Why Leafs-Bruins Game 7 could come down to special teams

Yahoo Canada Sports

One of the nice things going into this Toronto/Boston series was the broad acknowledgement that there was little separating the teams.

It seemed destined, like all such series between the two teams, to end in a Game 7 after six tightly contested games to get us there. Sure, plenty of acrimony, confusion, complaints, and post-hoc explanations followed each game. The refereeing has been almost uniformly nonsensical, and both sides have reasons to be bewildered. But there hasn’t been any real war of words between the teams, and apart from Nazem Kadri being predictably dumb and dirty in Game 3, not much reason for anyone to get too upset in the first place.

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It’s nice that this series is just two elite teams going about their business, knowing that one of them is going to go home feeling like they left a lot on the table just because of the playoff format. That, in itself, feels appropriate given who’s involved.

How little are Boston and Toronto separated after six head-to-head games? The Bruins are plus-2 in goals, but only plus-1 if you take out empty netters. They’re also plus-1.75 in all-situations expected goals, which you’d expect perhaps from a team that’s also plus-4 minutes or so in power play time. Both goalies are playing great, separated by just four points of save percentage. The Leafs have taken a single shot attempt at 5-on-5 more than the Bruins, and trail by just eight in full-strength shots on goal.

That they’ve traded wins for the entirety of the series likely means nothing other than these are two teams that might go 39-39-4 over a full 82-game season head-to-head. But it also feels like it means something more than that, at least if you’re a Leafs fan who just saw the Bruins pretty well control Game 6 in Toronto.

The Leafs have had the better of play at 5-on-5, outscoring Boston 11-8. But if you can’t kill penalties — and the Leafs have been awful at it — that doesn’t much matter.

So if we’re evaluating what the actual qualitative difference is between these two clubs, and what that means for tonight’s consequential Game 7, there’s only one thing to really talk about. It seems as though the Leafs/Bruins series is going to come down to the fact that Toronto has been good on the power play (3 of 14, or 21.4 percent) and the Bruins have been lethal (7 of 16, or 43.8 percent)

Here's to hoping Game 7 of Leafs-Bruins won't be decided by a bad call. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Here's to hoping Game 7 of Leafs-Bruins won't be decided by a bad call. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Again, people have been upset about the officiating, but it’s been mostly fair in the series — insofar as calls have been inexplicably missed on both sides. Just as Jake DeBrusk absolutely should have gotten the gate for his knee-to-knee hit in Game 3, which precipitated the Kadri hit that everyone agreed should have been a suspension, so too were the Bruins screwed by a bewildering lack of goaltender interference call in Game 5.

On the one hand, you can argue intent on the DeBrusk hit, and on the other you can (rightly) say intent doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. On the one hand, you can say Rask had time to reset after contact, and on the other you can (rightly) say the rules around this thing are insanely vague and seem to be made up on a case-by-case basis founded entirely on the tenor of the series and, more to the point, on whether the goaltender acts like someone shot him with a high-powered rifle.

Maybe you can argue the DeBrusk hit was worth a goal or two over the course of a series. You can definitely argue the allowed goal was, given that it came in a game that ended 2-1. That, too, feels like things evened out.

Uncalled slewfoots, uncalled slashes. “Was that a high stick?” “There’s no way that’s a hold!” These are common gripes, but they’re common for every playoff series and, in fact, for every tied out-of-conference third period in February. Refs love to enforce the rules that impact the results of a given game or series right up until it looks like they’re holding outsized influence, as though a call that results in a first-period power-play goal is substantively different from one in the third period.

Everyone who watches this sport fundamentally understands that you basically have to slit a guy’s throat at center ice to get a call with less than 10 minutes to go in the regular season. That probably extends to most of the game for the playoffs.

And it would be a shame if it decided this great, fun, well-played, even series. It sucks that there’s a different standard, but there is. Always has been and always will be. So while standards aren’t applied evenly, you just want to see them applied fairly. And here, I guess you could argue they mostly have been. One team is getting three power plays a game on average. The other is getting 2.67.

All you want for tonight is that nothing happens that puts the game in the hands of the officials in the first place. Pray for a game with no offside reviews. Wish for a complete lack of maybe-high hits. Hope every goal was obviously clean. Cross your fingers every post-whistle scrum breaks up quickly and without incident.

So on this we can agree: These teams are separated by so little that it would be a shame for the Leafs to lose just because they can’t kill a penalty.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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