Leafs Playoff Notebook: Special Teams Swing Game 1

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toronto maple leafs lose game 1 to boston
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Game 1 will be remembered for the Nazem Kadri hit, and the score will show that it was a blowout, but the real story was special teams.

Toronto went 0/3 on the power play, while Boston went 3/6. The Bruins scored on their first two power plays of the game, each time taking a one-goal lead.

After the first one, Toronto had a power play and didn’t score before managing to tie it at even strength. In the second period, the Leafs had two opportunities to take the lead. They failed to do so, and Boston went to another power play and scored to go up 2-1.

They never looked back, and that was Game 1 in the books.

Going into the series, I made a few notes on the Leafs‘ special teams and discussed how good the Leafs are at breaking up entries in the neutral zone. Boston adjusted well to this in Game 1, running a pick play in the middle of the ice there to create space. Everyone focused on the offside, but look at the build up here. Hyman has no chance of disrupting:

Toronto Maple Leafs penalty kill vs. Boston Bruins

The Leafs will also have to consider shifting up higher towards the blue line in their own zone while penalty killing. Boston was easily able to shrink the zone and creep in, and it’s only a matter of time until they cash in on that. In Game 1, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak teamed up for a nice shot-deflection play as the Leafs sat back.

Conversely, the Bruins were ready for the Leafs two power play looks and did a good job of playing each one differently. Against the Auston Matthews unit, they pressured the half-wall heavily whenever William Nylander or Matthews had possession. Against the Mitch Marner unit, they basically dared him to shoot and Marner hesitated, looking for deflection and rebound plays. The Leafs are obviously going to have to adjust. Marner has to shoot in order to keep them honest. They also might have to use JVR as a pure screen presence and have Marner shoot on an impeded Tuuka Rask.

The Matthews unit, meanwhile, will have to start looking down low more and for quicker high-screen deflection plays. Matthews was looking to shoot and Adam McQuaid blocked him multiple times. Boston was ready for it and the Leafs were forcing it through instead of adjusting.

That’s not to say the Leafs’ power plays were bad, though. Patrick Marleau and Leo Komarov missed jamming it in the first power play, while Tyler Bozak had a tough play with a slightly open net in the second, with him and JVR were right there for a good chance. Marner slid a few shots through to the net that created chaos.

But, at the end of the day, one team capitalized and the other didn’t. At even strength, the score was 2-1. In the special teams game, it was 3-0.

Playoffs are all about matchups and adjustments. Boston, at home, made the initial adjustments and struck first with a big win. Now we’ll see how the Leafs respond.


Notes

– This was a bad night for the Leafs’ bench on multiple fronts. They failed to challenge the first goal, which was definitely offside. At the end of the second period, the Bruins top line was fresh on the ice, caused an offensive zone faceoff, and the Leafs put out their fourth line for the impending faceoff, leading to the David Pastrnak goal. In the third period with the game still in reach at 3-1, the Leafs took a too-many-men penalty. That’s not all specifically on Mike Babcock (the video team has to be on that goal, and the players are actually solely to blame for the penalty), but it’s hard to win when you shoot yourself in the foot repeatedly.

– It was a really tough game for Tomas Plekanec, who failed to cover and communicate coverage on Pastrnak leading to the 3-1 goal. I wrote about him a few times down the stretch and how unproductive he’s been – he’s now at two points in 18 games since being acquired. He played 10:07 tonight, was 40% in the faceoff circle, and did not record a shot on net.

– We’ll talk about the game-ejecting hit below, but before then, it’s worth noting that Nazem Kadri turned the game around a bit for the Leafs with his physical play early on. The Bruins came out like a team possessed and Kadri went out and started getting physical, turning the game around a bit and taking the crowd out of it with a nice hit on Torey Krug before getting into it with Marchand. He went overboard, obviously, but it’s always easier to tone a player down than to pump him up. And there were a lot of Leafs that need to look in the mirror and check their pulses after their performances last night.

– An undetected poor sequence of events led to Boston’s second goal to take the lead – the Leafs were in the offensive zone and Nikita Zaitsev had the puck on the point. Jake Gardiner was wide open along the line, but he tried to force a shot through that Rask covered up for a whistle. The defense pairing stayed on, and Zaitsev iced it under limited pressure on the shift that followed. The Leafs took a penalty after that icing and the Bruins then scored on the power play to take the lead. That was the game-winning goal. Zaitsev led all Leafs players in ice time for the game.

