Travis Dermott

Getty Images

Pastrnak breaks out, leads Bruins to 6-4 win over Leafs in Game 4

4 Comments

One of the biggest concerns for the Boston Bruins through the first three games of Round 1 was David Pastrnak‘s lack of offensive contributions. On Wednesday, Pastrnak was the difference in Boston’s 6-4 victory over Toronto.

Down 2-1 in the series, the Bruins got an early opportunity in their quest to even the series when Connor Brown was sent to the sin bin for holding just 1:08 minutes into the game. Initially, the Bruins had trouble getting anything going in their power play, but the end result is all that matters and in this case it was a goal from Charlie McAvoy in the dying seconds of the man advantage. Just 3:35 minutes later, Brad Marchand pushed the Bruins’ lead to 2-0.

Toronto heated up late in the first though and was aided by a couple Bruins penalties in quick succession. Technically Boston killed off both penalties, but Zach Hyman found the back of the net through traffic mere seconds after the second power-play opportunity expired.

Auston Matthews evened the contest just 1:07 minutes into the second period, but that’s when Pastrnak woke up. He scored his first two goals of the series just 1:35 minutes apart to establish another two-goal lead for Boston.

Speaking of players who hadn’t scored yet in this series. Zdeno Chara managed to mash one past Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen at 5:39 of the third to expand the Bruins’ lead to 5-2.

That extra goal proved to be critical. McAvoy was caught hi-sticking. His previous penalty was the one that led to the Hyman goal, even if Boston technically completed its penalty kill just before Hyman scored. This time around Matthews needed just 10 seconds of power-play time to net his second goal of the game. With new life breathed into the Maple Leafs, Travis Dermott scored at 13:27 and suddenly Boston’s lead was just a goal.

It was enough to make the ending interesting, but not change the outcome. Boston held on and Joakim Nordstrom got the empty netter with just two seconds left to close out the game.

For the second time in this series, the Bruins have successfully responded to a Toronto victory. This win also put the onus back on the Maple Leafs to win another game at TD Garden. The Bruins haven’t had the series lead yet, but with two of the final three games at home, they’re the ones in the enviable position going forward.

Maple Leafs-Bruins Game 5 from TD Garden will be Friday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

11 Comments

Let’s do it all over again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will battle the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row. Last year, the series was decided over seven games, with the Bruins eventually winning on home ice in the seventh contest, 7-4.

The biggest difference between the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, is that the Leafs now have John Tavares in their lineup. The 28-year-old added 47 goals and 88 points in 82 games with his hometown team. Will that be enough to push the Leafs over the top this time around? Probably not.

Getting some added production from Auston Matthews would also help. Matthews posted just one goal and one assist in the seven-game series. He has to take his game to another level in the postseason if the Leafs are going to get by this talented Bruins team.

“It’s going to be a challenge but I think everybody in the locker room is hungry,” Matthews said. “We want to go in and be ready from the very first game and definitely send a message early.”

Sending a message early is probably a good idea. The Leafs dropped the first two games of the series in Boston last year. Toronto was able to win the first game at home to cut their series deficit to 2-1, but they ended up going back to Boston down 3-1. They were able to fend off elimination twice before eventually losing the series.

As Matthews mentioned, the Leafs have to get off to a better start if they’re going to cause an upset.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 8 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD

FORWARDS

MAPLE LEAFS: The Leafs are blessed with some of the best firepower in the league. Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, Andreas Johansson and Patrick Marleau have all the ability to create offense. If Toronto is going to go on a run, they’ll need their offense to click from the get-go. It’s the only way they could make up for the defensive lapses in their own end. Of all the teams in the league, only Tampa Bay, Calgary and San Jose scored more goals than Toronto (286). Stopping this talented group of forwards isn’t going to be easy for the Bruins.

BRUINS: Even though the Leafs may be deeper up front, the Bruins have one of the best lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. All three players averaged better than one point per game this season, and Marchand hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. The key for Boston will be for them to continue to get secondary scoring from the likes of David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk and a few others. The Bruins ranked 11th in goals scored this year, with 259.

ADVANTAGE: Maple Leafs. I’ll give the Leafs the slight advantage here only because they’re deeper group of front, but we’re splitting hairs here. Both groups have high-end forwards that can break a game wide open.

