Toronto Maple Leafs ‘up for the challenge’ ahead of playoffs rematch with Boston
Connor Brown — like Marner, a life-long Leafs fan — was 19 and on a family vacation when Toronto scored twice early in the third period to grab what looked like an insurmountable 4-1 lead.
“We were in Dublin,” said Brown, now a Leafs forward. “It was four in the morning, we were watching.”
What the Browns saw was Boston roar back with three goals in the final 11 minutes of regulation at TD Garden before Patrice Bergeron struck again in overtime to send the shell-shocked visitors home in stunned disbelief.
“As a Leaf fan, it was tough,” recalled Marner, who led Toronto in scoring this season.
While the cast of characters has changed drastically on both sides, the ghosts of that epic collapse linger as the Leafs prepare to visit the Bruins in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal Thursday.
Nazem Kadri, one of just five players remaining on Toronto’s roster from 2013, remembers thinking his 4-1 goal at 5:29 of the third was going to be enough for the Leafs to move on.
“I think a lot of people thought the same thing,” Kadri said.
Instead the next hour or so mushroomed into the most difficult moment of his career.
“It was hard to deal with,” added Kadri, who registered 32 goals for the second straight season in 2017-18.
Now a veteran centre, he said there are lessons to be learned from the disaster that saw Toronto become the first team in NHL history to blow a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7.
“Nothing’s changed in terms of Boston being a resilient group,” Kadri said. “They’ve got some veteran guys over there that have some serious experience.
“It’s going to take all we’ve got, but we’re up for the challenge.”
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Toronto is now led by young forwards like Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander, who got their first taste of playoff hockey at this level last season when the Leafs lost in six games to Washington.
“It’s a grind every moment, not a lot of space out there,” said Marner, who had 22 goals and 47 assists for 69 points this season. “You’ve just got to stay calm.”
But recognizing the team needed support, the Leafs’ brass brought in a pair of veteran free agents over the summer in winger Patrick Marleau and defenceman Rob Hainsey before adding centre Tomas Plekanec prior to the trade deadline.
The club’s talented bottom-six includes Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, who were front-line players back in 2013, while Brown, a late-round draft pick in 2012, is among a secondary group that’s blossomed in supporting roles.
Toronto’s defence is a also lot more mobile than it was five years ago, with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, another 2013 holdover, driving the play from the back end.
Boston has also seen a lot of change, but the core that eventually pushed on to the Stanley Cup final is largely intact.
Bergeron is still a workhorse down the middle, while forwards Brad Marchand and David Krejci, ageless defenceman Zdeno Chara, and goalie Tuukka Rask continue chugging along.
The Bruins added Rick Nash at the deadline to a bruising forward group that already included David Backes.
“Winning leads to winning,” said Toronto head coach Mike Babcock, who took over in 2015.
“That’s the challenge for all of us in this room.”
Boston blew a chance at securing first in the Atlantic Division with a home-ice loss to Florida on Sunday to set up this series instead of a more favourable matchup — at least on paper — with New Jersey.
Despite that disappointment, Boston finished with 50 wins and 112 points compared to Toronto’s 49 victories for 105 points.
“Every team would recognize they have areas they need to clean up,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney told reporters in Boston. “(Our) body of work speaks for itself.”
Boston and Toronto ranked fourth and seventh in the overall standings this season thanks to high-powered offences that averaged well over three goals a night.
“You’ve got to elevate,” said Matthews, who scored 34 goals this season despite missing 20 games through injury.
“We’ve got depth, they’ve got depth. It’s a game of inches.”
Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who won a franchise-record 38 games, and Rask, who picked up 34, had near identical save percentages (.918 to .917).
Toronto won three of four meetings between the teams by a combined 12-10 scoreline, with one of those victories coming in overtime.
The Leafs clinched a playoff spot in Game No. 81 last season, but were pretty much guaranteed of finishing third in the division for last the six weeks.
“Anxious to get going,” Kadri said. “We’ve just tried to prepare ourselves as best as possible.”
And while what happened in Game 7 five springs ago will be a focus for fans and media, Kadri put the amount of time that’s passed in perspective.
“Mitchy might have still been in middle school,” he joked, referencing Marner’s youthful appearance. “It’s not really something we should consider.
“Water under the bridge.”
© 2018 The Canadian Press