– It is no secret the Leafs are a skilled team that is not particularly physical, but there is a difference between not being physical and not engaging in body contact whatsoever. The Leafs are fond of stick lifts, particularly on the forecheck, but this is the playoffs. Boston dominated along the walls because they protect the puck with their bodies. Matthews did not have one high-end scoring opportunity last night and was only remotely dangerous on the power play when he had time and space. Boston is not necessarily big or tough, but they cycle well, which is why they were one of the best possession teams in the league this season. The Leafs lost the body position battle along the walls all night and it led to quite a few skilled players being pretty nonexistent in Game One.

– That’s why a player like Zach Hyman sticks out like a sore thumb – he’s not crushing people with hits, but he’s physically engaging in battles. His nicest goal of the regular season was against the New York Rangers coming down his strong side. And now his best goal of the year came last night – also while coming down his strong side. That was a heck of an effort that will get lost in an otherwise poor game for the Leafs.

– And after all that, the units that played the most against the Leafs’ top line? The Zdeno Chara pairing and the Bergeron line. Chara got over nine minutes against Matthews and Chara’s corsi in that matchup was 75%; Bergeron played against him for just under six minutes and was at 72.2%. The Leafs can talk all they want about playing through the matchup, but Matthews has to either play better or they have to bank on getting Kadri back against them at home with last change.

– After losing the Stanley Cup to Boston and reflecting, the Canucks felt they engaged too much after the whistle. It was nice to see the Leafs get involved and show some fire, and while this is a much different Boston team, their group and crowd fed off it. The Leafs need to be really careful here all series. They are the more skilled team overall, but you’d never know it from watching Game 1.


Quotes

“Initially, I felt like he made contact with Mitchy’s head and I didn’t see a call there. He was turned up the wall so I was committed to the hit and he ended up falling. It happened quick and he was reaching for the puck. I don’t think I stuck my leg or arm out.”

– Nazem Kadri on his hit that result in a five-minute major and game ejection

At the end of the day, he charged and throttled himself at Wingels, who — in fairness — was a bit more vulnerable than he would normally be because he fell. With the five-minute major and ejection, he shouldn’t get anything more than a one-game suspension, but he should get a game.

“I think we’re a pretty good team that has won lots of games. To me, when you get beat, you just get regrouped. We’ve got a day to solve our problems. We can feel sorry for ourselves if we want here tonight, but that’s a waste of energy. Let’s just get back to the hotel and get a meal, get regrouped, have a good practice tomorrow, and come back at it.”

– Mike Babcock summing up the game

Not much more to say than this. It will be a long series; I still have no doubt about that.

“I thought he wanted to cuddle, so I was just trying to get close to him.”

– Brad Marchand on nuzzling up to Leo Komarov

You say whatever you want, but Marchand is completely having his way. The Leafs have to come up with some sort of answer here.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  If Nazem Kadri is suspended, I think it makes the most sense to move Marleau to center, as he’s shown throughout the season he can play responsibly and still be offensive in that role. I think we’ll see Leo Komarov move up to that line and the first line will stay intact. But I’d have a quick trigger on this and not be afraid to shift Nylander to center and Marner up with Matthews if everyone is going to play like they did in Game 1. They’ll have to shake it up in that case.

2.  I think I’d actually make a little swap on the bottom two lines with Connor Brown and Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen’s speed made an impact and is a threat, while Brown did not record a shot on net (Kapanen only had one, in fairness). I just think that line needs a spark to be effective offensively.

3.  I think I’d put  Dominic Moore in over Tomas Plekanec. It won’t happen, but I’ll say it. I’m pretty sure Moore can’t do much worse than playing 10 minutes, causing a goal against, winning fewer than half of his faceoffs, and not getting a shot on net. The Leafs are trying to be patient here, but at some point, there has to be a payoff. Moore was not unproductive in his fourth line role and is maybe just more suited to playing that little and still being effective; he’s used to being a 4C.

4.  I think Andreas Johnsson would not only be a good addition to the fourth line but also would be a nice player to bump on the power play in place of Leo Komarov, adding a more offensive threat in the middle of the ice on the Matthews unit. It could be a nice adjustment/new wrinkle.

5.  I think we can talk about matchups and special teams strategy and all these different X’s and O’s until we are blue in the face, but the team as a whole did not play well and they are not going to win this series with efforts like that. There were simply a lot of passengers on the night, which is disappointing considering this is their second year in the playoffs. I expect a response effort in Game Two.


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