Johnston: For Maple Leafs, a worst-fears-realized start to the playoffs

Johnston: For Maple Leafs, a worst-fears-realized start to the playoffs

By Oghale Apr21,2024

BOSTON — When Brad Treliving was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs last spring he made a point of digging through the finer points of a postseason in which they stalled out in a five-game, second-round series loss to Florida.

What did he find?

“I looked at the team and studied the team and watched and in the playoffs we didn’t score,” Treliving told The Athletic last month. “Everybody thinks it was, ‘Oh, we didn’t defend or we weren’t tough enough.’ We didn’t score.”

Treliving’s view from the Leafs suite for his first playoff game since being hired as general manager would have looked uncomfortably similar to what he saw on tape back then: On Saturday night at TD Garden the game-breaking forwards didn’t break the game open, the power play was completely stymied by a patient Boston Bruins kill and the Leafs must have left the rink with at least the notion they’re up against a supremely confident goaltender in Jeremy Swayman who isn’t going to be cracked easily.

It’s only one game in a race to four wins, sure, but this 5-1 loss felt like a worst fears realized kind of scenario.

For starters, it marked the eighth straight playoff game in which the Leafs failed to score more than two goals. That’s an extremely troubling stat for a team built to win on its offensive talent. Only Colorado scored more often than Toronto during the regular season this year.

It surely didn’t help that Swayman was sharp and William Nylander was unavailable due to injury, but the power play was feeble and feckless. The Leafs generated just four shots on goal during three opportunities with the man advantage — all of them during a 4-on-3 to start the second period on fresh ice — and may have to look elsewhere for a replacement on the top unit if Nylander remains sidelined for Game 2 because it didn’t look too crisp with Calle Järnkrok in his place.

“It’s not good,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe, before a question about his power play was even finished being asked. “It was really slow and disconnected. Not good enough.”

To make matters worse, the Leafs allowed two power-play goals against and gifted the Bruins five opportunities through undisciplined play, particularly noteworthy was a slashing call against Max Domi after he needlessly hacked Brad Marchand’s wrist off a faceoff.

The result of that was twofold. It helped inject life into a struggling Bruins power play that was a major question mark entering this series. It also continued a disturbing recent trend for the Leafs after they displayed an unusual lack of composure while giving opponents 17 power plays during a four-game losing streak to end the regular season.

“We’ve got to be a little bit more prepared to just kind of tone it down a bit and not be so emotionally invested and stick within the game,” said Leafs forward Tyler Bertuzzi.

“Obviously, in playoffs, it’s a special teams kind of thing,” added Mitch Marner. “It can really win you a series.”

It can lose you one, too.

The respective goaltending situations loom large. Swayman was fantastic in Game 1, turning away Nick Robertson with his right pad in the early going not long before John Beecher finished a 2-on-1 rush going the other way.

That was certainly not the fault of Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who made most of the saves you’d expect him to make while surrendering four goals on 23 shots, but also didn’t produce any confidence-sapping robberies.

Given the roller-coaster season that saw him placed on waivers and provided a mental leave from the team in January before returning to post a strong 23-7-8 record overall, it’s anyone’s guess what comes next. He did allow five and six goals, respectively, in his last two regular-season appearances before getting tagged with four more on Saturday.

“It doesn’t matter, I’ve (forgotten) about this and keep on working,” Samsonov said. “This doesn’t mean after three games I (became a) bad goalie. We see in the last three months what’s going on. I believe in myself. I believe in my skill. I believe everybody in this locker room.”

The Leafs, to their credit, didn’t exude any sense of panic or frustration immediately after a disappointing start to the playoff campaign. The players spoke in measured tones and calmly identified the symptoms that led to this setback.

“It’s tight,” said Auston Matthews, who finished with five shots on goal and hit a post after getting a free look when Swayman lost a race to the puck. “They’re a very patient team. They play well defensively. We’ve just got to continue to challenge the net and have guys there and try to outnumber them.”

Toronto and Boston share the NHL’s longest streak of qualifying for the playoffs at eight years, which means that neither side needs to be reminded of the twists and turns that likely lay ahead.

The Leafs were shelled by Tampa in Game 1 of a series they won last spring, while the Bruins won their opener against Florida — and three of the first four games — before seeing their season end in overtime of Game 7.

Still, a night in Boston with the Garden rocking and garbage time arriving long before the final buzzer felt a little too familiar.

“We’ve been here a lot,” Marner said.

Whether that experience is a good thing, or becomes a bad thing, remains to be seen.

(Photo: Jake DeBrusk celebrates with Charlie McAvoy and Charlie Coyle after scoring in the second period: Brian Fluharty / Getty Images)

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