BOSTON — Counting on the Toronto Maple Leafs to turn this opening-round series versus the Boston Bruins around? In good conscience, I’d have to advise you to stop holding your breath.
Historically, near insurmountable odds face teams that have fallen behind two-zero on the road in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — the success rate hovers around 11 percent. Yet, the hundreds of deficits that feed into this rather grim statistic from a Maple Leafs standpoint does not take into how crooked the numbers were after two games.
And boy, has it ever been slanted between Boston and Toronto.
If you have paid any attention to the series, you don’t need a thorough run-down — so I’ll sum it up in one run-on sentence: Boston handed the Maple Leafs their worst two defeats of the entire season in Games 1 and 2, taking a 12-4 lead on aggregate with eight different scorers and a performance from its top line that had the Elias Sports Bureau frantically working overtime to appropriately place their 20 combined points into proper context.
Making matters worse for the Maple Leafs, they will be without the only centre on their roster with a background in foiling top opposition with Nazem Kadri on the shelf for two more games for his nasty hit on Tommy Wingels. And Leo Komarov, who Mike Babcock decided was deserving of a promotion after the Game 1 debacle, seems questionable for Game 3 after being cut down in a collision with defenseman Kevan Miller.
Meanwhile, in contrast, the Bruins have this swelling air of invincibility about them.
After a candid free-for-all in the dressing room following Game 1 on Thursday, which included Brad Marchand openly yucking it up with reporters after doing what he damn well pleased on the ice, the Bruins exhibited confidence in another, and seemingly stronger, manner: professionalism — as if to stop running up the score.
The Bruins expected a better effort, believe they saw it from the Maple Leafs in Game 2, and still sucked the life out of them.
All this is to say — that 11 percent? Optimistic.
Should the odds hold, a season with more promise than we have seen in the last few decades for the Maple Leafs will largely go to waste. A collection of pending unrestricted free agents, and many members of a supporting cast that gave the Leafs such unique and effective offensive looks, will see their time with the franchise come to an end.
Two years removed from selecting first in the draft — and even before being able to sign Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner to long-term extensions — a mini re-tooling seems to be on the horizon for the Leafs.
And likely without much of a postseason run to draw information from.
For this, they only have themselves (and a whole lot of the NHL’s postseason format) to blame.
We wouldn’t advise the Maple Leafs — still with a puncher’s chance in the series — to make up their minds based on two games in Boston, however humiliating they were. So we won’t make rash determinations ourselves, and rush to lay out a 10-step process to make this team postseason-ready.
We shouldn’t, however, ignore the very real issue at heart here.
Its talent unable to shine through as it did in a more relaxed and free flowing environment of the regular season, Toronto’s been filled in by the more physical, more assertive, more determined Bruins.
This isn’t to say that the Leafs need to trade their skill for muscle — not at all. But they need defensive pairings that aren’t routinely filled in by the waves of pressure that a team like Boston can assert shift after shift. The top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is in no way as dominant as it has been without Boston’s defensemen effectively dealing with the attacks Toronto has mustered in a way the Maple Leafs have been unable to match.
Morgan Rielly’s numbers have been horrendous, but he’s more than earned a reprieve with his growth up to this point this season. You can’t say the same about Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak — the entire right side on the Maple Leafs defense and foundation of their penalty kill.
And this problem hasn’t just recently surfaced — it’s been masked this season by the Maple Leafs’ strengths: a high-scoring offense, the solid goaltending of Frederik Andersen and the quality of their left-shot defenders.
Both Hainsey and Zaitsev are under contract beyond this season, the veteran Hainsey for one more year and Zaitsev for another six at $4.5 million a pop. (Wow).
There’s no easy fix for the problem the Bruins have spotlighted through two games.
The hope for Leaf fans, beyond winning four of the next five, is that it’s too bright to ignore.
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