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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.

Pastrnak gets hat trick, six points in Bruins battering of Maple Leafs

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Uh oh.

Through two games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, no one looks more like a tire fire than the Toronto Maple Leafs. After getting blown out 5-1 on Thursday, you’d at the very least expect some sort of fight back from the Leafs.

But nope.

Instead, the Boston Bruins kept the train rolling, scoring four times on seven shots in the first period, including three goals on five shots against Frederik Andersen — who got the yank after 12:13 — en route to a 7-3 demolition on Saturday night in Boston.

The Bruins hold a 2-0 series lead as they move to Air Canada Centre for Games 3 and 4.

Andersen, who has allowed eight goals on 45 shots in the series thus far, didn’t get a chance to break a sweat. Curtis McElhinney, who came in to replace the Leafs’ No. 1 didn’t fare much better.

And the Maple Leafs can blame David Pastrnak for their troubles.

Pastrnak scored a hat trick and had six points to bring his two-game point total to nine.

Yes, nine. 9. Neuf. IX.

Pastrnak’s line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are responsible for 20 points in two games. Twenty.

  • Pastrnak – four goals, five assists
  • Marchand – one goal, five assists
  • Bergeron – five assists

That is utter dominance. An unstoppable force with no immovable object in sight.

The Maple Leafs need to get their belongings together. Partly, because they’re heading back to Toronto after this game for Game 3 and 4. But also partly because if this is all they can muster in the series, they might as well start packing for the offseason, because it’s coming very, very soon.

They’re down 2-0 in the series and there’s nothing to suggest they have any hope of winning one game, never mind four at this point.

Hell, the Maple Leafs may not even get a lead in this series.

Boston looks unstoppable so far.


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

Brad Marchand was the center of attention as Bruins rout Leafs

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For a large portion of the 2017-18 season there was an MVP push coming out of the city of Boston for one of their top forwards, and it was very justified.

It was just being directed at the wrong player.

While Patrice Bergeron is looked at as the centerpiece of the Bruins — not only their dominant top line, but the team itself — and a player that should have received some MVP love this season, the best and most valuable player on the team is Brad Marchand. He just is. For as great as Bergeron has been for as long as he has been, Marchand has become the guy in Boston.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

He is one of the best offensive players in the league. He is as dominant a two-way player as there is in the NHL. He is usually doing something that is either going to impress you or infuriate you.

All of that was on display on Thursday night in the Bruins’ 5-1 blowout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs where he did pretty much everything that makes Marchand the player that he is.

He opened the scoring in the first period by blowing past Roman Polak to score a power play goal (replays show he was probably offside by about an inch, but the Maple Leafs elected not to challenge).

Later in the game he set up with David Pastrnak to extend the lead. It’s not just the pass or the ability to find the open man, check out what he does to the Toronto defender to completely fake him out to get himself in a position to make the play.

When he was not scoring goals or setting them up, he was working to keep the Maple Leafs pinned in their own zone. When he was on the ice during 5-on-5 play the total shot attempts were 22-5 in favor of the Bruins, and the goals were 1-0.

That is the sort of stuff that has made Marchand one of the game’s elite offensive players. Since the start of the 2015-16 season his 110 goals are the third most in the NHL. His 231 points are the eighth most. He has done that despite missing more than 20 games during that stretch. His 1.03 points per game are sixth most.

But when you’re talking about Brad Marchand you’re not just talking about a dominant offensive player.

You’re also talking about the pest. The player that toes the line and often times finds himself in hot water for the way he plays and the things he does.

That, too, was on display on Thursday night when he did this to Leo Komarov.

That is … well … that is not something you should not be doing, and shockingly is it is not even the first time Marchand has done something like that to Komarov, having already given him a kiss on the cheek during a game back in November.

With the exception of some sort of a controversial hit that might warrant a fine or a suspension, we pretty much received the entire Brad Marchand experience on Thursday night. Dynamic offense. Dominant two-way play. A little bit of weirdness as he tried to get under the skin of an opponent.

If the Maple Leafs do not find an answer for him — and his entire line — this could be a very short series.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins’ Donato, Predators’ Tolvanen begin playoffs as scratches

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Hype won’t always protect you from being a healthy scratch.

When it comes to some prominent late-season additions to potential Stanley Cup contenders, a spot in the lineup isn’t guaranteed. That’s something Ryan Donato is experiencing with the Boston Bruins, and the same can be said of prized Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen. While NHL coaches are prone to throwing fastballs, it sure looks like those two young scorers will sit out Game 1 for their respective teams.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Donato the bigger surprise?

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy confirmed that Donato won’t be in the lineup, with Brian Gionta and Nick Holden also being out.

Donato probably has more reason to be irritated by the snub than Tolvanen. For one thing, Donato’s a little older at 22 (Tolvanen is just 18, he’s turning 19 on April 22). Donato’s already shown serious potential by scoring nine points in 12 games despite sometimes-limited ice time.

Also, Riley Nash is unable to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, so one might argue that the Bruins could find a spot for Donato. Take a look at the B’s projected bottom two lines, via Haggerty:

Danton Heinen / Noel Acciari / David Backes
Tim Schaller / Sean Kuraly / Tommy Wingels

Overall, the Bruins deserve a lot of credit for diving in feet-first with young players. They didn’t hesitate to put Charlie McAvoy in a prominent role right off the bat during last season’s playoffs, and guys like Heinen have been given opportunities to prove themselves.

Maybe this is a bit of a correction in that area, especially since the Bruins will face a team that can really exploit mistakes in the high-powered Maple Leafs. (Of course, the natural counterpoint is that you’d want more firepower on the ice to out-gun Toronto, in which case Donato would make a ton of sense).

For what it’s worth, Donato seemed to take a healthy attitude toward a healthy scratch, according to what he told Rich Thompson of the Boston Herald.

“I’m just going to keep working hard, and whenever they need me and my number is called, I’ll be ready to go,” Donato said. “I don’t really take it as an insult. I’ll just take it that the team has been good all year.”

Tolvanen a work in progress

While Donato’s been scoring at an impressive rate, things haven’t “clicked” yet for Tolvanen in the NHL.

The young Finn failed to score a goal or an assist through three regular-season games before getting scratched during the final two contests. Tolvanen’s only logged 36:20 of ice time so far at this level, generating his three shots on goal in his third game. In his first two contests, he didn’t even get a puck on net. To little surprise, his possession stats have been putrid over that tiny sample.

Tolvanen has only been with the Predators since late March, and this Nashville team was loaded without him. Consider that Scott Hartnell and a Calle Jarnkrok joined Tolvanen as potential scratches for Game 1 (though it’s worth noting that it seems like Jarnkrok is a little banged-up). Do note that, while Donato’s confirmed to be out, there’s an outside chance Tolvanen does play. It just seems improbable.

[Morning Skate: how will Predators deal with Nathan MacKinnon?]

In an ideal world, Tolvanen would have been able to gain more traction before the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, but considering the fact that they lost Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala during last year’s run, Nashville can attest that injuries could open the door for the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” Peter Laviolette said, according to the Tennessean’s Adam Vignan. “If anything, last year proves that more than ever. … We’re probably going to need everybody.”

***

These aren’t the easiest calls regarding Donato and Tolvanen. These aren’t just rookies vying for time; these are players who haven’t been with the Bruins and Predators for very long.

Still, the fears of them making mistakes against attacking opponents like the Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche could be countered by the perks of getting more talent on the ice. Ultimately, their coaches will probably end up deploying them, especially if each squad enjoys deep playoff runs.

Thursday’s schedule

Lightning vs. Devils, 7 p.m. ET – NHL Network
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET – USA
Predators vs. Avalanche, 9:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Ducks vs. Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET – USA

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.

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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A year ago the Toronto Maple Leafs took a big step in their rebuild by returning to the playoffs for just the second time in the salary cap era (and the first time in a full 82-game season in the salary cap era) and held their own against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals. It did not result in a series win, but it was a good stepping stone year and an important box to check off in the organization’s return to relevance as a contending team.

They came back this season and improved their record by 10 points, set a franchise record with wins, and qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons.

Now it is time to try and take the next step and check off the next box: Do something with that playoff appearance.

The Maple Leafs haven’t played in the NHL’s second round since the 2003-04 season (and while we’re on the subject, a Mike Babcock coached team has played in the second-round just once in the past seven years — and that was six years ago) so there has to be some pressure to be more than just a team that is good enough to get into the playoffs.

They have the high-end talent at the top of their roster, the scoring depth to complement them, and the goaltending to do just that.

Standing in their way this time: The Boston Bruins, a team that has been demolishing the rest of the NHL for most of the past five months and a familiar playoff foe for the Maple Leafs. You will no doubt remember that 2012-13 series that saw Toronto completely implode in Game 7 when the game seemed to be completely in their control — only five players remain from that Toronto team, but it is a great chance for redemption from a fans perspective.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This Bruins team can score, it can defend, it has a great power play and a penalty kill that can shut yours down. It has Stanley Cup winning experience and it has talented, fast, skillful youth. It is a team that really does not have a glaring weakness.

Given that both teams finished the regular season among the top-eight in the entire NHL, played a pretty tight season series, and are fairly evenly matched on paper it has the potential to be a heck of a series.

Let us see how the two teams stack up.

Schedule

Forwards

Boston: Brad Marchand has become one of the best all-around forwards in the NHL and is a big part of what has been one of the league’s best lines this season alongside Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. When that trio was on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins controlled an almost unbelievable 59 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 28-16 margin. Bergeron gets a lot of credit for being the driving force behind that success but when Pastrnak and Marchand were together without him the Bruins were still 54 percent on the shot attempts and outscored teams by an 18-9 margin. They are all just great players. If Rick Nash is healthy and ready to go for the playoffs this group of forwards gets that much better. David Krejci can still produce in a secondary role and the Bruins suddenly have an influx of young talent in Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Jake DeBrusk all producing.

