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Bruce Arthur: Leafs show the difference a year can make in taking opener from Bruins

Bruce Arthur: Leafs show the difference a year can make in taking opener from Bruins
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BOSTON—They didn’t wilt. They didn’t turtle. They didn’t look like kids who wandered into a bar brawl. The Toronto Maple Leafs had a year to think about how to play a Game 1 against the Boston Bruins, after last year’s massacre and the eventual collapse. This game followed them around all season, more or less, right to the end. The big bad Boston Bruins, again.

The Leafs were ready. They came in throwing hits and chasing pucks and playing like they were supposed to be there. By the end of the night there were a lot of Toronto players who you could say, that was the stuff. When the horn sounded, it was 4-1.

“It’s exactly what we wanted,” said Nazem Kadri, whose stretch pass freed William Nylander for the goal to put Toronto ahead 3-1, before John Tavares’s empty-netter.

More or less. Last year the Leafs were chasing the series from the moment they stepped on the ice, and they never caught it. After Game 1 last season coach Mike Babcock flatly said his team needed to be more competitive.

But this? They’re a year older, a year better, with Tavares and Jake Muzzin and confidence they never had before. This was what everyone had been waiting for.

“They pressured us,” said Boston centre Patrice Bergeron, who scored Boston’s lone goal on a first-period power play. “Maybe we weren’t ready for that kind of pressure, but they were just better that we were. They played their game better than we played our game.”

“I think we’re one of the fastest teams in the league,” said Kadri. “That’s going to be a problem for other teams to defend and that’s something that we’ve got to take advantage of every single game — that speed. We’ve got to get on top of their players, I think that’s what forces mistakes and allows us to play with the puck more.”

The speed was one part. But they were physical, too, as this team goes. Nylander was throwing hits, in his quiet Swedish style. Connor Brown threw a rib-shaker. Trevor Moore shook off cross-checks. The Bruins like the rough stuff, right?

“We hit a couple people,” said Kadri.

“That’s the hockey we’ve got to play,” said Muzzin.

It’s hard to hit what you can’t catch. Nikita Zaitsev and Muzzin drew the Bergeron line assignment, played a two-minute first shift replete with turnovers — “Yeah, that was a good start, eh? As soon as I got back to the bench I was like, holy cow,” said Muzzin, laughing — and then played a solid, reliable game against a line that reduced the Leafs to smoking rubble last April. Frederik Andersen, who worked hard to re-centre himself down the stretch after a rocky March, was so cool that he messed with Brad Marchand on a third-period forecheck and flung the pass past Bergeron.

And the Tavares-Mitch Marner-Zach Hyman line was so effective the Bruins took the Bergeron line away from it late, and targeted Auston Matthews instead. Marner was a damned magician, and even beyond his first goal — just Mitch being Mitch, as Tavares put it — and his penalty-shot evisceration of Tuukka Rask, Boston lost the battle of the big lines. Do that often enough, you probably win the series.

“I mean, there’s nothing like playoff hockey,” said Tavares. “Obviously tried to enjoy it, tried to go out and play the best I can, help this team as best I can. So, good start.”

Toronto talked about pressuring the Boston defence with speed and physicality, with Kadri talking about heads on swivels. They were swept away from the start last year, but this time Toronto dominated the first 10 minutes and most of the first 20. They could have scored three more times late in the second, too. This isn’t the Leafs team we saw this year. It was better.

“I mean, I think when we play to our strengths and we take care of it, and we just utilize our speed and our skill, and we have that depth that we really believe in, we’re a tough team to beat,” said Matthews.

The Leafs were up 3-1 after two, and in the third they managed the game instead of going into a shell and dodging bullets. What was Mike Babcock saying the other day about line matching, now that Tavares is here, and Kadri is a third-liner, and Tomas Plekanec doesn’t have to spend three games with Kadri suspended as a second-line centre?

“In our situation now it’s a little bit different than it was,” Babcock said. “Because we have two groups there and a third group that we’re not as concerned about. I think that makes it easier for sure … The guy who’s leading is always in charge, right? So if you’re chasing the game it’s harder, right? The other guy gets to do whatever he wants. If you’re ahead in the game, you get to do what you want.”

Nothing’s guaranteed. It’s one game, and the Bruins will be better, and this is hockey. But the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning blew a 3-0 lead at home to open the playoffs, and the Leafs are up 1-0 after winning 4-1 in Boston, and all things are possible in the universe, at least for a day.
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