Takeways (and Mailbag): Tavares bests Bergeron, Leafs a hit

Takeways (and Mailbag): Tavares bests Bergeron, Leafs a hit
Over all the anticipation, all the angst, all the excitement, it might have gone under the radar that John Tavares played his first playoff game as a Toronto Maple Leaf on Thursday night.

It was a terrific performance.

“There’s nothing like playoff hockey,” said Tavares. “My first as a Maple Leaf. Tried to enjoy it. Tried to go out there and do the best I can and help this team the best I can. Good start. Try to regroup, refocus. Get ready for Game 2.”

Tavares had an empty netter, his linemate – Mitch Marner – was the goal-scoring hero with two, including one from a penalty shot.

But his presence made all the difference. A calming influence. A veteran leader. And the counterbalance the Leafs needed to Patrice Bergeron.

Bergeron had basically owned any Leaf centre he went head-to-head with over the years, especially in the playoffs. So it made sense that Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy asked Bergeron and his linemates – Brad Marchand and David Pastnrak – to take on Tavares, Marner and Zach Hyman.

By the third period, it was Tavares who had owned Bergeron, and Cassidy had Bergeron take on Auston Matthews instead. Matthews had been having a tough night against David Krejci (actually, winger Andreas Johnsson was a giveaway machine), but the Bruins had a tougher night scoring on Frederik Andersen.

Game within the game

For the Leafs, the focus will be on Matthews to hold the fort against Bergeron. If Johnsson and Kapanen struggle – they both seemed a bit overwhelmed at times in Game 1 – then Babcock may have to move Nylander back there.

Special teams

The Leafs have a good but not great power play. The Bruins have a fantastic one and it scored on its first chance. One smart thing the Leafs do, is they don’t take a lot of penalties. They were the least penalized team in the NHL and they managed to play the Bruins to a tie on special teams by not letting Boston’s power play strike a second time. The Leafs shorthanded unit struck on the Boston’s power play – resulting in Marner’s penalty shot.

Boston went 1-for-2 on the power play, Toronto 0-for-1.

Five on five

It should be pointed out the Bruins did not score an even strength goal. The rode their way to victory over the Leafs last year on the strength of their power play: three goals in a 5-1 Game 1 win, two more in Game 2’s 7-3 win. The Leafs are one of the best five-on-five teams in the league, depending on what measurement you like. They scored 206 times five on five in the regular season, tied with Tampa for tops in the league. Five-on-five – and on nights when the refs put away their whistles, that’s what the playoffs are – the Leafs can beat anyone.

Physical play

The Leafs hit. Zach Hyman, Jake Muzzin, Connor Brown were particularly physical. I do believe I saw Trevor Moore take down an oak tree named Zdeno Chara. It seemed to rock the Bruins.

One thing that can be very telling is the questions asked by the hometown media after a loss. The Bruins media peppered Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins with questions about how the Leafs played, especially the physical side. A sampling of (paraphrased) questions:

The Leafs say

Nazem Kadri: “I think we’re one of the fastest teams in the league. That’s going to be a problem for other teams to defend, and that’s something that we’ve got to take advantage 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.”

Mitch Marner: “That s a great win for us. We played well as a team, but we re going to need to keep going here throughout the series. The games are just going to get harder and harder. As a team, we ve got to make sure we come to play every night.”

The Bruins say

Marchand, answering that question on the Leafs physicality: “They played a little more physical then I think they normally do, but you’ve got to expect that come playoff time. Especially the way they’ve kind of been talking how they want to send a message. I think they kind of accomplished that. They played well, they played hard, and they played fast, and they played their game. So, we have to be better.”

Cassidy, on Mitch Marner: “Yeah, he’s an elite player in the league at a young age. He’s always played well against us, always played hard against us. You know, we’ve tried to – listen, years ago I remember [Wayne] Gretzky, “why doesn’t anybody hit that guy?” Well, it’s not that easy, right? So, I think it becomes containment issues, play him hard, play him honest one-on-one, put him where you want him to go. ... He’s played well against us, and obviously we need to find an answer to him.”

QUESTION: Hey Uncle Kev, I won’t bother with the “is it the coach, is it the team, is it the manager” arguments, they’ve all made their bed to lie in, it is what it is….

My question is this, if I was the coach and had three potent lines like Mike Babcock has, I wonder, rather than line matching, would you think playing against their Big 3 as if you’re shorthanded would work, do you think that would be a strategy that would work to neutralize them…. I mean, if you put on your defensive zone hat, and kept them to the outside, boxed them out as my boy repeats from minor hockey, would that be enough to at least keep the Boston Big Boys from hurting you too badly?  From what I’ve seen and read, I think our other lines could almost feast on the other two lines they have if they were able to shut down the Bergeron crew…I believe Boston will live or die by the Bergeron line and if we can control it somewhat, I think our Buds have a better chance…..

John L

ANSWER: Well, most teams do play the same way in their own zone, trying to box players out. Doesn’t always work because offence sometimes beats defence. You wrote to me before Game 1, but get to answer after Game 1. The solution to the Bergeron line really does seem to be the Tavares line.

