TORONTO — When John Tavares is in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup, Mike Babcock’s life can seem a lot easier than it did on Saturday night.
Not only is the superstar centre a dominant force that any coach would be happy to roll out for close to 20 minutes a night, he makes for a simple plan of attack. Match the captain and Mitch Marner’s line against the other team’s most dangerous line, count on Auston Matthews and William Nylander to steamroll a softer group, and mix in the bottom-six for defensive assignments. It isn’t always that neat and tidy, but that strategy is on the table — and it’s an approach that’s especially appealing against a team with one dominant line like the Boston Bruins.
With Tavares unavailable on Saturday, Babcock was force to get creative in the club’s 4-3 overtime win. His mixing and matching began at the opening faceoff when he sent Marner out with Matthews creating a loaded line to combat the deadly trio of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand. The move wasn’t as simple as combining his two best players, instead it was the beginning of situation-dependent shuffle that Babcock ran all game, a system made even more complex by Andreas Johnsson’s exit in the second period with a leg injury.
“We were going to play Willie [Nylander] with Matty in the offensive zone. When it was a matchup situation we were going to play Mitchy and then if went with Matty in the o-zone we were going to get Mitchy to play with [Alexander] Kerfoot so we could match that up. Then we were going to match up [Frederik Gauthier] in the d-zone,” Babcock chuckling as he continued. “I wasn’t going to explain all that to you, it’d been a waste of time, right?”
For most of the game, you’d be hard pressed to claim that what the Maple Leafs were doing was working. They were outshot 46-29, the Bruins ran up a 58.4 percent Corsi For and Matthews in particular wasn’t much of a factor for three periods. If Frederik Andersen hadn’t been sharp things could have gotten ugly for Toronto, particularly in a second period when they were shorthanded three times.
Babcock’s primary objective was to shut down the Bruins’ super line — which had accounted for an astounding 14 of the Bruins’ 19 goals entering the game — and they combined to score a game-tying marker with less than five minutes left with Matthews and Marner on the ice.
And yet, in overtime the rarely-paired duo was able to create the one moment of magic the Maple Leafs needed as Matthews wheeled around the net and hit Marner perfectly on the tape. The winger blasted it on goal and — with the help of a deflection off Morgan Rielly — the Maple Leafs had themselves what Matthews later called a “statement game”.
“Saw Matts going around the back of the net and I didn’t want to go too close in,” Marner said of the play. “I knew if there were sticks in his way he couldn’t make that pass. I tried to stay higher in the slot. I’m almost certain it hit Mo and went in. It’s a great feeling getting that game over with and winning it.”
“I just tried to hold it and I think their guy slid and I just tried to get around and find somebody open,” Matthews added. “I got Mitch.”
The performance that Matthews and Marner was uneven for most of the game, but for a moment Babcock had the right to bask in a little glory for deciding to put them together — although he was reticent to take credit.
“Sometimes it goes good and you feel great,” he said. “Sometimes it goes terrible and you wish you wouldn’t have done it.”
While Tavares and Zach Hyman are out of the lineup, life is going to be quite a bit trickier for the Maple Leafs’ coach. Necessity is going to have to be the mother of invention for the veteran bench boss as he configures a depleted, but still talented, club.
On Saturday, his handiwork got the result he wanted, even if it the win wasn’t as pretty as he might have liked.
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