DEFENSE

MAPLE LEAFS: This is where the Leafs will have to find answers immediately. From an offensive perspective, the Leafs had one of the top point-producing defenders in the league in Morgan Rielly, who had 72 points in 82 games. Acquiring Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings was a significant move, but it still didn’t fix the defensive zone issues that have plagued the Maple Leafs all season. Veteran Ron Hainsey has seen better days, but head coach Mike Babcock still likes to use the 38-year-old quite regularly (he averaged over 20 minutes per game). The good news for Toronto, is that Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott are back from injury.

BRUINS: Zdeno Chara isn’t as dominating as he was years ago, but the 42-year-old still averages 21:05 of ice time. Charlie McAvoy has become one of the young leaders on that blue line, while Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo round out the top four. Kevan Miller will miss the opening round of the playoffs because of a lower-body injury he suffered in the final week of the regular season. Miller brings a level of physicality that the Bruins will miss against Toronto.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. The Bruins don’t have anyone that can post individual offensive numbers like Rielly, but there’s no denying that they’re way deeper on the back end than the Maple Leafs are. This is as clear of an advantage as you’ll get at any position between this two teams.

GOALTENDING

MAPLE LEAFS: Frederik Andersen has had his share of struggles down the stretch. In order for him to be sharp for the playoffs, Babcock decided that Andersen would start the final two games of the regular season. The 29-year-old finished the regular season with a 36-16-7 record with a 2.77 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage this season. He ended the season with 6-5 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, which isn’t an ideal way to go in the playoffs. The Leafs struggle with in-zone coverage, which means they’ll need their goalie to stand on his head at times if they’re going to advantage to the second round.

BRUINS: Like Andersen, Rask has struggled down the stretch, too. The 32-year-old won just one of his last four games and he allowed at least three goals or more in all three of those defeats. The Bruins have a capable backup goalie in Jaroslav Halak, but they need Rask to take his game to another level at this crucial moment. Rask finished the year with a 27-13-5 record with a 2.48 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage this season.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. Both goalies are struggling heading into the playoffs, so whichever one can find their game the quickest will give their team the best chance to win. But heading into the series, it’s hard not give the advantage to Rask. He has more experience and playoff success than Andersen. But this should be an even battle.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will the Maple Leafs’ in-zone coverage hold up?

As much as the coaching staff has tried to solve this issue, they still haven’t been able to figure it out. The Leafs tend to make critical mistakes in their own end. They might be able to get away with during the season, but they can’t keep making the same errors in April. Is there any way they can straighten themselves out now? They may just have outscore the Bruins every night?

Can Rask get the job done for the Bruins?

Again, the Bruins have the luxury of having a quality backup in Jaroslav Halak (the Leafs have no such luxury), but if they’re going to go on a run they’ll need their number one goalie to help carry the load. If he struggles against a potent offense like Toronto’s, Boston could be in tough.

PREDICTION

BRUINS IN 5. The Bruins have been playing incredible well for a long time. I can’t see them dropping this series. I think they’ll finish the Maple Leafs off in five games.

MORE PREVIEWS:
Islanders vs. Penguins
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

8 Comments

There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs won a pivotal division clash Saturday with a 4-3 overtime victory in Montreal to remain in second place in the Atlantic Division. John Tavares scored his team-leading 33rd goal (also T-second in NHL) in OT with a beautiful backhand past Carey Price.

With two points yesterday (goal, assist), Tavares has three straight multi-point games and reached the 60-point mark (33G, 27A in 54 GP), two games shy of his fastest season to 60 points (52 GP in 2013-14 w/ New York Islanders).

Toronto has won four straight games and has a six-game point streak (5-0-1).

On Friday night when the 1993-94 Stanley Cup champion Rangers team was honored for the 25th anniversary of their title, the current Blueshirts fell 3-0 to the Hurricanes. It was scoreless entering the third period before Warren Foegele scored the eventual game-winner and Carolina tallied two empty- netters. Petr Mrazek made 27 saves for Carolina in the shutout, though defenseman Jaccob Slavin also rescued two would-be goals on the doorstep.

The Rangers were shut out for the 5th time this season, tied for second most in the league.

Despite being shut out on Friday, the Rangers top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello has been one of the hottest trios in the league. Since January 12, they have combined for 41 points (19G, 22A) in the last 11 games.

Zibanejad has already set career highs with 53 pts and 31 assists this season. His previous career marks were 51 pts and 30 assists, both in 2015-16 with Ottawa. He is on pace for 80 pts, which would be the highest tally by a Rangers player since Marian Gaborik had 86 in 2009-10.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Jake MuzzinMorgan Rielly
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRon Hainsey

Starting goalie: Garret Sparks

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Pavel BuchnevichKevin HayesJesper Fast
Filip ChytilRyan StromeVladislav Namestnikov
Jimmy VeseyBoo Nieves – Vinni Lettieri

Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Madison Square Garden. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

Can Babcock, Maple Leafs get most out of Muzzin?