Toronto: They finished the regular season as the NHL’s third-highest scoring team and did not have their best player — Auston Matthews — for 20 games. When he was in the lineup Matthews was a beast, scoring 34 goals in 62 games, putting him on a pace that would have exceeded his 40-goal output from his rookie season. It is an embarrassment of riches up and down the lineup when it comes to young talent and they still have a couple of 30-goal veterans in James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, plus a 27-goal season from Patrick Marleau.

Advantage: Toronto, but it’s close. These are two of the best offensive teams in the league and both have really deep rosters that can get production from all over. Toronto has eight forwards this year that topped the 40-point mark and nine that scored at least 10 goals. That is a deep group of forwards.

Defense

Boston: A couple of years ago the Bruins defense got old, slow, and struggled to replace a lot of the talent that had moved on. That has since changed, and while the defense may not be quite what it was in 2011 or 2012 when Zdeno Chara was closer to his prime, it is still very good. Chara is still playing 23 minutes per night and rookie Charlie McAvoy has stepped into the lineup and become an immediate impact player. Torey Krug had a huge year offensively

Toronto: Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly both had big years offensively with each of them topping the 50-point mark, the only set of teammate defenders in the NHL to accomplish that this season. The problem for the Maple Leafs defensively is that they give up a lot in the defensive zone. At 33.9 shots on goal against per game the Maple Leafs were the fourth-worst shot suppression team in the league this season and by far the worst among the playoff teams. Kind of a concern.

Advantage: Boston. With Gardiner and Reilly the Maple Leafs obviously have some talent on their blue line, but when it comes to all-around defensive play Boston is simply the better team and pretty much every piece of objective evidence you can look at illustrates that.

Goaltending

Boston: Tuukka Rask had an absolutely miserable start to the season, losing 10 of his first 13 starts with a .896 save percentage to go along with that horrendous record. It was not great! Since then the Bruins have been almost unbeatable with Rask in the lineup, going 31-6-3 in his 40 decisions since then. He also has a .923 save percentage in those starts.

Toronto: Frederik Andersen might be the most important player for the Maple Leafs. Not the best player, but the most important. Given how many shots and chances they give up it is imperative for them to get quality goaltending, and Andersen has provided that almost all season. It’s largely because of him that a team that gives up the fourth-most shots in the league was only 11th in goals against. The Maple Leafs gave him a huge workload this season, not only by starting him in 66 games (second most in the league) but by also making him face the most shots on goal. The 2,211 shots he faced were nearly 200 more than the next closest goalie.

Advantage: Toronto. Rask can be great and has the superior record but a lot of that comes from playing behind a better team. Just looking at it from the perspective of how much the Maple Leafs have had to rely on Andersen this season and how well he has stood up to that makes me want to give him a slight edge.

Special Teams

Boston: Part of what makes the Bruins such a scary team is they not only dominate during 5-on-5 play, but they have incredible special teams, entering the playoffs with the league’s fourth-best player (23.5 percent) and third-best penalty kill (83.7 percent). They are the only team in the league to be in the top-five in both categories.

Toronto: Like the Bruins the Maple Leafs have been great on special teams this season and boast the league’s second-best power play and an above average penalty kill. The player that really makes the Maple Leafs’ power play click and probably does not get enough attention for it: Mitch Marner.

Advantage: Boston. Both teams are pretty similar in the sense that they are top-10 in both categories, but the Bruins get an edge for having the slightly better penalty kill. They will get a challenge in this series, though.

X-Factors

Boston: The Bruins are a team that has two separate cores of players. At the top of the lineup they have the veterans that have been through the Stanley Cup run multiple times with Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, and Chara. Then they have this younger wave of players led by Pastrnak, Heinen, DeBrusk, McAvoy and the latest addition to the group, Ryan Donato. Donato joined the Bruins just after the Winter Olympics and made an immediate impact down the stretch run and gives an already loaded roster just one more scoring threat for other teams to deal with.

Toronto: With so much focus on the young talent it’s sometimes easy to forget about the veterans like James van Riemsdyk. The Maple Leafs made the (smart) decision to keep him at the trade deadline and were rewarded down the stretch run as he scored 11 goals in the final 18 games of the regular season to help set a new career high with 36 goals.

Prediction

Bruins in five games. This feels like it should be a pretty close series because the teams do seem to be pretty evenly matched in a lot of areas (forwards, goaltending, special teams) but the Bruins are simply a better defensive team and have been the best team in hockey since early November. They keep that rolling in this series. The Maple Leafs did win the season series, but two of those wins came just before the Bruins really started to hit their stride. They are a different team now than they were in the first month.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.