Bruins win yet another Game 7 against Maple Leafs

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You could say that history repeated itself as the Bruins once again won a Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, taking this one 5-1.

After all, Maple Leafs fans will suffer through a similar, empty feeling. Their rivals dispatched them from yet another first-round series, and with a cap crunch coming for Toronto, the heartache is real.

And, yes, Jake Gardiner‘s Game 7 nightmares continued. There his blinking, sad face was, as the Bruins stormed off to a 2-0 lead, with both goals coming while Gardiner was on the ice.

Yet, while the 2013 and 2018 Game 7 matchups featured rather epic Maple Leafs meltdown that almost felt Shakespearean, this contest carried a heavier air of inevitability. Yes, the Maple Leafs made a game of it by sanding down a 2-0 deficit to 2-1 through the second period, but Sean Kuraly‘s 3-1 goal minutes into the third really sapped much of the drama from 2019’s Game 7.

(A failed power play by Toronto minutes after Kuraly’s goal really hammered that point home.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Unlike in the previous Game 7 contests with Toronto, the Bruins never trailed this time around. You’d think that the Bruins’ lethal top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak would have been doing the heavy lifting, but instead it was Boston’s supporting cast members. (Tuukka Rask played a big role in the lack of drama, by the way, as the Finnish goalie made 32 out of 33 saves.)

  • Marcus Johansson took advantage of sloppy defensive work to score what has to be one of the biggest goals of his career.
  • John Tavares gave the Maple Leafs some life with his goal, but generally Toronto couldn’t really get its top guns going, particularly once the Bruins were able to get in cruise control defensively. (Bold prediction: New York Islanders fans will make a few jokes about their team making it further than Tavares this year.)
  • That Sean Kuraly goal came on what seemed like an innocuous play, and you could practically feel the shock and dismay when the Maple Leafs bench was shown reacting to it. Two empty-net goals added a couple extra pinches of salt in the wounds for Toronto.

With another gutting loss against the Bruins in mind, the Maple Leafs have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Andersen was mostly pretty strong in Round 1, but this hurts — really, really, badly. Again, top stars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner couldn’t make a mark in Game 7 after gaining some traction midway through Round 1.

And, honestly? It’s fair to wonder how much blame Mike Babcock should carry. Was he too stubborn in not experimenting with different combinations, whether it was trying out Matthews with Marner more often, or giving the higher lines an injection of higher-end talent by moving William Nylander higher up the order? And did the Maple Leafs lack adjustments in the finer points of the game, such as sticking to their tendency to look for stretch passes too often?

[More on Babcock’s coaching job, and the decisions he made.]

Of course, while many – particularly those in the Toronto media – will focus negative attention on the Maple Leafs, you don’t really struggle unless your opponent is playing at a high level.

The Bruins posed a mighty threat to the Maple Leafs all along, so it’s not really that surprising that Boston came through. They’re a very, very good team, particularly when they’re getting offense from players other than that big three of Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak.

Boston moves on to an intriguing Round 2 matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It will be a series of many storylines, including rest versus rust, as the Bruins just went the distance against the Maple Leafs while Columbus kicked back and relaxed following that shocking sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s not the series many were expecting, yet both the Bruins and Blue Jackets have been playing at a high level, so it should be a fascinating time.

Maybe John Tortorella will even give us a few more golden quotes?

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.

Pressure once again on Babcock, Maple Leafs in Game 7

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Trying to pick the winner of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is completely futile. It is there that one of the most random sports, at its most random time of year, descends into its most random madness where anything and everything can happen. That unpredictability is a big part of what makes it so great and captivating.

It doesn’t really matter what happened in the previous six games of the series, or at any other point in the season because Game 7s usually come down to which goalie plays the best game for 60 minutes, or which team gets the right bounce at the right time. Those are things that are just impossible to predict before the game begins. You just have to watch and see how it all plays out.

With that said, I have no idea what is going to happen between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) , but I do know this much — the Maple Leafs better win.

Don’t care how. Don’t care why. Don’t care what the score is. They just need to win.

They better win for the short-term reputation of their core, and they better win for the long-term reputation of their head coach.

I’m not going to go as far as to say Mike Babcock is coaching for his job on Tuesday night, because there is literally no indication of that. Plus, deciding the fate of your coach based on one game is kind of a foolish thing to do anyway. At this point he is either your coach, or he is not.

But at some point these people have to win something.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And I’m not even talking about the Eastern Conference or the Stanley Cup itself.

Just something.

A playoff round, for example, would be a huge place to start for an organization that hasn’t played in the second round since before the salary cap era began (2004), and has built a roster that has championship aspirations right now. This isn’t a team whose window is still a couple of years away from opening. They are in it right now, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins (and maybe Washington Capitals after Wednesday?) out of the picture this season the field is wide open for every team in the Eastern Conference.

But again, let’s just start with a round.

It would be huge for the best collection of young forwards in the NHL that was only strengthened this summer with the addition of John Tavares. At some point Round 1 exits — and a loss on Tuesday would be the third in a row — will not be enough for this core.

It would be huge for the highest paid head coach in the NHL whose actual results-based resume has not matched his reputation and league-wide standing in quite a while. At some point third place finishes (a Babcock coached team has not finished higher than third in its division since 2010-11) and Round 1 exits (he has not been out of Round 1 since 2012-13, and only once since 2010-11) will not be enough. I again go back to the fact that 25 different NHL head coaches have won a playoff series since Babcock last won one. If you’re the Maple Leafs, you’re not paying more than $6 million per season for those results.

It would be huge for Nazem Kadri, an incredibly valuable player, who once again failed his team by doing something completely reckless and senseless to take himself out of a playoff series. It would be an awfully bad look to have your team go out early, again, while you’re sitting in the press box for a significant chunk of the series for a totally avoidable reason. This will be the 14th playoff game between the Bruins and Maple Leafs the past two years, and Kadri has made himself available for only six of them. Would you be able to bring him back after that?

It is a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the pressure is on everyone to win.

If Boston loses it would no doubt be disappointing for the organization and the fans. But this Bruins’ core at least has a championship to fall back on, and has at least made some kind of a run at some point in the past decade. It would be frustrating, but it wouldn’t be something that would make the organization take a long look at itself in the mirror and try to figure out why this sort of thing keeps happening.

But Toronto? A loss on Tuesday night would sink them into a sea of questions regarding their core, their coach, and just why in the hell they can’t get through this Boston Bruins team.

That will not be fun — or good — for anyone.

Anything can happen in a Game 7, but Toronto needs this one more than any other team playing in a Game 7 in this round.

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.

Deep playoff push could mean big money for these Islanders

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Greed can sometimes be a good motivator in sports. So, for all we know, the lure of new contracts might just drive the New York Islanders during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Players in contract years made a significant impact in the Islanders’ 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Robin Lehner carried over momentum from his outstanding regular season, making 41 saves. Jordan Eberle shook off bad memories of a rough postseason past with the Oilers to generate a goal and an assist. Brock Nelson had a goal, too.

As Game 2 nears on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Livestream), consider these players with extra motivation … including some who can’t even sign extensions yet.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

UFAs with much to gain or lose

Lehner, 27, expiring $1.5M cap hit: You won’t see a better example of a player taking full advantage of a “prove it” contract, and Lehner may only add to his earning power if he can nullify the Penguins’ firepower during Round 1.

Eberle, 28, expiring $6M cap hit: After scoring 25 goals and 59 points during his first Islanders season in 2017-18, Eberle’s numbers dropped quite a bit to 19 goals and 37 points in 78 games. Those are acceptable, but not impressive stats, maybe slightly influenced by playing in a very defensive-minded system. Few players can gain or lose as much money as Eberle might during this postseason, as a hot 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs might make a suitor (or the Islanders) forget about a so-so regular season.