In my opinion, there’s really no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs improved by trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Instead, it’s a matter of: how much better does Muzzin make the Maple Leafs?

Without getting into the grittier details, it’s easy to look at this as a black-and-white thing: Muzzin’s a proven top-four defenseman (sometimes looking downright elite), and that’s the area where Toronto needed to improve the most. The fact that he’s locked up through next season, and at an affordable cap hit of just $4 million, makes the deal even sweeter. The Maple Leafs were even proactive in getting him about a month before the trade deadline, allowing Muzzin that much more time to get used to his new (and colder) surroundings.

That’s the thing, though: it might take some time to find the ideal fit.

[Kings trading Muzzin could be beginning of a teardown]

Lots of left, not much right

The Maple Leafs’ best three defensemen are all left-handed: Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Some might argue that Travis Dermott – another LHD – may rank as their fourth-best option. (If not, there’s Ron Hainsey as the fourth guy, a left-handed defenseman who’s played quite a bit on the right side.)

In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs would have a balanced mix of lefties and righties on defense, but instead the right-handed options stick out like sore thumbs: Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov have their issues.

So something has to give. The Leafs have initially announced that Muzzin will pair up with high-scoring blueliner Rielly. That makes beautiful sense from a stylistic standpoint – Muzzin’s both a versatile and sturdy defenseman – but will it work out when handedness is taken into account? Maybe just as importantly, will Mike Babcock be able to stomach the bad that comes with the good?

Such a process may require some experimentation, and learning the right dance moves could make for some offbeat, awkward moments.

Experience on the right

Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons that Muzzin has “never” played the right side.

“Anybody who says he’s played the right side isn’t watching the games,” Sutter said. “He’s played zero times on the right side in L.A. I know they’re looking for the perfect guy to pair with (Morgan) Rielly. He might be that guy, but maybe Rielly has to switch to the other side.

“Some guys are better rushing on their off-side. You see a lot of left guys playing the right side but you don’t see a lot of right (shooters) playing their off side. It’s just the way it is.”

One common critique of Muzzin is that he’s been propped up by right-hander Drew Doughty (although others would argue the opposite), yet Muzzin’s actually skated most frequently with fellow LHD Alec Martinez, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick. Martinez had been the one who had played on the right side, and it sounds like Rielly will at least start off that way.

In a breakdown of Muzzin’s fit, The Athletic’s James Mirtle also notes (sub required) that Gardiner never really became comfortable playing on his off-side, so it’s possible that Babcock will be best off seeing which defenseman (Muzzin or Rielly) ends up most comfortable in such a situation.

There’s the risk that Rielly’s red-hot season might cool if he’s placed in a less-than-ideal scenario.

Babcock’s certainly familiar with these questions, even beyond his time with the Maple Leafs. Such questions undoubtedly came up during his Red Wings days, and also during international competition:

Give and take

In case you’re wondering, there is some data to back up coaches’ misgivings about pairing up two lefties (or in less frequent cases, two righties), rather than the typical, Adam Oates-friendly scenario. Back in 2014, Matt Cane did a deep dive to find such a drop-off, although he also noted at Puck Plus Plus that defensemen on their off-side also tend to see a jump in shooting percentage.

It’s all logical enough: it might be tougher to make breakout passes/exit your zone with two lefties, yet there are certain one-timer opportunities that could also sprout up for the defenseman on that off-side.

Some of this stuff might make your brain hurt a bit, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs look stronger in their top four with Muzzin replacing one of Hainsey or Zaitsev, and they probably look a lot stronger.

Interestingly, the Maple Leafs’ situation really isn’t that much different from their rivals in Tampa Bay, either.

If you look at the Lightning’s top defensemen, most of them are LHD: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and as he progresses and earns Jon Cooper’s trust, Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if Anton Stralman‘s lost a few steps, and since Dan Girardi‘s not really the sort of defenseman you want playing big minutes against the Marners and Matthews of the world.

For all we know, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas might even have another trick up his sleeve, such as landing potential RHD and trade target Dougie Hamilton, although that would be quite the trick considering Toronto’s limited cap space.

Either way, having “too many” strong, left-handed defensemen sure beats not having enough.

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.