The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins have had a war through three games. Everyone knew it would be high intensity, however, it has given all that and more. Last season, the Bruins knocked off the Leafs in seven games. Through three this year the Leafs have a 2-1 series lead. John Tavares and his line have been the biggest difference between the two.
John Tavares Addition Is Key
Zach Hyman, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner have formed a line tasked to shut down the high powered first line. Featuring Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak, this is a top line in the league. Last season, the Leafs just couldn’t handle them and it was a massive reason as to why they didn’t move on. However, this year, the story has been different.
Last year it was a rotating cast of players who tried to defend the top line of Boston. From Auston Matthews to Nazem Kadri to Tomas Plekanec. This year, Babcock has been able to comfortably throw one line out there. Tavares and Marner have combined for three goals in three games. However, this is not the most impressive part of the lines game. In the three games, they have limited that top line to just one 5v5 goal. This is a huge improvement over last season.
In terms of shot shares, the Tavares line has limited the Boston line to just over 50% of the chances at 5v5. Bergeron is at 50.6% and Marchand is at 52%. Once again, much better than last year and also better than the regular season when Bergeron himself had a 56CF%.
Defence Wins Championships
It has always said that defence wins championships. While Toronto isn’t exactly built in that model with a high-octane offence, it is becoming obvious they are buying into the fact that they need to play an all-around game to win. One of the biggest criticisms of the whole team through the regular season was how sloppy they looked in their own end. This wasn’t just the defence, either. The forwards rarely helped out in their own end and often lost their man. However, these playoffs have been different.
The Leafs feel like they are playing with much more structure. Not only that, but they are playing a physical game. William Nylander laying the body in his own end. As well as Trevor Moore knocking over Zdeno Chara.
Nylander outworks DeBrusk and takes back possession. pic.twitter.com/3fnX3dxG88
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) April 16, 2019
— x – The Leafs IMO (@TheLeafsIMO) April 12, 2019
The whole team has gotten in on the aggressive style of play, which translates in all ends. Not only that, but lots of the Leafs hits are meaningful. Lots of times in the playoffs you see someone get hit three seconds after they release the puck. While this can have an impact over time, it is usually meaningless when the play is happening.
However, hits like that Nylander one separate the man from the puck and changes possession into Toronto’s favour. This all-around game is what they will need to keep up if they want to win. Speaking of defence on the Tavares line, who can forget Marner’s two amazing blocks at the end of game 3?
Mitch Marner sacrifices his body to make two HUGE blocks in a 1 goal game in the dying seconds.
The whole team embraces him after the win. pic.twitter.com/SibgMJvGPH
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) April 16, 2019
Tavares Creating Depth Matchups
One of the biggest issues last year was that Matthews was lining up against Bergeron. Not only did Bergeron win this battle, it almost effectively neutralized Matthews and Nylander. Matthews had just two points in seven games last season, this year, he has two in three games. The Leafs still want more out of Matthews, however, it is obvious that with John Tavares taking the big matchups, Matthews has more ability.
Nylander has been playing on the third line for the Leafs. While he has just two points in three games his all-around game has been great. As shown before he is laying the body and separating from the puck. As well, he is one of the highest Leaf forwards in terms of shot share with a 52CF%. With Kadri out, Nylander certainly doesn’t have the most offensive-minded linemates with Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown. However, just controlling play will be beneficial to the Leafs.
With Trevor Moore and Tyler Ennis now on the fourth line that really becomes a scoring threat too. Moore scored one yesterday in a very solid 4th line shift where they hemmed Boston into their zone. The addition of John Tavares has not only pushed everyone down but also given a very effective shutdown line for the Leafs to matchup against any top line.
The Leafs have so far neutralized the home ice disadvantage they had. Up 2-1 in the series, the Leafs will have two of the next three possible home games. Line matching will be a huge part of this series going forward. With the last change, no doubt Babcock will want to keep on matching Tavares, Hyman, Marner to the top Boston line. However, in Boston, Bruce Cassidey may want to try and move away from that matchup and target other lines.
The tactics are a big part of playoffs, however, John Tavares has certainly given Toronto the expected boost he was brought in to give.