Call it a coming-of-age game.
The Toronto Maple Leafs took another big step forward in their growth from precocious kids to hardened professionals Friday night by playing a perfect defensive game against the Boston Bruins. But the Bruins were not giving an inch, so great patience was required by the youthful visitors.
Now, thanks to that perseverance, the Leafs took a 2-1 win and are coming home with a 3-2 lead in their first-round NHL playoff series and a chance to finish off the Bruins on Sunday afternoon.
“It was probably the best game of the series as far as breaking the puck out cleanly and just communicating coming out of our zone,” said Leafs centre Auston Matthews, who scored the first goal of the game in the third period. “It’s nice to be rewarded. I thought we stuck with it. I thought both teams played well defensively. There really wasn’t much going on the first couple of periods, which was back and forth with not much substance. It was nice to break through.”
The Leafs’ patience was finally rewarded at 11:13 of the third period thanks to a great play by defenceman Jake Muzzin. He had the puck at the point, stepped up and made a motion to shoot, which held up the Bruins for a second, enough for him to slide the puck across to Matthews in the right faceoff dot.
Matthews ripped his famous one-timer past Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask for the first goal of the game. Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy made a coach’s challenge of the goal on the basis of goaltender interference but it was denied by the NHL’s war room.
“It was an amazing play,” Matthews said of Muzzin’s fake and pass. “He made an unbelievable pass to me there. Just try to get the puck on net and I was able to get it through.”
Matthews is no stranger to having his goals overturned by the video-review crew. He had at least two waved off late in the regular season, so the wait for the call on the play was torturous.
“I was just praying they were going to call it a goal,” he said. “I don’t know, [there is] a lot going through your mind there. I haven’t had the best of luck as far as those go, I think, in my career.
“It’s nice to get one back. I’ll take one in the playoffs any day of the week aside from the regular season so it was fortunate.”
The Bruins pressed hard after the goal, created a couple of chances and were stopped by Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen. But then, as often happens, the Bruins’ pressing saw them give up an odd-man rush and the Leafs pounced. Kasperi Kapanen finished if off with his first goal of the series at 13:45, which was a welcome sight for the Leafs as his production fell off sharply in the last month of the regular season.
That gave them the cushion they needed to withstand a goal with 43.4 seconds left in the third period by Bruins centre David Krejci with the goaltender pulled for an extra skater. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock challenged the goal, thinking it was offside, but he, too, was overruled.
The solid defensive game the Leafs established in the first period continued in the second and third with the tension mounting with each passing minute. The Bruins were not giving an inch either so despite what looked like their best defensive game of the season the Leafs could not generate much in the way of scoring chances.
It was one of those games that coaches love. Both teams were not allowing their opposite numbers much time and space. By the end of the second period, with the score 0-0, it already felt like an overtime game.
Babcock did, indeed, love the game, especially the way his young star Matthews played.
“I thought tonight in particular, this was his best 200-foot game of the playoffs,” Babcock said. “He was outstanding. He was involved in so many breakouts. He was there available for the defence.
“People just think because you're a good player you know how to do that. You don't know how to do that because you don't have to do that when you're a kid. You have to learn how to do it. “
The Leafs added to the tension by taking the only three penalties of the first two periods. But their defensive game extended to their penalty killing, which up to this game had been a disaster, and the Leafs killed off all three minors.
However, the best scoring chance of the period went to the Bruins and the Leafs needed a huge break to keep them off the scoreboard. Brad Marchand moved the puck into the Leafs zone and dropped it for Krejci in the slot. His quick shot beat Andersen and everyone in the building thought Krejci scored.
But he actually hit the post and the puck bounced into the crease where Andersen covered it. Even the league officials weren’t sure and there was a video review, which confirmed the puck did not go into the net.
The Bruins fans booed the announcement there was no goal. The best line on that came from Leafs radio analyst Jim Ralph: “This is a rule that’s been around for a long time – the puck has to go in the net to count.”
Cassidy put right winger David Pastrnak with Krejci on the second line for the second game in a row. Danton Heinen was in Pastrnak’s spot on the Patrice Bergeron line again and Cassidy allowed them to play against the John Tavares line again. He also moved Pastrnak back to the big line a few times.
The other lineup change for the Bruins saw left winger Sean Kuraly, who had been out with a fractured hand, rejoin their fourth line. The change was also made because the Leafs’ fourth line played well in Games 3 and 4 against the Bruins’ unit. And they did so again in Game 5.