. The guys have learned an important lesson now, as to what it takes to win in the playoffs.

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    1. Have to believe Monday's encounter will be quite a tilt, Don (TML_fan). You've described the extremes of the two games (not only the "outcomes" but how the Leafs played) so well.

      Will the series become a barnburner? Hard to know, but if has the looks of becoming just that. Lots of juggling, match-ups, ups and downs. It's fun to have playoff hockey to get ramped up about- good days and bad...thanks Don.

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  6. Well I have to admit that I am as surprised as anyone at how well they responded last night. It seems as if Phaneuf had even read the comments from fans about sticking up for his teammates. As if Kulemin was finally answering our pleas to play the physical game he's capable of. You sure called it on Frattin too. He can become a much better power forward in this league than a one dimensional speed rusher.
    I particularly like the fourth line as it was last night. Komarov brings such an edge to it. I really get tired of hearing about Boston's terrific fourth line, but it sure is sour grapes. So wonderful to put out our own fourth line that can do what they did, and put in a solid ten minutes. I have never understood why we want to employ a line that plays four minutes, starts a fight, and disappears completely in the third period.
    I think I had also noted earlier this year about the decline of Chara. Time is simply running out. I really hope that goal by Kessel gives him some spark, and maybe the nerve to take his game right at them, Chara included. Let the Bruins keep playing with quick line changes, we can compete either way. (As it is it nearly led to a goal for us as we streaked in on a breakaway while Chara quickly stepped off the ice in one instance)
    I am SO looking forward to seeing how the Leafs show up at home now!

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    1. We're seeing the Chara 'decline' the same way, Pete. (I'll likely have more to say on that subject in my next column). He's still an important player, obviously, but the warts are now there.

      A fourth line that plays real minutes always helps, especially at this time of year. Carlyle did what he felt he had to to get them to the playoffs this year. The organization could not afford another letdown so he played the line-up that would win enough games in a weak Conference, while still trying to develop some of the kids.

      And he gave those guys who got them to the playoffs a chance in Game 1. But he wants to win, and he made a few adjustments. I'll keep saying it- no one wants to win more than the coach, and no one knows his roster more than Carlyle. He knew what he needed to do, lineup-wise, but it's up to the players to execute and work their tails off.

      Can it continue? That's why playoffs are great. You never know from one night to the next....thanks Pete.

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  7. portuguese leafMay 5, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    As everyone knows around here, I am one of those who thinks the B's do have that “mental” edge on the Leafs, although I didn't think it went all the way up to the GM. It was evident when the camera showed Nonis' reaction when the Bruins came within a goal, and on Kessel's goal the way he and everyone else were just all smiles and hugs and high fives.

    That being said, the way to remedy that is to play like they can and know, just like they did last night. It is said the Leafs can't out hit or play tougher than Boston, but I think they can. They don't have to beat them up, they just need to get in there and keep on wearing them down. It stays in their minds. As we heard in the game, there were a lot of B's yelling out "head's up!".

    I think Gardiner had as good a game as he's had all year for the Leafs (finally). His skills were very much noticed on both sides. After some early jitters he seemed to settle down.

    Grabovski has been one of the best Leafs in both games. He's geting to his old "crazy" self and that can help us alot.

    The Leafs can do this, I don't think they've found "the other gear" yet though. This win was just playing like they were for most of the season. If they want to get by Boston, they'll have to find it.

    I'm going way off topic now, but I'll be quick.
    To the Chelsea fan I've chatted with here before (sorry for not remembering who), I hope Chelsea and my Benfica have a great Europa League final. I hope to be celebrating on the 15th.

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  8. I'm with you, portuguese leaf. Being tougher is not about winning fights. It's all the other things- about wanting the puck more than the other guy and taking a big hit to make a play. That's toughness. And that's often what wins games at this time of year.

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  9. After the first game, I said that if we continued to play that way, it would be a short series. But when we ply like we did last night, who knows? The "will to win", so seemingly lacking on Wednesday, was so much in evidence. Orr's hit on Chara was an important signifier, I thought, of just how different this team is from previous years. Grabovski was his old self from three years ago, and his hit on Lucic was another of those signifiers that we're a different team. Although I'm still leery of Gardiner's egregious giveaways, it was noticeable that the Bruins respected his skating skill and gave him room when he started moving the puck out of our zone. And how about a little love for Hamilton's committed game - and his beautiful pass to Kadri to set up Kessel's monkey-off-the-back goal, and Frattin's feistiness, speed and determination. Reimer made some brilliant saves, too - he does indeed appear to be the "real deal". Does anyone else agree that that was one of our best games of the season, right through the roster?
    The bane of our recent teams has been lack of consistency and lack of compete. I can't wait to see how we handle the euphoria of yesterday's victory in the next game.

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    1. Totally with you on Hamilton, Gerund O'. He had taken on Chara in an earlier game with a big hit against the Bruins, and brought that same willingness to play hard-nosed hockey- something he does with the Marlies (and has for years now) on a regular basis.

      But yes, it was not just the "new" additions- it was everyone on the roster playing harder and smarter. For me, that that was difference.

      As you allude to, Gerund, how they handle their "success" from here will likely determine their ability to advance.

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  10. Gunnarson stopped that 2 on 1 in the third... THAT was huge!

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    1. Agreed, Alex. I talk about that play in my post today....you're on the money. It came at a crucial moment in the game.

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