Matthews finds his voice in Leafs-Bruins showdown

Matthews finds his voice in Leafs-Bruins showdown
But Auston Matthews and his linemates are learning to do more and more of it. Communicating better as a five-man unit. Letting each other know where they are. Staying on top of what Boston’s doing. Knowing if a guy needs help. Letting the puck carrier know what’s coming.

Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron and Auston Matthews of the Leafs have seen a lot of each other through five games of their opening-round playoff series, with Matthews gaining the upper hand on the scoresheet.  (Steve Babineau / Getty Images)

As Matthews puts his stamp on the Leafs’ opening-round playoff series against the Bruins — he leads all scorers with four goals — this level of awareness is the next step in his development as an elite NHLer, said coach Mike Babcock.

“He’s a young player in the NHL. He’s a centre. It’s hard. It takes time,” Babcock said.

“It takes a ton of work up and down the rink, 82 nights a year, then in playoffs, and you want to play 20 minutes. What you find is, it’s hard to do it right all the time. It’s easier not to do it right.

“The second thing is, your wingers have to understand how it works as well. That usually takes time in the league, too. That’s why it takes a lot of guys a long time to learn how to win. You’ve got to learn how to play right. That’s a process.”

The Maple Leafs held an optional practice Saturday at Scotiabank Arena after taking a 3-2 series lead on Friday night with a 2-1 win in Boston. Matthews and his right winger, Kasperi Kapanen, scored for the Leafs. Kapanen’s game-winner started with Matthews retrieving the puck in the Toronto end.

“(My defence) has come a long way since my first year,” said Matthews. “It’s real important to (work on) that defensive aspect, to be on the puck more. As an offensive guy, I want the puck as much as possible.

“It’s no secret you’re going to play defence at times throughout the game. I thought (Friday) night was one of our best games as far as communicating with one another and breaking out quick.”

The Leafs have shown an unusual commitment to strong defence, something that has caught the Bruins off guard. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has repeatedly said he was expecting the Leafs to play more of a line-rush game. But it’s like the Leafs had a tool in the shed that they’re only just bringing out now in the spring after a long winter of shinny.

“It’s still fast out there,” said Matthews. “Just in the regular season, there’s a little bit more space. You see a lot more plays off the rush. For us, that’s not the case in the playoffs, because there’s not a lot of space out there. We still want to play fast in both areas with the puck, whether it’s your back pressure or the forecheck. Gotta make sure we’re utilizing the speed we have.”

Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson seem to have found their game, too, making the Matthews line dangerous again. They’re using their speed, making hits on the forecheck, getting Bruins defencemen to turn over the puck. But they all say, like a mantra, that their offence starts with their defence.

“It’s just, all guys are on the same page in the defensive zone,” said Matthews. “We just have that trust in one another … whether it’s the defence, the winger, the centre, making sure everybody is in the right spot. Just communicating.”

That commitment to own-zone play from all four lines has made life better for the Leafs blue-liners.

“Our centres have done an awesome job coming back in the middle of the ice and talking,” said defenceman Jake Muzzin. “When games get a little hectic, a little crazy, a little tense, it’s nice to have a voice in the middle of the ice, another set of eyes for you.

“Sometimes as a defenceman, you’re going back for pucks, your back is to the play and you’re facing the end wall. To hear one of our guys yelling for the puck, it helps out a lot. We have to continue with that.”

Now the Leafs are one victory from winning a Stanley Cup playoff series for the first time since 2004.

“We’ve got to have that killer instinct from the start. We’re in a good position, on our home ice. We know the atmosphere is going to be amazing,” said Matthews. “For us, we’ve got to stay focused and come in and everybody has to do their job.”


Frederik Andersen, Zach Hyman and Patrick Marleau were the only Leafs not to participate in Saturday’s full practice at Scotiabank Arena … Toronto is 19-5 when leading a best-of-seven series 3-2, including 1-1 against the Bruins. Toronto defeated Boston in seven games in the 1959 NHL semifinals, while the Bruins rallied for a seven-game victory in the 1941 semis … Friday’s win was the 90th post-season victory for Toronto coach Mike Babcock, moving him past Glen Sather and Darryl Sutter into seventh place on the playoff wins list.
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