Maple Leafs serve up an uninspiring dud in Game 1 loss to Bruins

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It doesn’t matter that the Maple Leafs didn’t have William Nylander in the first game of the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs.

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Where were Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner at TD Garden in Boston against the Bruins? Where was the solid goaltending that Ilya Samsonov provided in the second half of the regular season?

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The best-of-seven series couldn’t have started much worse for the Leafs on Saturday night, as they lost 5-1 in Game 1.

When Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman made a quick save on Nick Robertson 90 seconds into the opening faceoff, it became clear the Boston starter was going to be in trouble.

Not so for Samsonov, who on the other hand was stuck in a rut. Moments later, Swayman scored on Robertson, John Beecher scored on the Bruins’ first shot on goal, in a 2-on-1 with Jesper Boqvist.

Yes, Joel Edmundson pinch-hit and Ryan Reaves didn’t recover from the play, but right away there’s a big save on the Bruins side and it’s not followed by one on the Leafs side.

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And right away the Leafs are down 1-0.

This is not how trust is built.

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“There are little things in the game that make a difference and give them an edge,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe told the Boston media. “They get a huge save early in the game at 0-0, and shortly afterwards we make a mistake and give up a 2-on-1. We didn’t get those kinds of chances the whole game.”

That was the only Bruins goal in the first period. They also struck three times behind Samsonov.

Instead of striking iron in the second period, the Bruins struck gold, scoring three goals to take a 4-0 lead into the second intermission.

The Leafs had a 4-on-3 power play for the first minute and 50 seconds of the middle period and were unable to score.

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Brandon Carlo scored off a screen at 5:47 – on the first shot of the period for the Bruins.

Then Jake DeBrusk went to work, scoring on a power play at 15:02 with Matthews in the box and again on a power play at 17:34, with Max Domi serving a minor before cutting Brad Marchand.

Oddly enough, the Leafs were somehow unable to recover from their dismal penalty shootout between the regular-season finale at Tampa Bay on Wednesday and the postseason opener on Saturday.

The Leafs, who also lacked Bobby McMann (lower body), gave the Bruins a total of five power plays. That’s just stupid.

All the while, Swayman calmly ignored the rare top-line opportunities the Leafs had. Saves on Reaves and Tyler Bertuzzi before DeBrusk’s pair were crucial.

The Leafs scored at 1:39 of the third when David Kampf ended Swayman’s shutout bid. Trent Frederic scored an empty net goal for the Bruins.

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Matthews had five shots on target and hit the post. Marner had two shots on target. Neither was clearly a difference maker, an aspect that will have to change as the series progresses, and for the Leafs’ sake, this has to happen as soon as Game 2 on Monday in Boston.

“They are a patient team and they execute based on the mistakes we made,” Matthews said. “We get a taste of what the series is about. We have to take our game to the next level and get better.”

Whichever team was picked to win this series, no one expected it to be anything other than a long set, likely lasting at least six or seven games. That should still be the expectation, but if the Leafs want to break even in Beantown, they’ll have to find another level that eluded them in Game 1.

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That means more determination and unpredictability in the offensive zone and makes it harder for Swayman – or Linus Ullmark – to do his job.

It means being organized on the power play after the Leafs failed to score on three-man advantages.

It means better goaltending from Samsonov, who was nothing more than average in allowing four goals on 23 shots. While Keefe could turn to Joseph Woll – and hope that Woll is a lot better than he has been in recent weeks – Keefe gave no indication that he would, and let Samsonov walk free.

“I’m not doing this to him,” Keefe said. “We only get one, so that’s not good enough to help a goalkeeper win.

“I would categorize each of their causes as charities from his perspective.”

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Samsonov, who has not been good in his last two starts of the regular season, said: “We have to believe in each other and stick together. Keep working. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad goalkeeper after three games. We see what was going on over the last three months. I believe in myself, I believe in my skills.”

It’s okay to say that the Leafs are a different team, one that is more physical than ever during the Kyle Dubas era. It’s fine that the Leafs indicated before the series that they were ready for the challenge the Bruins would bring.

The Leafs’ physicality didn’t matter in Game 1. And no, they weren’t fully prepared, top to bottom, for a Bruins team that is controlled and not fazed by anything.

At least it’s still early.

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Nylander didn’t miss a game over the past two seasons and was the only Leaf to play in all 82 games of the 2023-24 regular season.

The injury, which the Leafs did not disclose, is a rarity for Nylander. He has missed games since his rookie season in 2016-17, but those absences were due to a contract dispute in 2018 and illness or health protocols in recent seasons.

Injury had not kept Nylander out of the lineup since Nov. 26, 2016, when he missed a home game against Washington due to an upper-body injury.

“He’s a really good player, he makes a big difference on our team,” Keefe said. “We played without boys at several times and we dealt with that well. We didn’t handle it very well tonight.

“He’s a guy we’ve never played without and we’ve definitely missed him. He has nothing to do with us taking too many penalties or giving up a 2-on-1 match.

“Some of our best games (last season) were when the best people were out. It’s hard to go into the playoffs without him, but that doesn’t apply to the storyline here tonight. There are other things we needed to do much better.”

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