BOSTON—These guys, you knew. These guys weren’t the schmucks who were getting run in Boston, getting punked like they were Yankees kids at a Sox game, getting serenaded by mocking Bruins fans. That team was unrecognizable, tomato cans, losing by four goals once and again. The Toronto Maple Leafs hadn’t lost by four goals all year long.
And all they did Monday night was save their season with a rollicking 4-2 Game 3 win over the Boston Bruins in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series. Here, this was the team they were supposed to be.
“Just more competitiveness, more hunger. I guess you could use the word desperation if you wanted,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who set up Toronto’s second goal with a stretch pass to Mitch Marner. “We went to Boston and we didn’t put forth an effort we could be proud of either night. And at home, we wanted to make sure we could change that.”
It’s only partly that simple, but that was a prerequisite. Toronto fought Boston to a territorial draw, and the killer chances went both ways. The big Boston line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were still terrifying, pinging posts and flying, but they weren’t gods. The Leafs played damned hockey. This is who they are.
“What you’ve got to remember is, these guys are young guys and they’re playing against real players, and they’re young guys,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “So you gotta go through some of these slappings in your life to respond and learn how to play and do things right.”
This was better. Babcock, nervy as ever, moved the 35-year-old Tomas Plekanec from his miserable fourth-line life to the second line, against Bergeron and friends, and Plekanec responded with a physical, hard-fought game. They needed that.
But what is this Leafs team built on? Skating? They skated so much harder, won more puck battles, closed off some of the acres of space in which Boston frolicked in Game 1. The power play? After a dodgy over-the-glass penalty in the first, Toronto’s first goal came with James van Riemsdyk on the man advantage, practically in the blue paint. Very familiar.
Mitch Marner? He was terrific, playing near-even against the Bergeron line, collecting that Rielly pass in the second after Boston had tied it, and speeding to find Patrick Marleau for the first of Marleau’s two goals, and a 2-1 lead.
And once Boston had tied it on a Zdeno Chara wrist shot from the red line that banked off the back of Frederik Andersen’s helmet — it was like a bully knocking your hat off — the Leafs didn’t blink. They stayed in the moment. And with 5:13 left in the period the Auston Matthews line pinned the great Boston trio in the Bruins zone. Matthews and William Nylander moved the puck around, played keepaway, until finally Nylander found Matthews for an assassin’s wrist shot from deep in the left circle, angled to perfection.
“I knew where I wanted to shoot it, and I guess it went there,” said Matthews.
And Matthews, who had no points in the series to that point, celebrated with pure ferocity, because this is what he lives for. At that point, the Bergeron line had been on the ice for both Toronto even-strength goals. You want to beat the best, beat them. What are the Leafs as a contender based on, more than anything? They have Auston Matthews.
“It’s great, just the crowd and everything, feels like an earthquake in your feet when you score, especially in the playoffs,” said Matthews. Asked if he wanted to prove a personal point, he said, “Yeah, absolutely. I think everybody did.”
“I think when you’re my age, social media doesn’t really affect your life,” said Babcock. “When you’re his age, it affects your life and you know what people are saying. And it’s not just what people are saying. You want to be the best player in the world, and it’s not going the way you want. Now, I haven’t talked about this so I don’t know, this is me speculating, but I think that’s a huge weight off this shoulders, and instead of thinking about all this stuff he’ll just get playing again.”
“I think it was huge,” said Rielly. “We were talking between periods and he said, you know, you can just go out there and play. He’s a guy that puts a lot of pressure on himself to be great, and I think that’s a good thing, and when he goes out there and plays well he’s one of the best players in the world. And as an athlete, whenever you go through a dry spell, you just want to get out of it … and I think you could tell from his reaction that he was pretty excited.”
So two games was a dry spell? “Yeah,” said Rielly, admiringly. “It’s a joke.”
That was the Leafs, in miniature. And the Leafs got all that — driven by their young players, supplanted by the veterans, with Frederik Andersen making enough saves — and still, all it got them was a chance to seal a classic coin-flip playoff game. But they did. They had every reason to doubt themselves after Boston. This could still fall apart. But with their season on the line, the Maple Leafs did all they could ask for, really. They were themselves.