TORONTO — An evenly matched first round showdown between the Bruins and Maple Leafs provided quality hockey between two excellent teams through the first three games.
With little to no talent discrepancy, the team that has wanted it more has won every game thus far. This culminated Monday night with Toronto taking a 2-1 series lead following a narrow 3-2 victory in Game 3.
Yet, there’s been one big surprise thus far. Boston’s premier top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak has been held in check by a Toronto defense that gave up the second most goals in the league among the 16 playoff teams during the regular season.
The top line produced 260 points during the 82-game slate. But they’ve gone ice cold in the first three games against Toronto combining for just six points on three goals and three assists.
“We just can’t get any chances. It’s more on us. Getting a bit frustrated but it’s a long series. Going to regroup and focus on the next game,” Pastrnak said after the Game 3 loss. “Spend more time in the O-Zone, try to hang on to the puck, don’t force things, just take our time and our chances will come.”
Bruce Cassidy said he “wasn’t worried at all” about Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak going into the series. Who could’ve blamed him given their proven pedigree and track record against the Maple Leafs, especially in the postseason. Boston’s dynamic trio gashed the Maple Leafs defense for 30 points and did pretty much whatever they wanted during last year’s seven-game battle.
That success from the Bruins’ top line during last year’s first-round series didn’t carry over through the first three games this year. Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak have been invisible for the most part. Their lone highlights came on Bergeron’s power play tallies in the first two games and the beautiful Pastrnak-to-Marchand connection in the first period of Game 2 that gave Boston a 2-0 lead.
“We’ve been in similar situations before and we’ve got to rely on that experience. We believe in ourselves and know we are playing a really good team and a good line,” Bergeron said following Tuesday’s practice at Coca-Cola Coliseum. “It’s tight right now, not much space on the outside. We are expecting a tight game and are just trying to find ways to be better. Right now, we’ve found ways all year so it comes down to that. You’ll face adversity and that’s just the way it is.”
Pastrnak’s offensive struggles highlight the first line’s problems. The 22-year-old dynamic playmaker hasn’t found his groove at all.
He has even started to falter on the power play. The crafty Czech went away from his patented slap shots from the left faceoff circle and is instead looking for the perfect pass down low for higher percentage scoring opportunities. It just isn’t working as Game 3 proved.
With home ice in their favor, Leafs coach Mike Babcock used the top line of Zach Hyman, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner, and the defensive pair of Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Muzzin to matchup against the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio. They didn’t find any rhythm at all against the matchup in Game 3. They’ll likely see Hyman, Tavares, Marner, Zaitsev, and Muzzin again in 5-on-5 situations during a pivotal Game 4 on Wednesday night.
“We’re a line that I guess plays the big match-ups, that’s part of the job,” Bergeron said regarding the Tavares matchup. “We all know about him as a player and how gifted he is. I think Marner is the same way. He’s obviously a very smart player and positions himself properly all over the ice and plays hard. I didn’t expect anything else.”
Cassidy time and again explained why the Bruins’ best players need to be their best players. It especially holds true for Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak. They’ll need them to find their game again quickly.
Otherwise, the Bruins may find themselves in desperation mode when the series shifts back to Boston.