QUESTION: Edmonton for years of finishing at the bottom received some very good low drafts Edmonton Oilers wasted most of them by Craig McTavish and then Peter Chiarelli wasted and traded poorly in the worst deals in NHL History.

Mr. Katz the owner deserves a lot better and so much more from his so-called hockey experts.

Bob Nicholson as President and everyone below him should be fired immediately. Was his performance with Team Canada any better as the only decision he had to make was bringing on a General Manager. Those teams could also have been a lot better, but they didn t have an 82 game schedule to worry about excess criticism. He is also a big Babcock fan. Beware Mr. Katz!

Mr. Katz need to bring in the NHL to get him out of the that these so called great hockey men dug.

Mr. Katz deserves and do Connor McDavid and the good players they have left.

You can buy a calculator at Dollarama for $2.50 and really too bad that none of these so-called experts knew how to use one.

In the NHL now it is essential to plan and budget ahead to avoid the dumb moves that have gone on in Edmonton.

Canadians and all fans that support this team deserve a lot better.

T. Abel

ANSWER: Hi Ted. You might be my new favourite contributor. Pretty much everybody below Bob Nicholson was fired. They’re looking for a new coach and a new GM. They could fire Nicholson, too, but then, who’d do the hiring. There’s trouble in Edmonton, for sure. More there than Ottawa, I’d say. Edmonton has huge cap issues.

QUESTION: Totally agree about Sparks! Why didn t they play him more, keep him active, in the game, give Anderson a rest. A few games ago Sparks said, someone has to get mad, and then they played like that, even Matthews, and they won. If they don t play like that against Boston, they are done.

Allan P in Calgary 

ANSWER: I think we actually disagree about Sparks. He didn’t play more because the coach didn’t trust him. Remember, they only made the playoffs by a few points. Three more starts by Sparks, could have been three more losses. Then the Habs would be in.

QUESTION: Hi Kevin. I’m a Leafs fan on the West Coast so I don’t get to see, or hear, much about the Marlies.

I understand that both Sandin and Liljegren are top-end prospects on the blue line but I’m wondering about the forwards. Given the upcoming cap issues a couple of entry level contracts contributing would certainly help. Are any of Bracco, Engvall or Brooks going to be ready to make the jump to the NHL next year? Is there anyone other than those three you see possibly contributing in the NHL next year ?

Cheers, Warren T

ANSWER: Jeremy Bracco has jumped to the head of the line. He’s figured out the AHL, among the scoring leaders all year. He led the league in scoring (78 points) going into the final weekend of regular-season play. Can he take it to the next level? Perhaps. The Leafs might need him to. They’ll need cheap wingers. The Leafs are also experimenting with Engvall at centre. That’s a mid-season switch. Apparently, he’s done well. But another season learning the new position could be in order.

QUESTION: Kevin, don t know if you follow the EPL but the situation with Manchester United this year is an interesting one. They started the year with Jose Mourinho as manager, someone who had had a great deal of success throughout his career including at ManU. This year he was canned as the team started the year with seven wins in 17 games. They were 19 points out of first at the time. He was replaced by Ole Solskjaer who had played at ManU and was coaching in obscurity in Norway. Solskjaer has made playing fun again for the highly talented squad by taking away the hyper-organized approach that Mourinho used. Since that time they have won 11 of 15 EPL matches and have a good chance to make the Champions League (top 4).

Now back to hockey, could Babcock be the Mourinho of this team, not allowing them to do what they are capable of doing by imposing too rigid a system?

Bruce C

ANSWER: Do you see them play a rigid system? I certainly don’t. I see the players trying to have a bit too much fun when they shouldn’t. I do see a rigid power play. I hate that the creativity is stifled there. But defensive-zone play, like penalty killing, has to be systems-based. I still don’t really see them do it. All that said, I’d be curious what “systems” another coach would come up with.

QUESTION: Hi Kevin. Probably nobody in the world agrees with me. I have been a season-ticket holder with the Marlies since 2012.

At the beginning of his career, Garret Sparks was up and down a bit with the ECHL. Last year, he really earned the right to play in the NHL.

The save he made with his bare hand was amazing. From the get go with the Leafs, he was an “unwanted child”, caught in the middle of a constant disagreeing between Dubas and Babcock. Babcock has said in public that Dubas has not given him the players to win. I think it would be great for Sparks to have a chance somewhere else, ie. Adopted by a team that wants him. It is very hard to perform when you know you are not wanted around

I think he has great potential and works very hard on continuous improvement. To be honest when our first string goalie has a crappy game, it all get brushed away. When the team plays bad in front of Sparks, ie the Islanders it is all his fault.

If I were him I would want to go to a place where I am wanted and appreciated and respected.

Big fan of Sparks and the underdog. I don’t think Dubas made a wrong decision. I think Babcock lacks the ability to develop players that have to work hard at things. He has had all the elite players handed to him and still complaining.
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