May 11, 2013

Bruins 'weren't ready' for Leafs' desperation in Game 5

By Andrew Merritt

Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk barrels over Bruins winger Brad Marchand during Game 5 at TD Garden. (Getty Images)

BOSTON – The Toronto Maple Leafs did everything a team on the brink of elimination is supposed to do Friday night.

They blocked shots, they won puck battles, and they almost never had a dip in energy in a 2-1 Game 5 win, staving off elimination and setting up a Game 6 in Toronto Sunday night.

The Bruins, on the other hand, did almost none of the things a team looking to clinch a series ought to do. They didn’t score first – Tyler Bozak put the Leafs up 1-0 midway through the second period. They didn’t score on the power play, and in fact gave up the Bozak goal while enjoying the man-advantage off a James van Riemsdyk interference call. And they came out with little to no intensity, save for the first two or three shifts of the game.

“We had a couple of good shifts right at the start of the game, and then after the [tripping] penalty to [Chris] Kelly (1:46 into the game), they just took it over from there, [for] the rest of the first,” coach Claude Julien said. “Second period, a little bit better, but definitely not close to what we needed to win this game tonight, and as you saw, the third period was more like our team.

“If there’s anything to understand from this, it’s that we’ve got to play three periods like we did in the third. We expect to close this off.”

After the first period, the Leafs held a whopping 19-8 shot advantage. Even as the Bruins surpassed the Leafs in shots, they rarely had any attempts from the grade-A area in front of James Reimer’s net.

That’s not to take anything away from Reimer, who was marvelous in making 43 stops on 44 shots. He had a couple of stunners on Patrice Bergeron, including the save of the series midway through the second, when Adam McQuaid found Bergeron alone off Reimer’s right hip, and seemingly all the Bruin center had to do was redirect the puck to a wide-open net.

But Reimer, like his teammates in front of him, played desperate hockey, and the stop on Bergeron was the perfect example. His spectacular split save earned him the front page of the Saturday Toronto Star, and kept the game scoreless long enough for Bozak to break the ice.

“The playoffs take different twists and turns, and as a young goaltender he’s been presented with a lot of pressure,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of Reimer. “And you can see the growth of a hockey player and specifically a goaltender that’s finding this way and learning some of the intricacies of playoff hockey, and the experience should be real valuable to him as it should be to all of our young players.”

As incredible as Reimer’s performance was, though, the fact that he rarely saw any real danger was a big reason he and the Leafs skated off the TD Garden ice. The Leafs blocked a whopping 27 Boston shots, and that doesn’t include the 15 missed Boston attempts or the untold number of times the Bruins simply didn’t get a shot off because a Leaf filled the lane. Of the 18 Leafs skaters, all but six had at least one blocked shot, and eight had multiple blocks, led by Ryan O’Byrne’s five.

“Everybody teaches the same thing – if you’re going through the shooting lane you better be prepared to sacrifice,” Carlyle said. “And I’ve used that term ’20 percent,’ that you’ve got to be 20 percent more committed in a lot of areas when it comes to playoff time, and shot blocking is a huge area. … And it takes courage to get in those shooting lanes, but you have to be able to have the people that are prepared to do it night in and night out, that’s what the playoffs are and that separates people.”

Right now, all that separates the Bruins and Leafs is one game. A strong Game 1 and a pair of quality performances in Games 3 and 4 suggest the Bruins are the better team in this series, but Game 2’s loss and Toronto’s dominant first 40 minutes Friday night are a reminder that the playoffs have a funny way of bringing out the best in a team – and the worst.

“I think we just weren’t prepared. Maybe we thought it was going to be a little easier than it was going to be,” said Brad Marchand, one of three Bruin forwards (Milan Lucic and Gregory Campbell) who didn’t have a single shot in the game. “They came out very hard and really put a lot of pressure on us, and we weren’t ready.”

While Boston fans may want to scream over the idea that the team wasn’t ready for a game that would have sent it on to the next round – especially when the elimination of Montreal and Pittsburgh’s goaltending woes suddenly have the Eastern Conference title looking a lot more plausible – the Bruins don’t have time to ponder what went wrong in Game 5.

What they do have time to do is find some of the desperation that fueled the Leafs Friday night – desperation the Bruins showed late in the game, when they played their best hockey of the night.

That 10 minutes of high-quality hockey, however, wasn’t enough to erase the first 50 minutes of utter malaise.

Twitter: @A_Merritt