Anders Lee, 28, expiring $3.75M cap hit: When Lee was a surprising name on top snipers lists, many attributed his success to merely playing with John Tavares. That criticism lost steam in 2018-19, as Lee scored 28 goals and 51 points. He’ll get a raise starting next season, it’s just a matter of by how much.

Brock Nelson, 27, expiring $4.25M cap hit: Nelson has generated 20+ goals in four of his last five seasons, and generated 19 during the one he fell short (in 2017-18). His 25 goals this past season fell just short of tying a career-high, while Nelson did indeed set a new career-best mark with 53 points, ranking third on team scoring. Both Nelson and Lee are big forwards who can score, so they can drum up some serious interest if the Islanders balk at their asking prices.

Valtteri Filppula, 35, expiring $2.75M cap hit: Filppula’s been a picky shooter for a long time, yet even by his standards, 2018-19 season was a one where he made his shots count. His 17 goals came with a 21.8 shooting percentage, so that puck luck and his age make Filppula a buyer beware. Another great value signing for the Isles this season, though.

Technically not as pressing, yet …

Mathew Barzal, 21, rookie contract ends after 2019-20: For obvious core players of Barzal’s ilk, you really have two contract years, as the Islanders could theoretically sign Barzal to an extension as early as July — if he wants to. Barzal probably would at least like to wait a while and see how much money RFA forwards such as Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Brayden Point rake in, so he may be more prone to let it ride.

Still, with the heartbreak the Islanders went through with John Tavares, maybe they’d push a little more for an early extension? It would be a big PR win, and there’s always the chance that Barzal would value the peace of mind of getting that out of the way.

A strong postseason would give him yet another strong talking point to ask for big dollars, whenever the two sides really hammer out a deal. Barzal’s off to a strong start, after all.

[Barzal already showed the poise of a veteran in Game 1]

Thomas Greiss, 33, $3.33M cap hit through 2019-20: No offense to Greiss, but the Islanders would prefer not to see him in net anytime soon.

Yet an offensive explosion from the Penguins, or an injury to Lehner could very well force Greiss into action. While he has term next season, Greiss has to be thinking about his future, at least to some extent.

After all, his chances of getting another contract changed dramatically over the last year. In 2017-18, Greiss suffered alongside Jaroslav Halak on an Islanders team that allowed the most goals in the NHL. One year later, Greiss posted nearly identical numbers to Lehner as the two combined to allow the fewest goals in the NHL.

A prolonged Islanders run could plausibly require contributions from both of their goalies after outstanding regular seasons, and that could also drive up Greiss’ earning power. It’s tough to imagine Greiss getting an extension being that he’s already 33, but who knows?

***

Naturally, hockey players are motivated during any postseason, not just when they’re in contract years. Even so, it’s probably human nature to get that little extra push when your future is uncertain, and that thought could make the above Islanders even more exciting to watch than they already would be.

Islanders-Penguins Game 2 from Nassau Coliseum will be Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Livestream)

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.

Maple Leafs take Game 1 against Bruins on the road

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The Maple Leafs limped into the playoffs with a 4-7-3 record to round out the season and rob any chance of Game 1 of their long anticipated series against Boston being played in Toronto. In the end though, it didn’t matter. After working through some late season injuries, the Maple Leafs had all hands on deck and combined they delivered a 4-1 victory over Boston.

While this game certainly wasn’t a blowout by any stretch of the imagination, it was close to the ideal scenario for the Maple Leafs. Most importantly, goaltender Frederik Andersen was great. There were some concerns about fatigue with him late in the season and he didn’t look good in the 2018 series against Boston, but this game would have been very different if he was just okay.

The only time Andersen was beat Thursday night was on a superb power-play goal from Brad Marchand to Patrice Bergeron. That marker gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead and had the potential to set the tone, but Mitchell Marner changed the story.

