Bruce Arthur: Closer role is a whole new ball game for Maple Leafs
|Toronto Star 20 Apr 2019 at 17:13|
Late in Game 5, with the game still scoreless and great chances almost a myth, Ron Hainsey leaned over to his defence partner, Morgan Rielly, on the Toronto Maple Leafs bench.
“He said,” said Rielly Saturday, “‘I was expecting last year to be more like this.’”
The year before, of course, the Boston Bruins were a buzzsaw, wheeling through open ice like it was an amusement park, and somehow the series stretched to seven before Boston won. This time, not only can Toronto eliminate the Bruins in Game 6 Sunday afternoon, but over the first five games it’s been Boston that has been chasing the series, with Toronto dictating it. Now, for the first time in this resurgent Leafs era, they find out if they are ready to close out a great team.
“I was actually thinking about that last night on the bus,” said Rielly, who has been on the ice for just one five-on-five goal against while leading the Leafs in minutes by a wide margin. “About it being a position to close out the series, and my first thought was that that hasn’t happened to us before. Realistically, last year in Game 7, it’s equal opportunity for both teams. But this one feels different.”
It’s different because through five games, taking into account how many near-misses there are in every single game, the Leafs have been the better team. They won the matchup between top lines in Game 1; they controlled play for long stretches in Game 1 and 3, and at five-on-five in Game 4. And in Game 5 they won a game by playing Boston’s style: low-event, few chances, no mistakes allowed. Through five games, at five-on-five the Leafs have controlled 51.6 per cent of shot attempts, and 52.6 per cent of the expected goals, which takes into account where the shots are coming from. Each team has 14 goals in the series; one of Boston’s was an empty-netter, though. Toronto has been just better enough.
And in Game 5 the Leafs played with the discipline and poise necessary to win the kind of game they rarely displayed in the regular season. Now it’s Boston lamenting an inability to get inside and generate rebounds and shots. It’s a real, remarkable reversal.
“Really, the only way to describe the difference is one series you’re just trying to survive, and the next series you have to have that killer instinct,” said Rielly. “It’s just two different approaches. I feel like we’ve played well. I feel like we’ve had periods of the game where we’ve been the better team and controlled the play. It’s not like we’re just hanging around by a thread. I think we’re in a position where we’re in the driver’s seat.”
So here come the Bruins fighting for their season, with champions at their core. These Leafs have never done that. Well, not many of them.
“Well, you don’t sit back, that’s for sure,” said defenceman Jake Muzzin, who was part of six series wins with the Los Angeles Kings, including a Stanley Cup. “You go after it. You go after it, and it’s the toughest game to win, because they’re desperate, right? So we have to be just as desperate and hungry. We can’t just sit back and let them take the game to us. We have to go out and play our game and use home ice (Sunday) as our advantage.”
“When you have Hainsey and Muzzin and John (Tavares) and (Patrick) Marleau, they’re guys that have done this before,” said coach Mike Babcock. “I think that’s part of the process. And I think just going through and being as steady as you possibly can, and understanding what’s going on. We know the formula for us to win (Game 6). We know that. Now we have to do that. It’s great to know the answers, now you have to do it every day. That’s the hardest part. And sometimes at home, you get a little carried away. Let’s just play.”
The Leafs don’t think they have to simply hope they can do this. In 2017, they hung with Washington and had a lead in Game 6 with 12 minutes left, and the Capitals went up to a level Toronto couldn’t match to end the series. In 2018, Toronto had a one-goal lead heading into the third period of Game 7 in Boston, and lost 7-4.
Now, you can see how this team has grown. The Leafs played run-and-gun hockey more than they buttoned it up this season. But they knew how to do both, apparently.
“Even when we were playing high-scoring games during the season, we would talk about having to play games like this in order to win in the playoffs,” said Rielly. It was noted, hey, you knew how to do it the whole time. He nodded.
“Yeah, which can be good and a bit frustrating,” said Rielly. “At the time during the season, when you’re not doing it, you get concerned, because you know you’re going to have to do it at some point. But when the time comes and you’re ready, you execute it, it’s a good feeling.”
The Leafs get a new chance to be ready Sunday. This is still a tight series; a few mistakes and Boston could turn it on a dime.