Bruce Arthur: Auston Matthews’ big moment breaks deadlock as Leafs put Bruins on brink

Bruce Arthur: Auston Matthews’ big moment breaks deadlock as Leafs put Bruins on brink
BOSTON—Auston Matthews couldn’t look. Maybe you couldn’t, either, because everyone had gotten to that stage of the game where everything was terrifying, if you had a rooting interest. Auston Matthews did.

So Matthews had his head on the boards as the officials announced he had indeed scored the first goal of a tense and tight and important playoff game, with 8:27 left, and that Zach Hyman bumping lightly into Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask wasn’t enough to call it back. Matthews pounded the dasher in celebration. He knew what it meant.

Boston had to chase, and two minutes and 12 seconds later Kasperi Kapanen scored on a counterattack to make it 2-0. David Krejci got a goal with 43.4 seconds left, but Toronto held on and won Game 5 by a score 2-1, and lead the series three games to two. The Maple Leafs have pushed the Bruins to the edge of elimination in this first-round series, and can advance with a win Sunday afternoon at home.

The Matthews goal was made possible by Jake Muzzin, whose post-season has so far validated that mid-season trade. The defenceman walked in from the point with some space, and didn’t shoot; he waited as Matthews glided to a spot on the right side, his stick in the air, waiting. The pass got there, the shot went in, and Matthews had his fourth goal in his past three games. Kapanen had been stranded in a slump, too, three points in 19 games. He picked up a goal and an assist.

It was the moment of the series so far, and it came out of the tightest game of the series. It started as a game of patience, which is what often happens in games like this, because the consequences of the mistakes get bigger and bigger. The Leafs made enough mistakes in Game 4 to a lose a game they could have won. Boston did the same one game before. Now we’re getting closer to the part where the mistake will haunt you all summer, and if you’re really unlucky, the rest of your life. We’re entering that place, bit by bit.

So they still played it like there were landmines out there that nobody could see, and the result was like a real-life laboratory test: Could these Leafs, the team that played the highest-event, most danger-filled, don’t-worry-we-can-outscore-these-guys hockey in the game during the regular season, play a game without making mistakes?

They did. Everyone played that version of hard, intense, maximum-effort hockey that can also feel like the game’s equivalent of tiptoeing by your parents’ room at night, but Toronto was slightly better at it. The Leafs killed Boston’s three penalties, and survived Krejci hitting a post that he thought was the back of the net. This had been a high-event series; suddenly, you could count the good scoring chances on one hand.

Playoff hockey. What was it coach Mike Babcock said after Game 4? “Too many turnovers in the first period trying to play too high-octane instead of just taking care of the puck and playing right, but I thought we had good energy ... Just got in our way a little bit here tonight.”

The Leafs, for the most part, sewed the game up tight: smart, simple, don’t try to swing from trapeze to trapeze, and wait for your chance. And it was Matthews who untied it. He hadn’t played well in the first two games, and hadn’t taken advantage of avoiding Boston’s top line. Well, he showed up.

They needed to dodged bullets to get there. Zach Hyman’s so-so tripping call in the first; Patrick Marleau’s so-so hooking call in the second; Mitch Marner’s uncharacteristically lazy puck-over-glass penalty in the second, too. But Toronto, one game after their penalty kill was a major flaw, killed a third penalty.

“When we’re out there 5-on-5 it’s pretty even, to be honest,” Kapanen said before the game, and before he missed the net on a short-handed breakaway to deepen his slump. “A lot of stuff has been happening on the penalty kill and on the power play. You know, 5-on-5, it’s tough.”

At the morning skate, Babcock made another prescient observation. He said of the line matchups, “Whoever’s been ahead, it’s been easy to (run) your bench and control what’s going on. When you’re chasing the game, the other guy’s running your bench, and you can’t do what you need to do. Who you line up against, and who you play against, you got to beat them one on one.”

So everyone waited to see who was going to make the mistake, and everyone tried to beat the men in front of them. Muzzin made a play; Matthews finished it; Kapanen finished a play from Andreas Johnsson and Morgan Rielly to make it comfortable.

This time last year the Leafs were playing for their playoff lives, and they were up 4-1 in Boston, and they won. It was one of those absurd games where the losing team did everything but score a goal; it was pure survival.

A year later, a lot had changed, starting with this simple fact: The Game 5 loser wasn’t losing the series. Game 6 is Sunday afternoon in Toronto, and you always knew someone would have to play for their playoffs lives again. And it’s Boston.
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