Toronto’s advantage for second place in the Atlantic Division was reduced to two points after the Boston Bruins’ 3-2 victory against the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
The season series between the rivals ended with the Bruins winning three of four games, outscoing Toronto 16-10.
The next time they are likely to face off will come in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And that causes further concern in Toronto because last spring the Bruins (26-15-4) defeated the Maple Leafs (28-14-2) in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round.
“You think about that possibility, sure,” Boston forward Patrice Bergeron said after the game Saturday as he walked toward the team bus. “There’s a lot of hockey still to be played but we’re in the same division, so that increases the odds.
“You always know it’s going to be tough against these guys. They’re a very good team. Whatever success we may have had in recent times against them, I don’t think we have any extra confidence against them.”
If not, maybe they should. History would suggest they feel that way.
The Bruins defeated the Maple Leafs in each of their previous two postseason meetings, and Toronto lost third-period leads in Game 7 on each occasion. In the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Boston came back after trailing 4-1 to eliminate Toronto 5-4 in overtime; in 2018, Boston was down 4-3 after two periods only to score four answered goals in the final 20 minutes to win 7-4.
“We had home ice both times and it worked in our favor,” Bergeron said.
With the goal of winning the division appearing remote for both teams, Toronto and Boston are in a battle for second place in the Atlantic and home-ice advantage in the first round. The Tampa Bay Lightning (35-9-2, 72 points) are 14 points ahead of the Maple Leafs and 16 ahead of the Bruins. The Lightning are 18-2-1 in their past 21 games despite a 5-1 loss at the New York Islanders on Sunday.
“You’re going to play real good teams if you’re fortunate enough to be in the playoffs, [the Bruins] probably one of them,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.
In recent weeks, Babcock has preached that his team needs to play a heavier game. By that, he doesn’t necessarily mean bone-crunching hits that end up on one of Don Cherry’s “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em” videos. What Babcock is referring to is being stronger on the puck when they have it and making a physical attempt to retrieve it when they don’t.
In other words, the exact way the Bruins seem to play against the Maple Leafs at key moments.
Such was the case Saturday thanks to a strong Boston forecheck that forced the Maple Leafs into a pair of mistakes in the second period that proved to be the turning point in the game.
Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner made the first one, coughing up the puck behind his own net after being double teamed by Bruins forwards Chris Wagner and Noel Acciari. Wagner made the Maple Leafs pay for that turnover by feeding the puck into the slot to Sean Kuraly, who scored to tie the game 2-2 at 14:47 of the second.
Kuraly’s pressure on Nikita Zaitsev led to the eventual game-winning goal about five minutes later. The Maple Leafs defenseman whiffed on a back pass along the boards that Kuraly intercepted and sent in front of the net to David Pastrnak, who gave Boston a 3-2 lead with 15 seconds remaining before the second intermission.
“I thought we had a couple of mistakes there where we ended up with guys below the goal line for no reason, one right at the end of the period, which ended up costing us, obviously, and another execution one,” Babcock said. “You have to clean that up.
Toronto forward Auston Matthews had a prime opportunity to tie the game late in the third period but scooped a backhand wide with at least half the net to shoot at. Matthews, who was limited to two points (one goal, one assist) in the seven-game playoff series against Boston last spring, has one goal in his past nine games.
Matthews did not talk to reporters after the game, but his comments at the morning skate earlier in the day put this rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Bruins into perspective.
“I think you look at it as another game, but obviously they’ve gotten the better of us so far this year,” Matthews said. “It’s a division game so these are important points heading into the second half of the season. I think it should be (a statement game). We should be excited for it playing a good team.”
With Matthews struggling to score and No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen missing his seventh straight game, Toronto could not find a way to come back against the Bruins.
“Of course, we’re always looking forward to playing these guys,” Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. “They’re a great hockey team. They’re well coached, tons of credit goes to them. We’re a good team too and tonight I felt like we did play good enough to get a win but just didn’t get the result.”
The Maple Leafs get no sympathy from the Bruins, who have been forced to deal with their own struggles and injury woes. Saturday marked the first time this season that Boston’s top six defensemen — Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Matt Grzelcyk — were healthy enough to play in the same game.
“It’s a good sign,” goalie Tuukka Rask said. “We’ll need all these guys in the second half and it’s good to get them back.
“We’ve had success against Toronto, sure, but these things happen. We’ve lost (14 consecutive games) against Washington. I don’t think it’s a case of one team getting into another team’s heads.”
Maple Leafs fans would disagree when it comes to Boston’s recent mastery of Toronto.