TORONTO – Dion Phaneuf delivered the statement quietly with obvious undertones of regret and disappointment.
“I made a bad play and it cost us the game,” he said dejectedly.
The error of the Toronto captain cost his team not only the game but perhaps a chance at a series that increasingly appeared to be up for grabs. David Krejci delivered the blow in overtime, his third of the evening and fifth of the series. The goal ended a wild Game 4 at the Air Canada Centre while driving the Leafs into a 3-1 hole as the series shifts back to Boston for a potentially decisive Game 5 on Friday night.
“It feels like a dagger after the effort that was put forth by our group,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle conceded of the 4-3 defeat afterward.
It was an error in split-second judgment for Phaneuf at the very wrong moment.
With his team pushing hard in the extra frame, chance after chance turned away by Tuukka Rask, Phaneuf dove deep along the right wall in the offensive zone, a misguided attempt to keep the puck in and pressure on. His dalliance backfired, a hit on Nathan Horton also misfiring. Krejci swiped the puck, locked in step with Milan Lucic, the scorching Bruins pivot beating James Reimer short-side for the winner in a spirit-sapping Toronto defeat.
“I tried to jump and keep the puck in,” Phaneuf explained of the play in question. “It's a bad mistake at a bad time to make it. I take responsibility for it. It's unacceptable.”
The Leafs and Bruins had traded punches in the overtime to that point, the home side, at times, overwhelming the visitors with speed and an increasing swagger. Matt Frattin rung one off a post; Joffrey Lupul bested by the glove of Rask. “It really felt like we were putting on a lot of pressure,” Lupul said after a two-point night. “And to be honest, on the bench it kind of felt like it was just a matter of time before we got one. So obviously yeah it hurts a lot.”
“I thought in the overtime we were attacking, we were definitely taking the puck and the play to the net and that's what we designed,” Carlyle added. “We were doing a lot of things that we needed to do but we made a mistake.”
The mistake ultimately erased what had been an energetic and at times, inspiring effort.
While they burst in front with a pair of goals in the opening frame, the Leafs could not withstand Boston's expected pushback, the Bruins sniping three unanswered, including a pair on the power-play in the middle period. Buried in a rut offensively, it was Clarke MacArthur who knotted the score back at three, besting Rask five-hole with his first career postseason goal.
“You have to put yourself in a position to win every night with your effort and the way you play and I thought we had a strong effort out there tonight,” said James van Riemsdyk, who had eight shots on goal.
Despite the singe of defeat and despair of a deep series hole, there was a definite undercurrent of belief in the Toronto dressing room, unquestionably disappointed with the loss and yet hopeful, a sense that they were on the verge of truly pushing the Bruins. “The series isn't over for sure,” Lupul stated confidently. “We feel like we're just playing better and better.”
Winning three straight, however, may just be too tall of a challenge.
“It's obviously discouraging the way that ended,” Phaneuf concluded. “But we've got to come back, regroup and be ready for Game 5.”
1. Special Teams
The Leafs penalty kill had erased eight of the nine Bruins opportunities in the first three games of the series, but was bested on Wednesday night. Boston scored twice on the man advantage, Patrice Bergeron beating Reimer on a Zdeno Chara rebound; Horton dealing to Krejci for a laser under the bar.
“I guess the difference in the game,” said Carlyle. “We've been pretty stingy in this series and the regular season but obviously we made some mistakes with the puck tonight. I think the first one was a rebound where Chara got the shot through and then they pounced on the rebound. The other one was a back-door play that we were out of position on. We've got to do a better job positioning ourselves and getting our people to clear the pucks. The rebounds shouldn't be second opportunities, specifically the first one.”
Additionally, the Toronto power-play drew little in four opportunities, just four shots finding their way to Rask. The Leafs managed to score four of their first seven goals this series on the man advantage – the Bruins had the fourth-ranked penalty kill in the regular season – this in spite of some obvious execution issues, a point Carlyle made note of in the days prior to Game 4.
2. Owning Krejci
With little choice considering their early series success, Carlyle adjusted the matchup versus the Bruins line of Krejci, Horton and Lucic in Game 4. On Wednesday night, he assigned his top pair of Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson to the trio, replacing Mark Fraser and Cody Franson, additionally dispensing the likes of Tyler Bozak, Lupul and Matt Frattin in lieu of van Riemsdyk, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nik Kulemin.
The results remained the same.
Krejci scored his first of the evening on a van Riemsdyk neutral zone giveaway, adding his second on the power-play and third in overtime. The 27-year-old has owned the Leafs with five goals and 10 points so far this series, now leading the NHL in postseason scoring. “He's a real smart player,” said Carlyle of Krejci, who also won 12 of 20 draws. “He might be their most skilled player as far as pure skill and he's around the puck.”
“His line has been good throughout this whole series, but David tonight was certainly the guy shining,” Bruins coach Claude Julien added. “He's been a real good playoff performer for years for us. There are certain players who just thrive on playoff hockey and he's one of those guys.”
3. Gardiner's evolution
Jake Gardiner had two assists and logged nearly 28 minutes in the overtime defeat, beginning the night paired alongside Ryan O'Byrne, eventually replacing the injured Fraser alongside Cody Franson. Suiting up in three consecutive games, Gardiner has injected a needed flair from the back-end, his skills and skating gifts an obvious asset to the Toronto attack. And conversely, it appears the 22-year-old is making strides in the defensive zone. “Defensively are the areas that we asked him to improve on,” Carlyle explained before Wednesday's game, “to become a much sterner player defensively, a harder player to play against, much more competitive in those one-on-one situations.” Much of said improvement hinges on assertiveness and aggression. “I've been talking to the coaching staff a bit,” he said. “They're helping me out with tips on sealing guys and pinning guys on the boards. I think I've been more detailed in that aspect of the game.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with body position for a player like him,” Carlyle added. “I think he has to grasp some of the veteran people that separate themselves with good skating ability, stepping inside and protecting the puck. We talk about a Jaromir Jagr, what does he do? He puts the puck out there and protects the puck and turns his body into the checker. Those are the things that experience will show a young player like Jake Gardiner that he has to do more of.”
