BOSTON – The scab of their Game 7 defeat here was nearly six months old. And though the sting may have wavered some since mid-May, the Leafs exited TD Garden in Boston on Saturday evening just a little bit short once more.
"You're never going to get an easy game, especially coming in here," said Joffrey Lupul, the lone Leafs goal-scorer in a physically testing 3-1 defeat. "We knew what to expect."
Chunks of good, clusters of bad and bits of ugly defined a long-awaited return to Boston, the first since a historic collapse in the first round of the postseason last May.
The disjointed but generally inspired effort featured yet another off-kilter, one-sided start; a middle frame that featured arguably the club's best hockey of the season; and a rare complete defeat in the special teams department.
"I think that the game was played in a couple parts for us," said Randy Carlyle afterward, encouraged by some aspects of the performance, unhappy with others.
Like a slew of other opening periods this season, the start didn't inspire much confidence for the visitors. Treading water in their own zone for most of the first 20 minutes, the Leafs were caught in retreat by the muscle of the home side attack. Mustering just seven shots – out-attempted 30-14 – they trailed 1-0 on a power-play goal from Zdeno Chara, the first of two opposite a penalty kill that had yet to yield more than one in a game all season.
"I didn't think we had a very good start to the game," Carlyle said. "They were all over us."
The structure of the evening reversed course considerably in the second. With their line combinations jumbled (more on that below), the Leafs established improbable shift after shift of relentless pressure in the Bruins end. They were fast, physical and completely in line with the template Carlyle has been harping on all year; more slug-it-out hockey and less of the show-time inspired brand that's dominated early season play.
"That's more the type of hockey that we're going to ask this hockey club to play," he said of the effort.
The Leafs outshot the Bruins 18-10 in the period, mustering a goal when Lupul slung a puck above and beyond the glove of Tuukka Rask, who was otherwise brilliant with 33 saves.
"I thought we elevated our game quite a bit, especially in the second period," said Lupul, who fired a season-high eight shots opposite Rask. "We really took control of the game for a while, but unfortunately Rask was pretty solid and we couldn't get that second one by him."
It took only 66 seconds for whatever momentum they'd gained in the second to burst in the third, done in by a familiar foe. Patrice Bergeron, left open just outside the blue paint on a power-play, scored what proved to be the game-winner. He would add an empty-netter to stem any late comeback.
A rare instance in which their special teams was beaten entirely, the Leaf power-play – which entered the evening as the league's 5th best – failed in all three opportunities, including a glorious chance with less than five minutes to go. The penalty kill, as mentioned, yielded more than one goal against for the first time all year.
"We battled hard and it looked like we ran out of gas in the third period," Carlyle said.
Just as they proved in improbable fashion late last spring, the Leafs showed themselves a worthy rival of the revamped Bruins once more on this night. But as has been the case throughout the course of an uneven start (now 11-6-0), they were unable to string together a well-rounded effort in line with the identity they aspire to establish; their woeful start, empty special teams, and late fizzle all to blame.
There was certainly good in the loss, as there was in the playoff run, but not enough to overcome a team of Boston's caliber. "We're here to get two points and we didn't," Lupul concluded. "That's disappointing, but certainly some positives we can take out of it."
1. Kadri scare
Coming through the neutral zone midway through the third frame Nazem Kadri was crunched by Johnny Boychuk, his jaw squarely in the firing line of the 6-foot-2, 225 pound Bruins defender.
After skating gingerly to the bench, the 23-year-old had a brief conversation with head athletic therapist Paul Ayotte before departing to the dressing room for concussion tests. “They pretty much forced me to [go],” said Kadri. “As I was going through the test I was getting pretty agitated and just wanted to get back out there.”
The test, as Kadri explained it, was of the generic sort. “Month, date, who we played last, months of the year,” he said. “They make you say it backwards and then you've got to remember four or five words and say it backwards. I guess it's something that's mandatory now and I had to do it.”
As for the hit itself, Kadri wouldn't say if he believed it to be dirty. “It's tough for the referee to call; everything's happening pretty fast,” said Kadri, who did receive an explanation from the official as to why no penalty was called. “But my helmet was almost sideways when I looked up. That's for the league to decide and I'm sure they can see it a lot better when it's slowed down.”
Already down Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland down the middle, the Leafs could ill afford an injury to their sparkplug centre. But aside from being a little sore, Kadri claimed to be fine.
2. Lines redrawn
After yet another lacklustre start, Carlyle redrew his line combinations to much success in the second frame. Though Phil Kessel would bounce from line to line in attempts to shake free of the Chara shadow, the combinations would appear as follows:
Carlyle trimmed his bench in the final period, employing 10 forwards; Bodie and McLaren did not see the ice in the third.
3. Ranger Progression
Paul Ranger is now 17 games into his NHL comeback. He believes he's better adjusted to the speed of the game with each day gone by. "Just playing the game faster," he told the Leaf Report earlier this week. "When you're young you have to almost build up to it. I've been there [before] so I know what it is; it's just a matter of getting my mind and my body trained to be able to do it again."
Ranger had 270 games of NHL experience before he joined the Leafs this past summer, all in Tampa.
One facet of the game the 29-year-old has now, but didn't then, is a physical dimension. Ranger claims to have added 10-15 pounds since he last played with the Lightning in 2009 and feels able to impact the game physically because of it. "I just became a man I guess," he said with a laugh. "I can go and put guys up in the boards, eliminate them from plays and get the puck and go."
Predictably inconsistent throughout the year and again on Saturday, Ranger helped the Leafs to their first goal when he broke up Loui Eriksson rush defensively before stumbling on Reimer as the netminder attempted to block Bergeron's attempted game-winner.
4. Cap crunch victim
When the cap dropped to $64 million this year more than a few players were bound to be squeezed out. Mason Raymond was among them initially; the 27-year-old inked to a professional tryout in training camp before agreeing to a one-year deal with the Leafs on the eve of the season.
A veteran of 588 games following the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, Jerred Smithson felt the sting too.
"I knew it was a possibility," he told the Leaf Report, "but I also thought something would work out – whether it was here or there or whatever."
Smithson was without a contract when NHL training camps kicked off in September, a point of much frustration. He finally agreed to join the Marlies on a professional tryout in mid-October. "I had to keep reminding myself ‘It's out of your control'," he said. "Give the fiancé a lot of credit there. She kept things in line and in order. It was probably driving her insane a little bit."
Lacking the security of a contract, patience was difficult to find.
"I [tried] not to lose too much sleep over it even though it was a tough few months there I'm not going to lie," he said. "I couldn't control it so I just had to continue working hard and hopefully get a phone call, whether it was in the NHL, Europe or something like that. But I knew I wanted to continue to play in the NHL. That's been my goal and dream since I was a little guy; very fortunate to have this opportunity."
As it often does, opportunity presented itself with injury. Burned by injuries to Bozak and Bolland, the Leafs looked to the 34-year-old for help. Smithson was signed for one year at the veteran minimum of $550,000.
5. McClement PK Time
No player assumed more time on the penalty kill last season than Jay McClement. But early this season the 30-year-old is actually garnering even more opportunity killing penalties than he did a year ago – nearly a minute more per game in fact. McClement is averaging 4:26 nightly for the Leafs shorthanded, significantly more than the 3:35 he assumed in 2013.
The last time a forward garnered that much shorthanded ice-time (minimum 48 games) was in the 2006-2007 season. Coached by then-Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, Sammy Pahlsson averaged 4:28 per game for Anaheim – a number inflated by a boom in power-plays post-lockout.
21:24 – Minutes for Joffrey Lupul against the Bruins, a season-high.
8 – Shots for Lupul, also a season-high.
18-10 – Shot advantage for Leafs in the second period.
2 – Power-play goals against; the first time all season the Leafs penalty kill has yielded more than one.
43 – Hits for the Leafs.
2 – Number of times this season the Leafs have not been outshot; both teams were equal with 34 shots on Saturday.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21.7 per cent
Season: 83.8 per cent
Quote of the Night
“It's tough for the referee to call; everything's happening pretty fast. But my helmet was almost sideways when I looked up.”
-Nazem Kadri on the hit from Johhny Boychuk.
The Leafs visit the Wild in Minnesota on Wednesday evening.