Three games, three outcomes, numerous different reasons why the Boston Bruins are or are not blowing it in this series to date.
This is a likely incomplete summary of the takes I’ve seen on the reasoning behind the Bruins’ outcomes in these three games so far:
Game 1? They weren’t fast enough, not prepared for the Leafs’ ability to stretch the ice, couldn’t handle Mitch Marner, and couldn’t get a save from Tuukka Rask.
Game 2? They’ve shut down Auston Matthews, got mean, figured out a way to keep up with the Leafs, optimized the counterattack, got something out of David Backes, Rask was back to being great.
Game 3? They’re not fast enough (again), not tough enough, aren’t getting enough from the top line, let Matthews run wild.
If a lot of that sounds contradictory, well, it is. On the whole in this series, Boston hasn’t really had the better of the play, but the doomsaying around Games 1 and 3, both of which were losses, was overly dour. Their success in Game 2 was overly effusive. The thing I would generally say about this series is that it’s played out more or less how it should have. Both teams are underperforming their expected-goal totals by about a half a goal a game, and if you want to put that down to each getting really good goaltending on the balance, that sounds about right. Rask is great. Freddie Andersen is great.
That they are otherwise somewhat evenly matched in this series makes a lot of sense. Game 1 was a 4-1 win with an empty netter. Game 2 was a 4-1 win without the ENG. Game 3 was a 3-2 win that was tight pretty much the entire game. The Bruins have fewer than seven extra shot attempts per game in all situations, only two additional scoring chances total, three extra high-dangers. That’s it.
So this series, after all the tongue-clucking and chin-stroking, is separated by a single game, a single goal, and so few shot attempts as to be negligible. The Leafs have probably had the better of the play ever so slightly, but I would argue it’s because they have the slightly better roster, whereas the Bruins have a slightly better system. Talent wins you games and the Leafs have just a little bit more of it.
A thing I think you’ll find is that the Bruins didn’t go from physical (The Big Bad Bruins!!!!, according to everyone over 45) in Game 2 to weak babies who are afraid to get checked in Game 3. It’s an imperfect measure with plenty of home cooking involved, but here’s the stat anyway: The Leafs were credited with 39 hits in Game 2, while Boston picked up 44. When the series shifted back to Toronto, it went 42-33 in the Leafs’ favor.
So either way you want to slice it, it’s been a physical series but the big difference for the locals is that the Bruins didn’t have someone go knee-to-knee with a guy on the Leafs and then answer back when there was a dirty hit against them. Otherwise, that’s just physical, intense playoff hockey but the team that happened to be credited with fewer hits happened to win every game. That hasn’t been the case in many other series; Pittsburgh is out-hitting the Islanders, same with San Jose over Vegas, Tampa over Columbus, etc.
The other thing, about keeping up with or being able to shut down or not shut down Toronto’s skill guys always reads an awful lot like people just saying something to have a take. How would this Bruins team go from too slow to stop Marner from scoring at will to figuring out how to shut him down to losing their grip on him again? Same but opposite for Matthews, who was quiet in this series right up until he wasn’t. The explanation for this is shockingly simple: It’s hard for even the best players in the world to score every single night and perhaps it’s just a matter of two of the best teams in the league going head to head. Matthews had 12 individual scoring chances in the first two games at 5-on-5 alone and didn’t score. That’s not shutting him down; when a player that good is getting that many looks, it’s just a matter of time before one of them goes in.
That’s not to say all the takes on the series are invalid. Unlike Matthews for the two games in Boston, the Bergeron line has merely been okay in terms of process. They’re getting the most looks on the team by far — 53 shot attempts in all situations, collectively, but only 10 were high-danger — and they’ve combined for three goals in Games 1 and 2. But if last change matters as much as I think it does, the fact that Jake Muzzin is clowning them does not portend good things for tonight’s Game 4.
Far be it for me to be the guy who points out that trying to wring narrative explanations for why three games between two elite teams have, on the balance, been tied in terms of scoring when you exclude empty netters. When there’s an odd number of games, someone has to win the extra one and one imagines that if the Bruins win tonight, a lot of the takes will be about how they figured it out, again.
That’s not to say there can’t be analysis about what teams do well and don’t do well, but if you find yourself having to double back on sweeping generalizations that end in hard and fast diagnoses multiple times in a single series, maybe don’t make them in the first place.
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