Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock has a healthy roster and no shortage of matchup options against the Boston Bruins.
What he does with them to shut down Boston’s top line come Game 1 Thursday is a key to the series if Toronto wants to advance past the first round for the first time since 2004.
Both teams had three 30-goal scorers on their rosters in the regular season, with Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri split up among three lines. However, Boston’s gone top heavy with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak rolling together as one of the most dangerous lines in hockey.
“Well, to me, (Bergeron), I just think he’s a great player with and without the puck,” said Babcock. “Their line all has 30 goals and yet they play without it too. To me, that’s a huge factor in any series if their good players are good.
“They’re elite players any way you look at it. Bergeron is real good in the face-off circle, they all work real hard and compete real hard, Marchand and Bergeron are elite penalty killers so they know how to play the game without the puck and for the longest part of the year they hardly got scored on.”
Throughout the season, Kadri has been Babcock’s preferred shutdown centre, with Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner playing much of the second half on the wings after dropping Leo Komarov down. Kadri is likely to get the Bergeron matchup.
Toronto’s final practice Wednesday before flying to Boston included regular line combos, with Tomas Plekanec centring a fourth line with Komarov and Kasperi Kapanen. Andreas Johnsson and Dominic Moore took regular turns in drills and are available while it appeared Matt Martin and Josh Leivo will continue watching games from the press box.
Plekanec put up just two assists in 17 games after being acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline and that’s just fine with Babcock, who says that he 35-year-old does everything he wants in his fourth-line role.
“You can trust him. You can trust him without the puck, you can trust him to play against good players,” said Babcock. “Leo and (Kapanen) and him, or Leo and (Johnsson) and him, I think, it gives me real good options there. I think he’ll be important for us in this series. I think like all older guys, they get a little more juice at this time of year and we expect him to be good.”
Babcock is hoping for more evenly spread out ice time for all four lines so he can reduce the strain on his top players. He will have last change on the road so getting the ideal matchups won’t be as easy.
“I think the biggest thing is the better (the fourth line) plays and the better we play, the more they get to play,” Babcock said. “When you’re chasing the game, those guys don’t get to play as much and if you go through the minutes all year long, the games we lose our big guys play more minutes. If we can spread out the workload and everybody can be important, I think that’s a positive thing.”
Toronto had the second-best power play (25 per cent) and 11th-ranked penalty kill (81.4) in the regular season while Boston had the fourth-best power play (23.5) and finished second in killing penalties (83.7).
Babcock believes special teams could be another major factor in the series and doesn’t plan to stray away from loading up on short-handed ice time for defenceman Ron Hainsey, who led all NHLers at 3:59 per game in the regular season.
“The penalty kill and discipline is going to be a huge part for both teams,” said Babcock.
“They have good special teams, we have good special teams. Something has got to give in that situation. Obviously, getting off to a good start in those areas leads to confidence and free flow, especially on the power play. On the penalty kill it leads you to being more aggressive. Getting off to a good start in those areas will be important.”
Boston still relies heavily on veteran blue liner Zdeno Chara, who was third this season with 3:39 per game of short-handed ice time.
The Bruins will reportedly be without forward Riley Nash for Game 1 because of injury. Babcock hopes luck will stay on his team’s side in terms of health unlike last season in a first-round defeat against Washington when Toronto lost Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak.
“Last year I think we started healthy and then two games in we didn’t have two defencemen. That’s just the way it goes, you’ve got to hope you stay healthy and that’s part of the good luck in sport – the rest you earn – but that’s part of the good luck is when you can avoid injuries.”