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How can Maple Leafs turn things around vs. Bruins?

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On paper, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins were supposed to produce a first-round series fit for a conference final.

On the ice, it’s been a staggeringly one-sided first two games; the Bruins possess a 2-0 series lead after beating Toronto by scores of 5-1 and 7-3. During the season, Mike Babcock said that the Bruins were making so many plays that he had to just turn off his TV (or close his laptop?). Maybe Babs was merely shaken by unsettling puck premonitions?

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Things seem pretty dire right now for the Maple Leafs as the series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 tonight, as suspensions, injuries, and struggles seem to thrust Tomas Plekanec in a role just about anyone not named Tomas Plekanec was expecting him to land.

To be more specific, it looks like Plekanec will center a second line with Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner as his wingers.

“You come in and you’re not quite as important on your next team, it’s harder to be impressive. He’ll get his opportunity tonight,” Babcock said of Plekanec, via TSN’s Mark Masters. “We’ve talked about this, to be prepared. I know he’s done the work. We expect him to be good.”

Now that we know about a change necessitated by injuries, let’s ponder what could or should change.

Drop the stubbornness

During an April 5 appearance on The Hockey PDOcast, Justin Bourne discussed Babcock’s worldview. Bourne (a former employee of the Maple Leafs organization who analyzed video for the Toronto Marlies) believes that, while Babcock is willing to embrace change, the well-compensated coach sometimes needs to feel like it’s his idea. Babcock needs to see it to believe it himself, essentially.

Frankly, such a mindset might have been to the Leafs’ detriment at times in 2017-18.

You see, Toronto’s place as the third seed in the Atlantic Division seemed firm for quite some time. With that in mind, the Maple Leafs had months to experiment with different lineup combinations, and they had incentive to do a lot of mixing and matching with Auston Matthews in the mix and when he was injured.

By being a bit rigid at times, Babcock & Co. have less data to work with when it comes to mixing and matching lines beyond just “throwing them in the blender.” (Just scan Matthews’ time on ice numbers at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see that he was essentially attached to William Nylander and Zach Hyman.)

Sometimes in hockey, you just have to wait out hot and cold streaks. Other times, you need to know when to change course.

Babcock needs to be proactive if he sees an issue that can be mended by maneuvering. To some degree, you just have to cross your fingers and hope the coin flip goes your way. Still, it’s also important to cut your losses when appropriate. More than anything else, the Maple Leafs need a malleable coach right now.

Things that should sort themselves out

Even if you give the Bruins a special teams edge in this series (as PHT did), few expected the results to be this stark. So far through two games, the Bruins scored five power-play goals on 10 chances while the Maple Leafs only converted once on seven opportunities.

There’s evidence to suggest that the Maple Leafs may struggle on the PK in this series, yet their power play has been getting its chances. Their PP converted on 25-percent of their chances during the regular season, a second-best success rate that stood as the Penguins only real rival in efficiency. Home ice might help them draw a stray extra chance or two, while the odds are in their favor to at least balance most of the special teams difference out.

The Maple Leafs should also get better work from their top guns.

Through the first two games, Auston Matthews hasn’t scored a goal or an assist. That doesn’t mean he’s shown no signs of improvement, though. After firing three shots on goal in Game 1, Matthews was prevalent in Game 2, unleashing nine SOG. Matthews generated 34 goals and 63 points in just 62 regular-season contests. Expect more from the American star, although sometimes a cold streak can submarine even a great player for a series.

Be ready to bench Freddy

Circling back to stubbornness, it’s totally fair for the Maple Leafs to be loyal to Frederik Andersen … up to a point.

So far, Andersen’s been abysmal, allowing eight goals in 73 minutes of time for an atrocious .822 save percentage. There’s no doubt that the Maple Leafs have done him few favors, though.

At this point, Babcock has to at least keep Andersen on a short leash. A couple of soft goals could really sink a Toronto team that seems fragile right now.

Load up?

Between additions such as Rick Nash and the ascent of quite a few quality young players, the Bruins sport some nice line combinations.

Still, if you were to name their three best scorers, you’d likely not even flinch in naming Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak in some order.

Babcock has been hesitant to load up with Matthews and Marner on the same line – as just one example – yet he might be wise to at least tinker with such a plan during the postseason. That’s especially true in Toronto, where he can take advantage of the last change to get them on the ice when Marchand and Bergeron are not.

If he remains skittish, Babcock could at least go all-out if Boston’s lower lines get stuck in their own zone after icing the puck.

***

At minimum, the Maple Leafs should be brainstorming different ideas. Maybe there are more granular considerations about handedness, such as what Tyler Dellow discusses in this article at The Athletic (sub required). On the other hand, maybe bolder moves are required, from loading up on offensive combos or making a change in net.

The Maple Leafs should look to the Wild’s turnaround in Game 3 to see that a change in venue can inject new life into a series.

Still, it might take more than home cooking and some lucky bounces to turn this series around. Then again, they pay their coach big bucks for more than just that scowl, right?

Game 3 airs on NBCSN beginning at 7 p.m. ET tonight. Here’s the livestream link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blue Jackets’ Matt Calvert scores unusual breakaway goal

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We’ve all see some breakaways go horribly, horribly wrong in the past.

Patrik Stefan reigns supreme here. Devin Setoguchi didn’t fare too well on this one. And then there was this gaffe by Dennis Wideman once upon a time.

But sometimes one screws up, only to rebound quickly and turn a near-blunder into a nice-ish goal.

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert did that today, in what’s already being called the best/worst breakaway attempt of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As you can see in the video above, Calvert gets a nice clean breakaway. As he attempts to first a wrist shot, he whiffs on the attempt but manages to corral the puck back, doing the whole spin-o-rama thing, and deposit the puck past Braden Holtby for his second goal of the game.

Sometimes it just all works out.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Lightning, Bruins try to move on to Round 2

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Game 5: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (Lightning lead series 3-1)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Gord Miller, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Ray Ferraro
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET (Bruins lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream

*Regionalized coverage – Florida markets and WNBC in New York metro area will air NJ-TB on NBC and CBJ-WSH on NBCSN; all other markets will receive CBJ-WSH on NBC and NJ-TB on NBCSN

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]