By the time the Leafs played Game 4, the kings had been dead for nearly 24 hours — not the Kings, the kings — and the shock was still echoing around hockey. The Tampa Bay Lightning won 62 games in the regular season, sat atop the toughest division in hockey by 50 miles, and left Boston and Toronto squabbling in their dust for the right to play them. And then they got swept out of the playoffs in seven furious, stunning days.
So the Maple Leafs played the Bruins on Wednesday with a chance to go up 3-1 in this first-round series, and get to within one game of the second round, and Columbus. As winger Zach Hyman said before the game, “The door’s open, I guess.”
But doors open, and doors close. The Leafs played an encouraging game and lost 6-4, and this series is down to a best-of-three. The opportunity is still there, but the Bruins are just as close.
But you can see how the Leafs win this series, right?
The game itself was a funny one. The Leafs had been better enough to break up Boston’s top line, and they opened a wide gap at 5-on-5. William Nylander’s line was good. Auston Matthews was dangerous, and scored twice. There were chances. Suddenly, Toronto was cycling the puck against the Bruins, over and over. It was like finding out someone you knew could juggle, you know, if they wanted.
But their mistakes cost them, over and over. The officiating standard was again tight, as it has been ever since the whistles were placed in security deposit boxes for safekeeping in Game 2 — Sportsnet’s Brian Burke said the league had ordered tighter calls — and while it hypothetically benefits the Leafs not to get mugged by the slower Bruins, Boston’s special teams are better.
So halfway through the second period, Toronto trailed 5-2. Boston’s big line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak had been broken up, but produced three goals anyway. The Bruins got two power-play goals. A Zdeno Chara point shot slipped through. The Leafs were by far the better team for long stretches. It just hadn’t paid off.
Then Matthews notched his second on a power play with 8:08 left that came because Toronto was spending so much time in the Bruins zone that they could have ordered furniture and maybe some art. Oh. Then Travis Dermott was out there on another endless shift in the Boston zone, and he got one. 6:33 left, and it was 5-4.
Only the Bergeron line was above water, and every other Bruins line was gasping for air. With Nylander flying, with Matthews prowling, with Boston unable to paw and hook and smash with impunity, Toronto showed a higher gear of play.
But Marchand and Pastrnak combined for those three goals, and Boston added an empty-netter at the end as the Leafs were trying to cave in the ceiling. In the end, Toronto made one too many mistakes, and this series is all tied up.
“We’ve seen Toronto play a tighter defensive game, and we didn’t see that as much during the season, (they’re a)little bit more committed to that,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy beforehand. “I don’t doubt either team will have great effort … it’s always effort and execution, that’s what separates them. Both teams will bring terrific effort, who executes better? There’s always adjustments, yes, and I think the line matchups get talked about: Jeez, Bergeron versus Tavares, these are two all-world players.
“And whoever executes better, whatever line, Marner, Pastrnak, go down the list, (David) Krejci vs. Matthews, Rask vs. (Frederik) Andersen: It’s a little bit about execution, who outplays the guy across from him, that’s what I see. I think there’s a lot of good players, and (the Leafs) were a little better than us in Game 3.”
And other than the mistakes, Toronto’s guys were mostly better in Game 4.
Look, the path is still there to imagine, if you want. But forget that Columbus smashed a Tampa Bay team built much like the Leafs, and the Islanders swept a Pittsburgh team that recently won two Cups the way Toronto would like to, with speed and skill (and in one case, Ron Hainsey). Forget that hockey is a game where it’s foolish to take a damned thing for granted.
Boston isn’t going easy. This Toronto team knows it can win this series, knows it can expose Boston’s lack of speed, knows that this isn’t some underdog attack of a Death Star. This series is a coin flip between two teams that, if they escape, shouldn’t be scared of any team between here and a Stanley Cup final.
But to get there you have to subdue the other guys. Tampa loomed over both these teams all season, making hockey look easy, and it’s not. And now that the Lightning are gone, there is a little more room to imagine what could happen, if you escape this particular pit.
But the truth of this division is that two of the better teams in hockey are playing in the first round, and one of their sets of strengths will be the one that wins out. The Leafs have been the better team in this series most of the time. They believe. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur