The Maple Leafs will live to fight another day in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins, staving off elimination with a 4-3 victory in Game 5 on Saturday. Backed by a sensational 42-save outing by Frederik Andersen and balanced scoring, the Leafs survived a second-half push by the Bruins to win their first road game of the postseason.
Mike Babcock said after the Leafs’ loss in Game 4 that to avoid elimination they’d need a big game from their goaltender on Saturday. And Frederik Andersen delivered with a magnificent 42-save performance, looking comfortable and confident in his net and showing none of the jitters that had plagued him over both of the series’ previous games in Boston. He was by far the busier goaltender, turning aside 42 of 45 shots from Boston to the 21 shots Toronto put towards Tuukka Rask (who was chased after allowing four goals on 13 shots) and then Anton Khudobin. But the workload never seemed to faze Andersen. He was fantastic against the Bruins’ first power play of the night in the opening frame, making the big saves Toronto needed to hold Boston off the board going into the second period. That kill for Toronto was smack dab in the middle of a run by Boston where they were outshooting the Leafs 9-0 and Andersen was a star. As the game wore on, Andersen found the right balance between being aggressive, but not to his own detriment as in game’s past. And a pair of the goals that did go in came off strange bounces that hurt the Leafs - first when a puck knuckled off the end boards so Ron Hainsey whiffed on a clearing attempt that David Backes buried, and then on the Bruins’ third goal when the puck spiraled into the air and down directly at Andersen’s skate for Noel Acciari to tap in. In the biggest moments though, Andersen was there for the Leafs. He made a cross-crease save on Brad Marchand on the 5-on-3 power play and followed it with another great save on David Pastrnak seconds later. The Bruins’ big guns kept buzzing around Andersen in the third and he made another huge pad save on Pastrnak that kept the Leafs’ one-goal lead intact.
While Toronto finally found a way to get pucks in the net in this series, the Bruins pushed back impressively well at every turn, too. Toronto held two three-goal leads over the course of the game, and in the end had to squeak by on a one-score win after their offence all but dried up in the second half of the game. Boston was all over them in the third, with Toronto getting outshot 20-5 and earning only 22 per cent possession. When they needed it most, Andersen was the Leafs’ MVP once again, and stole his teammates another crack at the Bruins in this series. He also became just the fourth goalie in Leafs' history to make more than 40 saves in an elimination game that the team won.
Babcock blends the right recipe
With Nazem Kadri returning from a three-game suspension and the Leafs’ eager to stave off elimination in Game 5, Babcock had some decisions to make about his lineup for the Leafs’ most important game of the season. Rather than slot Kadri back between Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner on the team’s checking line, Babcock left Tomas Plekanec in the middle after that line had been Toronto’s best over the previous two outings. To spread his talent out a little, Babcock opted to slot Kadri between speedy wingers Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander, while Connor Brown was shifted up to the Auston Matthews line with Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen joined the Tyler Bozak line with James van Riemsdyk.
It was a fairly substantial change by a coach that doesn’t often dramatically shake things up, but at the Leafs’ most desperate time, Babcock’s measures proved effective in that they changed the energy of the team.
With his new-look line, Brown got things started with a goal on their third shift of the game, after the first two were spent predominantly in Boston’s end. It was the first postseason goal of Brown’s career and just his second score in 27 games, but it was an especially big one for Toronto considering the team that’s scored first in this series has won every game.
Finding quick chemistry with his new winger, Kadri tallied a great assist setting up Johnsson’s first-ever playoff goal - he carried the puck into the zone between Chara and McAvoy and split them with a perfect saucer pass to Johnsson and he did the rest with a backhand pass past Rask. Kadri was blocking shots and skating with ferocity, shaking off any rust from a week-long absence from game action in seemingly no time at all.
Bozak’s line also got in on the scoring action, when Babcock sent them out against the Bergeron line following a Bruins’ goal in the second period. They put together as good a scoring sequence as the Leafs had all night, capped off with a terrific pass from Morgan Rielly to set up Bozak’s second goal of the postseason. Van Riemsdyk would add another power play goal before the end of the frame to pad Toronto’s lead even further. The balance and depth of scoring the Leafs got was a great sign, and will be crucial to replicate in Game 6 as the Bruins continue to adjust to what Toronto showed on Saturday.
Bad boys in Boston?
The Leafs let up five goals on 10 power play attempts over the series’ first two games in Boston, a problem they remedied over two games in Toronto by taking just one infraction in Game 3. But there’s something about playing in Boston that got the best of the Leafs once again on the penalty front. Before the end of the second period, the Bruins had had four power play opportunities, including 1:34 of a 5-on-3 man advantage that the Leafs had to bend over backwards to kill off (and then the Bruins used the momentum they earned to score just after the penalties expired). Still, the Leafs’ kill looked as dominant as it had been as a top-five unit in the NHL most much of the regular season and managed to hold Boston off for the most part, giving up just one power play goal to Backes in the second period. The Leafs countered with a power-play goal of their own from van Riemsdyk, his third of the postseason (which is tied for first among skaters in the league’s playoff field). The Leafs’ bench looked livid over a third period call against Travis Dermott for holding, but Toronto’s kill once again answered the bell. In the end, that the Leafs didn’t give up more than scored on special teams made the string of penalties Toronto took less of a disaster than in previous road games, but they also made the task of avoiding elimination harder than it needed to be. Certainly being more careful, especially on the stick penalties, will be a point of emphasis the rest of the way for Toronto. The Leafs finished the game 1-for-1 on the power play, while Boston went 1-for-6.
Auston tries to attack
Arguably no player has been more scrutinized in this series than Matthews. He’s been under the microscope for a sub-par playoffs that produced only one point going into Game 5. With no last change on the road, Babcock did what he could to get the Matthews line away from matching up with Patrice Bergeron’s line by juggling personnel to make both the Plekanec and Kadri lines speedy and dangerous. The tactic worked, and Bergeron’s line ended up going out against those two groups and leaving Matthews more free to roam with Hyman and Brown now on his flanks. That change paid early dividends for Matthews, who was a man possessed from his first shift. It took just three minutes before Matthews would be on the scoresheet, setting up Brown’s baseball-swing score on Rask’s doorstep to give Toronto the early lead. From there it was a vintage Matthews performance, brimming with all the confidence and intensity that has made him the Leafs’ most dominant forward. Later in the first period, Matthews had the puck on a string dangling his way through the Bruins in their end to set up another scoring chance, just one example of how he used speed and puck control to make Boston’s defence back off throughout the night. In the second period, Matthews was aggressive on the puck whenever the Bruins took possession, picking pockets along the boards and chipping in on the forecheck with his linemates. But the Bruins adjusted to Matthews again as they’ve done so well in this series, taking away zone time and opportunity from the trio of sophomores with more shifts against the Bergeron line in the game’s second half. By the final buzzer, Matthews was at 30 per cent possession, with one shot on goal and an even-rating. The way Matthews was able to play early in the game should be something he can build from confidence-wise though as the series moves back to Toronto and the Leafs will once again have last change.
The Leafs return to Toronto for Game 6 on Monday.