One demonstration of progress for Gardiner arose against Jagr in the third frame, the Leafs defender deftly stripping the puck from the future Hall of Famer on the rush, snuffing out a potentially dangerous opportunity. “He's closer to where he was before [the concussion] versus where he was after he'd come off the injury,” Carlye noted of Gardiner's stunted progression after the December concussion. “He's not been as erratic with the puck and he's very noticeable when he's carrying it and moving it. That's what our expectations were for him when we started the season.”
4. Reimer v. Rask
Rask continued to maintain the edge in goal versus his Toronto counterpart. The Bruins netminder made 45 saves in victory, including all 11 in overtime, to the 41 for Reimer on Wednesday night. “I thought I played well for the most part and tried to give the boys a chance to win, but obviously would like to make those saves in overtime,” Reimer said afterward. Of the overtime winner, which snuck through short-side, the Leafs netminder said, “I just tried to stay square to the shooter but he just beat me. I thought I got most of it, thought I had a good read but I just didn't get enough of it.”
Reimer has yielded three or more in three of the four games so far this series, posting a .914 save percentage. He has been bested by the more experienced Rask, who has sizzled with a .932 save mark, good for fifth-best among goaltenders in the postseason.
Ahead of game 4, Carlyle urged his group to crowd Rask and the Boston crease with more frequency, a deficiency highlighted by the number of even-strength goals (3) his team had scored in the opening three games of the series. “The one thing that we've always asked of our guys is to make sure we have a strong middle lane,” Carlyle explained, “and that's always somebody driving to the net with the puck directed in that direction. A lot of the goals that are scored are mostly rebound goals coming off pads. With the new [butterfly] goaltenders … there's a lot more junk laying around the front of the net area off the goalie's pads.” The Leafs fired a season-high 47 shots in Game 3, but managed to elude Rask on just two occasions, both of which came on the man advantage. “We've got to do a better job at it,” Carlyle continued. “It's as simple as that. We haven't been scoring enough of the dirty goals.”
On Wednesday, his team doubled their even-strength goal total, Lupul and MacArthur joined by Franson in the goal department. Taking a feed from Kessel behind the Bruins goal, Lupul beat Rask for the game opening marker, Franson added the second with full use of a Chara screen, and MacArthur notched the third tally on a Frattin rebound.
5. Imbalanced attack
At issue in the final month of the regular season, the Leafs entered Game 4 with enduring struggles up front beyond the trio of Kessel, van Riemsdyk, and Lupul, the three combining for six of the seven Toronto goals entering Wednesday night. “We've got some other people that we're looking for to step up and provide offence,” Carlyle said. Lupul added his third of the postseason; MacArthur also stepping to the forefront after two games in the press box.
Contributions of that manner will be needed if this series is to extend beyond the fifth game on Friday night.
A sampling of scoring from the Toronto forwards in April and the postseason so far reveals an imbalance offensively beyond Kessel, van Riemsdyk, and Lupul:
Maple Leafs' Scoring
Those in deep spells offensively include Nazem Kadri, who tied for second on the team in goals during the regular season (18), but has just one in the past 16games, Mikhail Grabovski, who while looking like a “much different” player in the words of Carlyle during the postseason, has tallied just one marker in the past 20 games and Matt Frattin, who hasn't scored since February 11, but was dangerous down the stretch and into overtime. “I didn't think he had a very good first half of the game,” Carlyle said of Frattin, “but then he came on in the game and was a real strong difference [maker]. That's always a bright spot when you see a young player get involved in the game.”
Bonus Point – Kadri's tough night
His opening shift was perhaps a prelude to a challenging night. Kadri flung a puck cross-ice in the neutral zone, turning it over in a fashion that was sure to frustrate his coach. The 22-year-old played only three more shifts in the period, finishing the evening with three shots in only 12 minutes of ice-time. Kadri, who has just one assist in four playoff games this spring, also took a double-minor for high-sticking, clipping Chris Kelly early in the third frame.
Bonus Point - Fraser's injury
Mark Fraser was the victim of a Lucic shot to the head in the third frame, bleeding as he left the ice. Carlyle noted after the game that Fraser was to undergo a CT scan for possible broken bones. “The guy's been an absolute warrior, great teammate for us,” said Lupul. The Leafs have a healthy John-Michael Liles available if Fraser is not able to suit up on Friday.
Quote of the Night
"I made a bad play and it cost us the game."
-Dion Phaneuf on the play which preceded the Bruins overtime winner.
Game 4 – Stat Watch
48-45: Shots for the Leafs and Bruins.
34-75 or 45 percent: Leafs in the faceoff circle.
9: Shots for Joffrey Lupul to lead all shooters. Kessel and van Riemsdyk both finished with eight apiece.
71: Hits for the Leafs.
18-36: Tyler Bozak on the draw.
7-22: Leafs on the draw in the offensive zone.
2-5: Bruins power-play in game 4.
33: Toronto giveaways.
3: Even-strength goals for the Leafs on Wednesday, matching their total from the previous three games.
Game 5 at the TD Garden in Boston on Friday night.