Marner evened the contest before the first period ended and provided the turning point when he got on a breakaway while the Maple Leafs were shorthanded. He drew a penalty shot that led to Toronto’s game-winning goal.

That narrow 2-1 edge stuck for most of the second period until William Nylander provided Toronto with some much needed breathing room, thanks in part to a laser pass from Nazem Kadri.

Boston ended up out shooting Toronto 21-14 in the second period alone, but the Maple Leafs scored the only two goals in that frame. That 3-1 lead would stick until John Tavares finished Boston off with an empty netter.

The Maple Leafs now have something they never possessed in the 2018 series against the Bruins: The lead. In 2018, the Bruins won the first two games in Boston and while Toronto battled back to force a Game 7, the Maple Leafs never possessed the series lead. Now we’ll see if Toronto can build on its early success or if Boston will come right back in Game 2. Certainly, Boston is too good of a team to be dismissed after just one loss.

Maple Leafs-Bruins Game 2 from TD Garden will be Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. ET on NBC

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.

Islanders spoil Tavares’ Coliseum return with emphatic win

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. — One of the numerous chants that New York Islanders fans directed toward John Tavares Thursday night was “We don’t need you,” a reference to the team’s success this season after their former captain left for the Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency last summer.

For yet another night in the 2018-19 NHL season the Islanders didn’t need Tavares and a collective effort resulted in a 6-1 win, helping them regain sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division over Friday’s opponent — the Washington Capitals. 

You could argue it may have been their most comprehensive victory of the season.

“Yeah, it’s up there,” said captain Anders Lee, whose second period goal stood as the game winner. “We played pretty close [to it] for a full 60 [minutes]. I don’t know if we could get much better than that.”

Islanders fans had waited for this game since Tavares signed his seven-year, $77M contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1. The jilted feelings had built up since and the fans’ anger was on display inside and outside Nassau Coliseum.

There were plenty of Tavares Islanders jerseys that were switched up to either “91 TRAITOR” or “91 GORING,” thanks to some tape and a Sharpie, and there were some jerseys that were set ablaze, run over my passing cars in the parking lot, and a large amount of chants disparaging their former franchise player.

Inside the arena, Tavares was soundly booed every time he stepped on the Coliseum ice or touched the puck. No one in the rink could hear the sound from the tribute video played in his honor during a first-period television timeout. Even as he clapped in appreciation of the crowd and pointed toward the Islanders bench as his ex-teammates tapped their sticks to salute him, the noise was deafening.

Even with emotion in the building and the Islanders understanding that besides Tavares’ return, there were two big points on the line, they didn’t allow themselves to be caught up in the hoopla. The experience in their dressing room didn’t allow for that to be an issue at any point during the game.

“It definitely helps a lot,” said Casey Cizikas, who continued his career season by scoring his 18th goal. “We’ve got guys that’ve won Cups. We’ve guys that have gone the distance and when they speak, you listen. As a group, it’s definitely big and it goes a long way for us.”

When Tavares left in July, the Islanders were immediately written off. No could have imagined through 63 games they would be first in their division. Even with a new head coach in Barry Trotz and a new general manager in Lou Lamoriello, improvement was expected, but not this quick. 

It’s been a group effort to earn the success they have this season. Eight players have reached double digits in goals, 12 players have at least 20 points, and their goaltenders have combined for a .937 even-strength save percentage.

“We’ve talked about it all week in terms of just getting back to what we do best,” said Trotz afterward. “We come at you with the four lines. We stay on you and be on the right side of pucks and make good decisions, have structure when we need it, desperation when we need it, commitment when we need it.”

Thursday’s emphatic win against their former captain and a team they may see in April during the Stanley Cup Playoffs was another measuring stick game for the Islanders. They’ve continually answered the questions and doubts, and once again showed why their place in the Eastern Conference standings is deserved.

We don’t need you, the fans chanted. And the Islanders showed them why.

MORE: Islanders fans show their displeasure toward Tavares

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.