- As the only two Original Six teams in this year’s playoffs, the Bruins and Maple Leafs series has an exciting historical tang with a full display of Toronto's rebuild efforts.
BOSTON — So there was a brief touch of 1957 in Boston on Thursday night. The arena, of course, was new and smokeless. It did not smell of elephant and it was relatively rodent-free. But it was the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, for the second year in a row in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Right now, the center of power in the NHL may be in Tampa Bay, and the league’s best show may be in Vegas, and some of the other contenders may be from places like San Jose, Dallas, Nashville, and other cities of a decidedly un-Canadian bent. But this series has the historical tang of the Original Six. As a matter of absolute fact, the Bruins and the Leafs are the only two teams of the founding sextet that made the playoffs at all. (Where are the Red Wings? The Rangers? The Blackhawks? Les Habitants? Zut alors, Marie!) Which I am certain means something lost and sad to hockey scholars everywhere.
“The sun is shining. It’s the first day of the Masters, and there’s playoff hockey,” said Boston coach Bruce Cassidy before the game. “You can’t beat this time of year.”
However, as Thursday night inched toward Friday morning, Cassidy discovered that his Bruins couldn’t beat Toronto, either. If you want to beat a team, you have to catch it first and, all night, the Leafs left Boston looking as though its players were skating knee-deep in oatmeal. “It’s like they used to say about Gretzky,” Cassidy said after the game, talking about Toronto’s Mitch Marner, who’d put two past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask. “‘Why don’t you just hit him?’ Well, it isn’t that easy.” The 4–1 final was a testimony to Toronto’s clear edge in untrammeled acceleration. “I think we’re one of the fastest teams in the league,” said Maple Leaf forward Name Kadri. “That’s going to be a problem for other teams to defend, and that’s something we’re going to have to take advantage of every single game, that speed. I think that’s what forces mistakes and allows us to play with the puck more.”
“They’re very opportunistic,” said Rask. “They get those breakaways and odd-man rushes. You’ve got to try and eliminate those, but it’s playoff hockey. Time and space are hard to come by. You’ve got to work for every inch.”
Rask was central to an extremely odd second period in which Boston seemed to be dominating the positional game only to come out of the session trailing, 3–1. With the game tied 1–1, the Bruins peppered Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen with 16 shots in the first 10 minutes of the period but failed to score. (This is quite a turnaround from last year’s playoffs when Andersen gave up five goals to Boston in the first game of their series.) “Just playing pretty structured and play from the inside out, and pressure at the right times,” Andersen said. “I thought we were good at using our speed to make it tough on them. Good first game."
In the midst of the barrage, however, skating on the power play, Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk got the puck tangled in his feet and Marner scooped it up and went winging away toward Rask. DeBrusk caught him, barely, and hauled him down, after which DeBrusk slid heavily into the boards behind the Boston net. He was called for tripping and Marner was granted a penalty shot, on which he faked Rask into next Tuesday and put Toronto ahead, 2–1. (It was only the fifth shorthanded penalty shot goal in Stanley Cup history.) After which, the entire game turned, and Rask found himself in the middle of two minutes of goaltender perdition.
With 1:37 left in the period, Kadri threw a long, gorgeous cross-ice pass to William Nylander, who skated in alone. Rask got his stick on the puck but it bounced up and behind him for the goal. “I got him where I wanted,” Rask said. “I felt it hit my stick but I guess it was a bad save selection because it got through.” To his credit, Rask faced down two more breakaways in the final minute of the period—one by John Tavares and the other by Auston Matthews. Three breakaways in a minute is the kind of thing with which goalies frighten their children to get them to go to bed.
Marner, the fourth pick in the 2015 NHL draft, has become central to the vast rebuilding project that has brought the Maple Leafs back from sad-sack oblivion, a legendary hockey brand gone to sticks and splinters by an incredible run of bad management. The Leafs haven’t won the Cup since 1967, and they haven’t won a playoff series in 15 years. It all turned around in the last couple of years with the arrival of both goal-scoring phenom Matthews and Marner, who is more of a playmaker. The two of them famously made a Shot On iPhone video that endeared them further to younger Toronto fans. (During the season, Boston winger Brad Marchand even tweeted out his speculation that, as a restricted free agent this summer, Marner may well be given a contract similar to the $11 million deal that Matthews scored.) Last year, however, the season ended sourly for the Leafs when they blew a second-period lead in Game 7 against Boston and lost, 7–4.
The rebuild-turned-renaissance in Toronto probably started in 2014, when the ownership hired Brendan Shanahan as the president of the club. At the same time, Shanahan walked into a process that already was underway. Kadri had been signed in 2009 to a long-term deal. Once hired, Shanahan went long on analytics, something that Toronto had eschewed conspicuously even as it became popular around the NHL. He also cleaned house in the front office several times. He hired coach Mike Babcock away from Detroit, and he brought in veteran executive Lou Lamoriello to be his general manager. All of this happened between June and July of 2015, which also happened to be the month in which Marner got drafted.
Lamoriello wheeled and sealed and accumulated pieces that were already in place when, on June 24, 2016, Toronto hit the lottery and acquired Mathews through the draft, which not only gave the Leafs the scoring center they hadn’t had in years, but also gave the franchise instant panache at home and instant credibility around the league. The Maple Leafs were relevant again. People wanted to see them play, and not just because they were an easy win come to town.
This year, recognizing the need for an old head among its young stars, Toronto ponied up a seven-year, $77 million deal to spirit center Tavares away from the New York Islanders. Tavares is only 27, but that makes him Dave Keon compared to some of his teammates. Tavares grew up a Maple Leafs fan in Mississauga, Ontario, and, the day he signed, he tweeted out an old childhood picture of himself in his Maple Leaf bedclothes. There was a time when Toronto kids did that, when being a Maple Leaf was something to be. When the arenas were smoky and dark, and the rafters were full of all manner of wildlife, and there were six NHL teams. There are only two of them now to bring all that history forward into the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, two old songs on an old radio in the attic, and all the memories that come with them and make themselves new again, the way it happens when kids grow up and reacquaint a team with its past.