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Harder Doesn’t Mean Better for Maple Leafs in Game 1 Flop vs. Browns

Setting the tone. It’s one of the most repeated statements in hockey. During the playoffs, when intangibles become more and more important, that’s of utmost importance, right?

Certainly. But what if it’s the wrong tone?

The Toronto Maple Leafs apparently had one plan for their playoff-opening Game 1 Saturday against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden, one of the NHL’s most intimidating road environments. Leafs left winger Max Domi hacked and sliced ​​Bruins super-pest Brad Marchand before the puck even dropped to open the game. The Leafs, determined not to shrink any violets in those adrenaline-pumping opening minutes of a series, came out with flying elbows and shoulders and pounded the Bruins on the forehand.

It was a tense two minutes and 26 seconds.

That’s how long it took for the Leafs’ attempt to assert dominance to fail. Enforcer Ryan Reaves accidentally pinned teammate Joel Edmundson in the Boston zone while going for a splash, the Bruins got a 2-on-1, and boom, rookie John Beecher converted a pass from Jesper Boqvist on Boston’s first shot from the match. 1-0.

It would become the theme of a night that, for long-suffering Leafs fans, was a recurring nightmare, yet another playoff letdown in this building against a team they haven’t beaten in a series since 1959. Every time the Leafs seemingly called a number the belligerence grew and it burned them. They Leafs took five penalties to the Bruins’ three. Jake DeBrusk’s kill shots in the second period that gave Boston a 4-0 lead came on consecutive power plays, the second awarded after what coach Sheldon Keefe called an “undisciplined” hit by Domi to Marchand’s exposed wrist.

If you watched the 2023-2024 version of the Leafs as built by GM Brad Treliving, what happened in Game 1 was in some ways on-brand. This Leaf team is one of the biggest and toughest in the NHL. It finished second in the league in goals and ninth in penalty minutes per game. The idea behind bringing in tough prospects like Reaves, Edmundson, Simon Benoit and Ilya Lyubushkin and sloppy scoring players like Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi was to build a team better equipped for trench warfare in the postseason. And yes, the Leafs didn’t look overmatched physically for most of Game 1. They matched Boston 50-50 in hits. And yet, facing one of the nastiest teams in the league, a meat-and-potatoes edition of the Bruins in which David Pastrnak was the only 30-goal scorer this season, the Leafs adjusted the dial too far.

“It’s all about the mentality and keeping our composure and finding that fine line of competing and standing up for each other, but not crossing that line where we’re the ones being taken to the box,” Leafs superstar center Auston Matthews said to reporters afterwards. the match on Saturday.

They played into the hands of the less skilled team and forgot the one major advantage they should have in this series: the finesse side of their game. They are the NHL’s second-highest scoring team, but they could barely buy one in Game 1 against the Bruins and regular goaltender Jeremy Swayman, with their power play in particular struggling to generate clean looks.

“It wasn’t good, it was very slow and it was disconnected,” Keefe told reporters. “Not good enough.”

Swayman, one of the best goaltenders in the NHL for much of this season, was a star in goal in Game 1. His counterpart, the Leafs’ consistently inconsistent Ilya Samsonov, put in a microcosmic effort in which he made a few nice saves, but also struggled to track the puck quickly enough, especially on Brandon Carlo’s goal that made it 2-0.

But as Keefe suggested after the game, you can’t pin a loss on your goalkeeper if you only score once. The Leafs were clearly feeling the shocking absence of star right winger William Nylander, who hadn’t missed a game in eight years due to injury after a 98-point season but woke up Friday with an undisclosed physical ailment. Left winger Bobby McMann, a big player who scored 15 goals this season, was also missed. But it’s not like the Leafs became offensively barren for Game 1. They had 69-goal scorer Matthews, elite playmaking winger Mitch Marner, net forward John Tavares and more on hand. They didn’t lack for chance generation, beating Boston in all three periods at 5-on-5. Where the Leafs seemingly struggled was holding Boston’s zone for extended periods of time in Game 1. The Bruins’ D-corps, led by Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm, looked smooth and was able to get the puck out of trouble to skate. The Leafs’ D-corps, especially the duo of Benoit and Jake McCabe, trudged and repeatedly took too long to clear the zone.

For all their warts, the Leafs were the team against whom “no lead is safe” during the Matthews/Marner era. They famously showed that when they recovered from a 4-1 deficit last spring to win Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But in Game 1 against Boston, Toronto lacked that same danger factor. Their stronger, heavier group seemed incapable of a sustained berserker wave of attacking, save for a nice shift from the Reaves line that set up a David Kampf goal to open the third.

Toronto didn’t look afraid of the Big, Brad Bruins in Game 1. But Toronto also looked like a team concerned with proving that point. You have to score more goals to win the game. Toronto would be better at that than almost anyone.

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Most recently by Matt Larkin